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Gospel carved in stone

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An afternoon at the Abbey of Gethsemani

By Randy Patrick

A multitude of butterflies fluttered before my feet as I made my way toward the woods across Monks Road from the Abbey of Gethsemani.

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Carrying a camera, a bottle of water and a book of Thomas Merton’s poems, I walked past the monastery and a gigantic sycamore, both standing tall and alabaster against a perfect blue September sky.

My intention was to hike to the end of the trail where the statues were, then return to the church in time for Vespers.

After descending into the woods on paving stones, I entered a meadow and made my way around a large pond, where sunlight glimmered on the surface like a thousand sparkling diamonds.

Walking across a wooden bridge and into the thicket again, I followed the trail.

The first figure I saw was a small likeness of the Good Shepherd, holding a little lamb. The next was a sculpture of the Blessed Virgin.

On a tree nearby, there was a bas relief of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of God’s creatures and creation.

As if on cue, a squirrel scurried ahead of me, carrying a morsel of food.

I walked on, and soon Francis greeted me again, this time as a large wooden carving beneath a canopy.

I recalled a bit of the 20th century prayer named for him:

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love. …

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.”

Then I saw the Rosary House, a rude shack with its door open. Inside, visitors had left rosaries, mementoes and pictures, including one of the Virgin of Guadalupe. But mostly, they left notes. One asked me to pray that he find God’s purpose for his life.

Amen.

The woods were quiet, not silent. They were alive with the sounds of birds, frogs and the wind in the leaves and branches.

Every quarter-hour, the church bell rang out its deep chime.

Close to a modern statue of Mary praying, I came upon a woman who told me the statues that matter most — the ones the sojourners come to see — were only a little farther.

Presently, I found them. The ones I noticed first were of Jesus’ disciples, James, Peter and John, lying asleep, while a short distance away, in a clearing, bathed in sunlight, the Christ knelt in agony, his hands covering his face, as he prayed to his Father to let this cup pass, “yet not my will, but thine be done.”

As I sat looking at the dark, poignant sculpture, I thought: He suffered this for me.

A plaque told the story of the Garden of Gethsemani art. American sculptor Walker Hancock created these images in memory of Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopalian seminary student who was martyred in Alabama on Aug. 20, 1965 during the civil rights movement. William Coolidge of Boston, Mass., donated them to the monastery.

Because I’m not Roman Catholic, I had felt like an interloper on this pilgrimage. But the words on the plaque reminded me that, as  a baptized communicant in the one, universal and apostolic church, I, too, belong.

“May we always remember that the church exists to lead men to Christ in many and varied ways, but it is always the same Christ,” the words on the plaque read.

Verum est.

RANDY PATRICK can be contacted at rpatrick@kystandard.com