Reflections on the Monastic Guest Program July/August 2013
“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which we are all apart of one another and all involved in one another.”
from his final talk
From the moment we began to drive down the long tree lined drive, under the canopy of the majestic Live Oaks with hanging Spanish moss; I felt transported. During my first few days, I spent considerable time walking the beautiful grounds of Mepkin Abbey and I was struck by the brilliant diversity of the natural surroundings. Never had I seen such colorful dragonflies, lizards, frogs, grasshoppers and birds. They appeared to have been dipped in paint or was it some elaborate ruse with a wayward coloring set? Everywhere I walked, they seemed to sweep me along my intended path. The confidence in which the squirrels and birds went about their daily chores, indicated an ease and calm within the abbey itself; these were creatures unaccustomed to harried work and comfortable with the many visitors drawn down that same treed lane. At night we were serenaded by crickets and cicadas; while during early morning jaunts to vigils, the owls echoed our footsteps along graveled paths, beneath starlit skies. It all seemed surreal and other worldly at times.
That was the setting that helped ease me into a routine of monastic life and helped me to gradually embrace the cocoon of silence which enveloped the Abbey. As time progressed, I noticed that my hurried steps, slowed; my nervous energy, waned and gradually I felt more and more relaxed and calm. I was beginning to hear and feel the rhythm of Mepkin. Unbeknownst to me, I was being molded by a monastic rule set in place long ago and was beginning to realize that it still resonated today, perhaps more than ever.
The monastic guest program at Mepkin, provided me with an opportunity to step outside of my own hectic life and afforded me time and space in which to be still and recharge my spiritual and emotional batteries. It had been in some ways an intensely personal journey, yet within the confines of a deeply committed faith community. One which followed a simple precept set down by St. Benedict, ora et labora; prayer and work.
I felt as my time at the Abbey slowly unfolded, I began to view the monastic community in the same light as the many little creatures who inhabited their grounds; all were very interdependent. Each and every monk was valued and had a role to play in the running of the Abbey. Some were assigned as cooks, others washed dishes, some greeted guests, a few mowed lawns, some worked in the mushroom farm, others ran the gift shop, while still others presided over liturgical services. Yet they were all fellow sojourners, committed to prayer and work within a contemplative setting.
It has been a tremendous and profoundly moving experience for me. One that I am not quite sure I can fully comprehend or process yet. I feel fortunate and blessed to have been allowed a brief glimpse into such an extraordinary way of life. I will carry it with me; I hope, as I return to my home in Canada. I know that my experience at Mepkin will influence some future thoughts and actions; hopefully, forcing me to slow down and enjoy being in the present. It may be in the little things, like turning off the t.v. or the radio and being still in the silence. I am sure I will remember on cold winter afternoons my quiet walks under the South Carolina Live Oaks, my path guided by brilliantly colored dragonflies and when in church in my home parish, I will hear the choir monks in my head, rhythmically chanting the psalms as they are being read.
Thank you everyone- Adieu.
Patrick DaleyRead More »
“You wouldn’t believe if I told you, Stephen, just how much you can come to mean to someone’s spiritual life and not even realize it.”
Br. Anthony-Maria continued and told a few stories of guests and retreatants who had gotten in touch with the monastery to tell of how seemingly insignificant acts on his or someone else’s part had come to deeply affect their lives while so many miles away from the cloistered walls of Mepkin. And the more I think about it, the more I agree with the many guests who have been affected by this place and these people, and I’ve also come to agree with Br. Anthony’s awe. On the one hand, one’s acts in the monastery are menial and mundane, these are only ordinary people. Yet on the other hand, those same trivial acts can contain the deepest spiritual significance: a haircut, time in church, a conversation had, or a note shared. And I think that’s the point for these Trappists, if I may speak a few words on their behalf.
For the past two summers, I have the joy of being able to say I’ve spent four months at Mepkin in their Monastic Guest Program. And finding the Divine in the ordinary is the crux of the many lessons Mepkin holds in store, and as Br. Anthony said, it can be hard to believe at times. Do you want to learn something of God? Report to the Grading House after Terce and help Fr. Jonas with the shiitake mushrooms… What about growing in prayer and charity? Well, Br. Vincent needs some help changing out lightbulbs…
The significance of Mepkin can be that simple and that complex at the same time. Sure, waking at 3 a.m. is never the most cheerful proposition, but done in community, you see what solidarity and a lifestyle of prayer look like in the most interdependent and beautifully human of ways. Being in the different context of the cloister helps you to see the ways we often miss that in the normal routine of life. Such a frenetic pace outside can work too well at insulating us from our very selves and the tangible silence of the cloister helps to remove those unnecessary distractions. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy all the time, but rather, the liberation of discipline aids in stripping us down to our rawness before the Divine. The reward is in that difficulty and hardship.
The wonderful hospitality of Mepkin and their common life has not only taught me that, but it has been demonstrated before my very eyes as they have allowed me to partake of it for a time. Working, living, and praying alongside of the brothers while in the Monastic Guest Program has me proclaiming just how much they have come to mean to my spiritual life (and all my life for that matter) and it has me grateful that I can participate in their ministry in the Lowcountry of South Carolina at a place called Mepkin.
StephenRead More »
I normally wouldn’t write about my time here if it were to be read by others. That’s because what happens here isn’t so much based on the externalities of the life – though they surely are important – as to what goes on inside, which is much more important. This may sound all flowery and poetic, or, heck, even overly “spiritual,” which isn’t what I’m going for. But it’s true. The divine often does speak through the senses, but the subtleties of the work lie in one’s heart, which is far more crucial.
There are two things about Mepkin that, in a very gradual and organic fashion, spoke to my heart.
The first is about failure. The first week or so, I often woke up in sweats about the whole transition, because I thought everything little thing either intensely mattered in the grand scheme of my place the universe – or was totally meaningless. This back and forth wavering between these poles gave rise to a lot of anxiety, and I came to recognize that it probably involved lots of ego. The ego either wants things perfect or nothing to do with anything at all. During this time it was difficult to cut myself some slack and find a balance.
I surely intellectually understood things like “My power is made perfect in your weakness” but actually going through the suffering from all the garbage that comes up inside you is quite a different thing. That’s mostly because we have this immense desire to feel included and do all the right things at all the right times – or to give up and go home. I found that it was when I began to not push the negative feelings away or control them, and maybe even listen attentively to what’s constantly being sung and said in church, you naturally settle into a rhythm because you realize that it’s okay to mess up. These monks are not trying to be God. They are trying to serve Him because they desire Him. I cannot emphasize this enough.
The second is a direct result of the first – and it’s about beauty. The grounds at the monastery are quite enchanting, as it is known. The graceful and minimalistic architecture, the pulsating sounds of the wildlife, and all the sweeping lawns: these things make for quite a nice place. In a way, everything seems perfect. But there is something to be said about a beauty that is not any of these – when not everything is as we’d like it to be. When the singing isn’t beautiful, when someone leading has to clear his throat, when the music is a little off, or when the food isn’t exactly what we’d choose: there is a sweetness there. A coming together it seems. When we all show up with imperfection, I think God rejoices greatly. I don’t know why it is this way, but it is.
I’ll miss things here very much.
But I’ll certainly be back.Read More »
After having made several brief visits to allow himself to better know our life, Chris Davies resided with us for the month of August as an observer. Chris is a native of South Carolina and lives in Mount Pleasant. He works in the computer programming field and has been more and more drawn to the contemplative way. Transitioning for this time at Mepkin was a real shift in gears for Chris as only days before he began his month of observership he had just returned from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. The abbot, Father Stan, asked Chris to speak with the monastic community in chapter sharing some of the experience of being with Pope Francis and the many who had journeyed to Brazil for this event. For Chris, his involvement with the Young Adult Ministry of the Diocese of Charleston has proved enriching to the development of his spirituality and helped to deepen the yearning for a fuller relationship with Christ. During his time in discernment at the Drexel House under the auspices of the Vocation Office of the Diocese of Charleston, Chris’ appreciation grew for the liturgy of the hours and praying in community. Kindly remember Chris in your prayers as he continues to discern. And please pray for the other thirteen men who are in contact with us to explore a possible vocation to the contemplative monastic life.Read More »
Mepkin Abbey welcomed Ken Grooms for a three month observership in May. Ken is actually returning to South Carolina. He was born in Charleston and raised in Goose Creek. After completing a degree in philosophy at the College of Charleston (with a minor in music, playing trumpet for the Charleston Symphony), Ken did graduate studies in philosophy at the University of South Carolina. His desire to pursue further studies took him to Fordham University in New York City where he began to do volunteer work with the Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx. His work with Mother Teresa’s sisters became full time when they asked him to run their men’s shelter in the Bronx. And he was also working one day a week at their shelter for HIV patients in Manhattan. While giving himself in service in these efforts Ken was befriended by other volunteers which led him to Long Island where he was employed as a cook for the retired priests of the Diocese of Rockville Centre at their residence for senior priests. The desire for contemplative life was growing all through these years. And having visited Mepkin along his journey, he made contact to explore whether God might be calling him to our life. Ken has initiated the process of application and hopes to enter Mepkin in the near future.Read More »
I woke up, slightly confused at first. I immediately got out of bed and shut the alarm off, which was across the room. The clock read 2:55 am. I got into the unfamiliar shower. I couldn’t say how long I let the water beat against my head. I put on the many layers of clothes which I had set down on a chair the night before. I combed my hair, took a look at myself in the mirror, and left into the terrible February cold, flashlight in hand. It was raining. I sloshed through the puddles, a parking lot, a foot bridge, and finally the winding sidewalks.
When I took my seat in the church, most of guys were already there. They looked relaxed, as if about to warm up for a soft ball game. At 3:20 am, one of them stood up, walked about two feet, and activated the bells from an electronics box. They rang from a tower right outside, and the noise pierced the 50 foot ceiling of the church. Everyone stood, and I followed suit. As the bells died down, a knock emanated from somewhere. The men traced a cross on their chest with their finger, and bowed deeply towards the front of the church. Some one sang “Lord, come to my attention.” The men responded back “Lord, make haste to help me.” They recited the Lord’s prayer, which was different from the protestant version with which I grew up.
The cantor, with his guitar, began to play, and the men began to sing. I looked at my music stand, and it was littered with pages, books, and booklets. A brother walked over to my stand, saw an opened book, and sternly pointed to the song they were singing.
I had come to Mepkin to make sense of my life and to make sense of myself. But it was too early in the morning for anything to make sense. I got a scant five hours of sleep the night before, as I wasn’t used to an 8 pm bedtime. The Benadryl I had taken to aid my slumber was still doing a number on me. I felt like I was in a dream, as if nothing as fantastic as these ancient practices could actually exist.Read More »