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Life matters

A monk for a day

By DAVID WHITLOCK

Contributing writer

In an interview years ago with Johnny Cash, syndicated columnist, Cal Thomas, asked Cash an intriguing question. While it wasn’t the last question Thomas asked Cash, it came near the end of the interview. 

Thomas asked Cash if he could be anyone in the world for one day, who would it be. 

Cash thought for a moment and wanted clarification, “Just one day, right?”

“Yes,” Thomas affirmed, “just one day.”

Then Cash started describing a retired 78-year old farmer named Hoy Jones. “He does nothing but sit on the front porch and wave at people. I’d like to do that. I’d like to be Hoy Jones for one day,” Cash said. “Who was it that said, ‘Let me live in a house beside the road and be a friend to man?’” Cash rhetorically asked, and then concluded, “Well, that’s what I’d like to do if I had only one day. I’d take it.”

For one day, I’d like to be a Cistercian monk at the Abby of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. “The monastery,” as I call it, is one of my favorite places in all the world.

If I could be a monk for just one day, in Cash’s own words, “I’d take it.”

I thought about that the other day when I was again visiting that place of prayer, solitude, and retreat. 

My oldest son, Dave, was home for Thanksgiving. 

“Anything in particular you want to do while you’re here?” I nonchalantly asked him while we were standing in the kitchen, sipping a second cup of coffee. 

“Yes,” he said without hesitation, “I was hoping to spend some quality time with my dad,” referring to me, of course. 

“Okay,” I said, “Whatcha you want to do?”

He wanted to go to the Abby of Gethsemani. 

I should have known. His older sister makes the same request whenever she’s home. 

But this time, I was behind on my work and stressed; regardless of what happens during the week, come Sunday morning, the preacher better be prepared.

“Okay, I hear you,” I told the little pesky voice inside my head that kept saying, “You don’t have time, get back to work.”

Which was all the more reason I knew we should go; sometimes the best preparation comes away from the study, in open spaces where the cobwebs of the mind can be cleared.

And even more important: how often does a dad get to spend time with his son who lives away and actually wants to be with his dad?

So, we prayed with the monks as they chanted the Psalms, listened as they read Scripture, and joined them in their prayers of intercession. 

After a vigorous hike in the woods (a prayer walk) near Gethsemani, we returned to the monastery.

“Every now and then, I think, ‘I’d like to be a monk,’ and then I think, ‘Naw, not really,’ but something about it is strangely inviting,” Dave reflected.

I thought of Johnny Cash and Hoy Jones.

“Yeah, maybe just for one day,” I said.

C.S. Lewis’ words ring true for many of us: “We live…in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.”

The monastery invites people to come and taste that, even if you only have the time to sample a tiny morsel. 

In reality, the Cistercian monks of Gethsemani live nothing like Hoy Jones. These spiritual athletes begin their rigorous day with prayer at 3:15 a.m. They meet for prayer seven times during the day, and that doesn’t include their private times of prayer, meditation, study, AND work, ora et labora, (pray and work) according to the Rule of St. Benedict — Benedict of Nursia, being the Father of Western Monasticism. But it’s not a rushed life; it’s a life of listening to God in community with their brothers.

“Yeah,” I said, reflecting again to Dave as we stood outside the church at Gethsemani. “The monks have a special calling to prayer. And, they have no possessions, no income tax, and their family is their brothers in the monastery.”

“But for just one day,” I continued, “I’d like to join them in the choir and work with them wherever they put me. For one day,” I repeated those three words slowly and deliberately, and concluded, “I’d take it.”

“I love you, Dad,” Dave said as he put his arm around me as we walked to the car. “Thanks for coming here.”

I almost forgot, Thomas had one last question for Johnny Cash. 

“One hundred years from now,” Thomas asked one of the greatest music stars in history, “how would you like to be remembered?”

This time Cash didn’t hesitate. “I’d like to be remembered as a good daddy,” he said.

Yes, for just one day, if I could be a monk, I’d take it.

But with Gethsemani disappearing in my car’s rear view mirror and my son at my side… 

…I’d be more than content to be remembered as a good daddy.