Learning to Trust: Ryan Masterson
By France Griggs Sloat
Ryan Masterson was hungry, so he walked from the bus station in downtown Louisville, Ky., straight into an Applebee’s restaurant he spied nearby. It was a long bus ride from Detroit, after all, and a good lunch would give him energy for the next leg of his trip. He ate alone and enjoyed every bite, but when he went to pay the bill, it was like a sucker punch to the gut.
The bill was $17—half of the $35 he'd been given for his entire two-week pilgrimage. How was he supposed to get through the next 12 days?
Masterson was sent “to do time,” as he puts it, at the Trappist monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani, south of Louisville. He'd been moved by The Seven Storey Mountain, a book by Thomas Merton, who left his position as an English professor at Columbia University to become a Trappist monk at the abbey in Trappist, Ky. So Masterson requested to spend time at the abbey connecting with the elements that had drawn Merton into a monastic, religious life. For Masterson, the abbey not only connected him to Merton, it became a door to his past—and the oddest place to run into old friends.
Although he arrived at the abbey unannounced, the monks let him in, offering him a room that contained a desk, a cross on the wall and a bed with a box spring “that was made before Patton took Germany.”
During his stay, Masterson ran into a woman who was there for a retreat whom he knew from his home parish in Columbus, Ohio. As they talked about his decision to enter the priesthood, Masterson began to feel an anxiety that gnawed at him in college about his career choice. “I was feeling the conflict of whether to continue on with the Jesuits or go back to medicine.”
The woman offered him a ride to Cincinnati, but he declined. He needed to experience the abbey. For the next four days he lived like a monk—prayers, chants, eating in silence. He thought about relationships he lost, about a cousin killed in Afghanistan, about friends from Xavier he left behind. He was feeling cut off from his world.
“Part of my second-guessing was boiling down to a lack of trust in God or a sense of being unable to trust in that way,” he says. “Our pilgrimage model was about trust but also about where are you lacking in trust and in your real ability to say where you put faith in God and his provenance, and for me that was in a sense of relationship with others.”
Then two things happened. One morning, while strolling the grounds, he walked into a graveyard, and the first grave he came upon was Merton’s. He knew Merton died accidentally in 1968, but he didn’t know he was buried there.
“It was a complete surprise to me,” he says. “I knew he left the monastery and died in Thailand. He was electrocuted, and his body was brought back to Kentucky, and he was buried with all the other monks. I actually got to pray next to where he was buried, and one of his things, his issues, was trusting.”
He also attended the funeral Mass of a monk who died of cancer.
“To see the care these men had for him and his fulfillment in his life was powerful for me,” he says. “They had different prayer periods during the day, and I went in at 3:00 a.m. and even then, I saw an old man reading prayers with a monk who had just passed. I gained a lot from being there for the funeral of someone who died in obscurity in the hills of Kentucky and was utterly happy with his decision to do that.”
When it was time to leave, he began walking down the road in front of the abbey toward Louisville. Just then, a farmer in a pickup truck pulled up and offered him a ride. Upon hearing his story, he gave him a $10 bill, half of which he spent on a modest sandwich at a nearby diner. Coming out of the diner, he looked across the street and saw John, one of his best friends from Xavier.
John offered him a ride to Cincinnati, and it was like a homecoming for Masterson. He saw all his old friends and stayed with a different one each for four nights.
They took him out to dinner and talked long hours late into the night. They not only asked Masterson to let them care for him, they told him they admired his choice of the priesthood. “One of them said, ‘Ryan, I am so proud of you, and what you are doing right now matters and needs to be done. You are happier now than I have seen you in years.’ ”
“It confirmed for me I was making the right decision, and I was ready to go back,” he says. “It was a very intimate pilgrimage through my own experience and learning to trust in the graciousness and charity of others and to trust the relationships I put so much importance on,” Masterson said. “It was a pilgrimage into myself really.”