Many people feel they have to travel far away to achieve a moment of peace and tranquility. Distance does not always equal peace. One place only an hour’s drive from our home is one of the most peaceful places on earth – at least to us! Gethsemani Abbey was begun in 1848 by the Trappist-Cistercian monks, who were founded in France in 1098. The abbey and its inhabitants are noted for prayer, labor and silence. It is located in the southern part of Nelson County, Kentucky, between the small towns of New Haven and New Hope. This area of the county, Pottinger’s Creek, was settled by Catholics that migrated from Saint Mary’s County, Maryland, in 1785. It is still a very Catholic community.
Just driving onto the grounds transports one to a different way of life. There is nothing around the abbey but farmland. Peaceful tranquility – you can breath a little easier and a little deeper. My first encounter with Gethsemani was for genealogy research. My Linton family owned land around the abbey – some even worked for the monks. In time, the Linton land was sold and became part of the 2,000 acres of the abbey. There is a large map hanging in the visitor’s center dated 1866 that shows the neighboring families at that time.
We’ve been to the cemetery many times – the public cemetery in front of the abbey walls. There are quite a few graves – most are families that lived on the borders of the abbey walls. Some of the stones are old and very beautiful. There is the stone of Private Linton Nalley, a young 23-year-old husband who was killed in France in 1919 during the first World War. Some are of French descent – their stones written in that language. The monks are buried in a private cemetery towards the side and back of the monastery.
It is satisfying to walk in the cemetery or around the grounds. Certain areas are strictly silent. But elsewhere even the monks good-naturedly love having a conversation and telling their story. Perhaps even as much as the most famous inhabitant of Gethsemani – Thomas Merton. His grave is like all the other monks – just an added white ribbon tied around the cross.
At one time women were not allowed at Gethsemani – now they are even welcomed for week-long retreats. When we first started going to the abbey we had to drive to New Haven to purchase the cheese, fruit cake and bourbon fudge the monks are famous for. Now the visitor’s center offers not only these items, but books, music and local pottery.
But the best thing the abbey offers is meditation for renewal of mind and body and soul. It is a visit that will be remembered again and again.