The monks of Mepkin Abbey offer an opportunity for men to have a longer experience of monastic life, or to take a sabbatical within the monastery. Participants in this program live in the monastic community for a period of thirty days. At the request of the participant, this period may be renewed following an evaluation by the monks. Monastic Guests are provided a room with private bath within the monastic community itself, and must participate in all the activities and obligations of the monks — from Vigils at 3:20 AM to Compline at 7:30 PM. They are assigned work just as the monks are.
Advance reservations with the Monastic Guest Master are required, along with a certificate of medical insurance and some form of recommendation from a pastor, employer, or colleague. There is no fee required since work compensates for the cost of room and board. Usually the number of Monastic Guests is limited to three at any one time.
Christopher L. Webber
September 1 – October 1, 2018
(Fr. Webber is a retired priest of the Episcopal Church who served congregations in the New York area and in Tokyo, Japan. He now lives in San Francisco and assists at two churches in that city. He is also an author of a number of books ranging from The Beowulf Trilogy to American to the Backbone, the biography of a fugitive slave who became a leader in the pre-Civil War abolition movement.)
When my wife died, at the end of October last year, I knew I needed to take a “time out” to re-center my life. Marriage and ministry have always defined my life and will continue to do so, but obviously in new ways. I had thought in terms of a few days at a local retreat house, but couldn’t find one that seemed available. Then I saw an advertisement in a magazine a friend passed on inviting me to be a “Monk for a Month,” at Mepkin Abbey, and I thought, “That might be just the thing.”
I wanted a change and I got it: from chilly, foggy San Francisco to semi-tropical South Carolina; from a community of over a hundred senior citizens, mostly women, centered on entertainment and physical exercises and seldom quiet, to a much smaller community of men centered on contemplation and religious exercises and almost always totally quiet except in prayer. I had considered myself an early riser, being up at 5:30, two hours before the rest of the community. Now I would be up almost three hours earlier than that if I expected to continue my usual physical exercises before the monastic day began.
But those were the obvious changes and I expected them. The devil, they say, is in the details – and even in a monastic community, the devil is hard at work. There was, of course, the challenge of finding my way around a new community: where is the Refectory, the Library, the laundry machine, an internet connection? But more challenging was finding my way around not one Prayer Book, but five, and negotiating the tiny differences between the Mepkin liturgies and the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Big differences might have been easier; at least I would have known I was on unfamiliar ground. But it was the little differences that caught me time and again. Even on day thirty, I caught myself saying “O God, make haste to help us” instead of “help me.” Even when all the words were the same, the commas were in different places: not “thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” but “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” When you’ve been doing it one way for 80-plus years, it’s not easy to remember a new pattern.
But basically, the liturgy was familiar. I could become a part of it and value the structure it gave every day. Less familiar, but more important in the long run, was the “free” time, the time of silence, the time available to “commune with your own heart. . . and be still.” It took a while for me to realize that that was not something to be forced, but that I could relax and let it happen. By the end of the month, I began to feel truly caught up in the silence of the place and the community. I remembered reading a book years ago by Chaim Potok in which one of the characters said, “I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it.” By the end of the month, I had begun to experience that aspect of silence and truly to “feel myself alive in it.”
29 August to 17 September 2018
I “Discovered” Mepkin in August 2009 (well, truth be told, that’s not the way life works – we don’t “discover” anything; we merely “uncover” what God previously placed there). Hence, the “uncovering” relationship I’ve had with Mepkin Abbey dates to a summer that, if looked at on paper, is still one for the ages. Our eldest daughter’s wedding was scheduled for July 9. In late June the family took what we dubbed “The Last Dance,” a week’s vacation at the family cabin in northern Michigan. The word to describe it – awesome! The wedding was legendary (at least in our minds); more fun than is allowed in most states. Two weeks later I was in Chicago (our favorite city) for my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday bash. Off the chain. However, on the drive home, in spite of what had gone down as one of the dreamiest summers of my life, I mused that something was missing; I wanted more. Not more items on a calendar. What was lacking was not an itinerary/activity thing; rather, it was an internal thing. My soul hadn’t been nourished.
I had been a retreatant at Abbey of the Holy Spirit a dozen or so years earlier. Hadn’t given much thought to a monastery since. Too busy building kingdoms of my own while working for Young Life (an outfit that targets teens disinterested in the church and Jesus). By the summer of 2009, I was administrating the Jacksonville (FL) extension site of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a multi-denominational seminary located north of Boston. Best job I ever had; loved what I was doing. But my soul was malnourished.
Now you know the back story to the week as a retreatant in August 2009. The grounds at Mepkin house an assortment of gigantic trees that the South is famous for, Spanish moss, the Cooper River, grass lawns, gardens, and benches. In that charming southern setting tranquility, serenity, stillness, silence, quiet, solitude, slow pace, low volume, and peacefulness abound. The Mepkin “experience” provides an idyllic exterior setting in which to do soul work, retreat, meditate, worship, praise the creator, center, contemplate; in short, to be still and know the I AM God. Mepkin extends an invitation to take an internal journey surrounded by an external oasis.
I wanted to experience the “full monte” of the monastery, so I requested a work assignment the first morning. I suspect they didn’t quite know what to do with that, requesting that I return the next day. Spent the next three mornings working with Father Guerric on a burgeoning vegetable garden. We talked, sometimes even using words. My soul did the listening. And supped.
Have returned to Mepkin on numerous occasions, the most recent half dozen or so as a Monastic Guest (“Guest Monk” has a more charming ring to it!). They have allowed (no….WELCOMED) this Protestant minister to come for anywhere between 2.5 – 4 weeks (my wife prefers 2, me 3; so 2.5 is the current compromise). Why return? Why drive the 4.5 hours north on I-95, turning east on I-26, just past Moncks Corner (how fitting!)? The monks; the serenity of the near-sacred grounds; the rhythm of prayer, Lectio Divina, and work.
And the inner journey. The inner journey is where the REAL Mepkin shows itself. It is a journey that stirs up the soul, stimulates the mind, and captures the heart; as the reality of who, what, and WHOSE I am are confronted and clarified. Once the soul is engaged, tranquility is met with conflict, serenity with agitation, stillness with disruption, quiet with noise, and peace with disturbance. All of which are the speed bumps and potholes necessary for the journey to knowing the I AM God. It is being examined as I examine Him.
The impact? I settled into life “on the outside” following my first stint as a Guest Monk (see what I mean?!). A couple days later I was musing again. Something was missing. It was the extended time hangin’ with Jesus, exploring what it means to come and follow, to abide, to be still and know the I AM God. Made a pact with my creator – wake me up whenever, and I’ll meet you. The past 5-6 years it has been feet on the floor while it is yet dark (about the time most of the Monks are in the chow line). Whereupon I sup myself, fed by His word and presence. On an inner journey into the depths of where He resides within me.
I am getting to know the I AM God; and He is simultaneously allowing me to roam the pasture lands of my inner being. The journey to Mepkin has become a journey into the silent land of my interior. It has been the grandest of adventures uncovering and being uncovered. Come, join us!
29 August – 17 September
12 of the 143 things that I learned as a Monastic Guest at Mepkin Abbey (August 2018)
by Stephen B. Grant
- Aim higher: I came to Mepkin with three objectives: improve my prayer practice; experience a full immersion into the daily life of a monk; and begin a discernment about the next phase of my life. I made so much progress on those three goals during my month at Mepkin that I wonder whether I should have included another three, or ten.
- Waves of grace: I felt immense gratitude nearly every day, and nearly every hour of every day, during my stay at Mepkin. I felt privileged to reside in such a beautiful place, to live in silence, and to brush against the gentle disposition, intelligence and wisdom of the monks. Every sunrise and sunset, a reminder of God’s presence. The horn of a freight train carrying across the river, a temporary reminder of the noise and distractions of the outside world. Each passing nod by a fellow resident, a further embrace into the community. I cannot remember being so content for such an extended period of time. Did I miss my calling?
- The proverbial bed of roses: But, three weeks into my stay, I hit the monastic wall. I suddenly appreciated that the daily life of a monk is very difficult indeed, and began counting the days until my departure. Fr. Jonas was unsurprised, and confided that the Monastic Guest Program lasts for one month for a good reason: a would-be monk should understand that the life can be monotonous. I was able to muddle through my dry season, as I assume that all monks must do for various stretches of time, and the last week of may stay was replete with blessings. But now I know.
- The lint screen is always clean: When I did my laundry during college, I always needed to clear the lint screen in the dryer before loading my wet clothes. Ditto for every laundromat that I’ve visited over the years. But at Mepkin, the monk who used the dryer before me had always cleaned the lint screen. For me, it’s a symbol for all of the small kindnesses which come naturally to those who inhabit the place.
- The liturgy is joy: My wife Dina has commented that Catholicism is a different religion when you go to Mass by yourself (i.e., without your spouse or one or more of our six children). You listen more closely, digest more, and sometimes tap into deeper emotions and insights. And in that vein, I hope that none of the monks noticed that I nearly broke into tears during half-dozen Masses during my month at Mepkin. But if anyone did notice, that’s okay too.
- Snoozing during Centering Prayer is not a sin: I confessed (informally) to Fr. Guerric that I had dozed off a couple of times during the 5:00 am Centering Prayer session which he hosts in the Francis Kline chapel. I learned that this failing is pardonable because, as Fr. Guerric told me, (i) I did not snore (unusual for me), and (ii) “it happens.”
- And ye shall receive: Stan told me that, unfortunately, he didn’t think that there was a spare copy of the Liturgy of the Hours binder that I could bring home with me after my monastic stay. Yet by the following morning, Fr. Stan had located and presented me with a well-used copy. I couldn’t have been more pleased. I don’t know how you can sing the Magnificat, the Benedictus and the Regina Coeli for a month, and then just stop.
- And ye shall receive, Part II: I’ve made 18 retreats at other monasteries, and in all cases, chanting with the monks was verboten. So, it was with fingers crossed that I asked Fr. Jonas whether I could sing once – just once – with the Schola during my month as a Monastic Guest. That request immediately transubstantiated into my joining the Schola for the balance of my stay. The privilege of singing with the Mepkin Schola far exceeded anything that I could have wished for during my monastic stay.
- New frontiers in the Bible: Because I’m Catholic, I don’t know much about what’s in the Bible. So, of course I was discomfited when I had to read aloud at Mass the passage from Ezekiel in which the prophet compares Jerusalem to . . . well, a street walker. Might it be possible that Fr. Joe reserves the reading of that passage for Monastic Guests?
- Let those who have ears, listen: Be forewarned: If you meet with a Mepkin monk to discuss what’s going on in your life, spiritual or otherwise, you will leave the meeting with a book. After a few such conferences, the books started piling up on my desk. The problem was that I never had the time to read them. Throughout my tenure at the abbey, it always felt as though there was somewhere that I was supposed to be, and something that I should be doing there. So, I made the rookie mistake of waving off further book recommendations. Eventually, I recognized my error and came to appreciate that a book recommendation from a Trappist monk is a precious gift, something that the monk believes – or perhaps knows – will help you on the journey. Now authors Cynthia Bourgeault, Michael Casey and Martin Laird are helping to change my life.
- Providence in disguise: There’s a person in my workplace who once treated me very badly, and whom I had never forgiven. My month at Mepkin seemed like a good opportunity to cross this problem off my spiritual to-do list. So, I asked Fr. Columba whether I could discuss an unspecified “pastoral issue” with him. Fr. Columba readily agreed, but before we got together, he delivered an amazing homily on Matthew 18:21-22 in which his theme was that “forgiveness is a miracle.” Fr. Columba and I still had our talk, but forgiveness was not one of the topics that we discussed. I had already heard what I needed to hear.
- Where charity and love prevail: There were two fractious incidents between monastic inhabitants during my five-week stay. Of course, I was involved in one of them, stubborn cuss that I am, and I felt incredibly sheepish when the monk on the other side of this contretemps sought me out to apologize within a half-hour. I heard that the other squabble was also resolved in short order. If you want to know how the monks manage to live peaceable in community, there’s your answer. And believe me, I brought this lesson home with me.
Mepkin Abbey is a home away from home. After participating 18 years in the Monastic Guest Program, I slide into the routine like a hand into a glove. It is an extension of my life in Connecticut. In that sense, Mepkin is a monastery without walls.
I will be 80 years in August 2018 and, by grace, enjoy good health, spiritually, mentally and physically. Mepkin has helped quiet my soul, to live in the Present Moment, to live in the Presence of God, to age gracefully. While I have made great progress in this area, I have miles to go. And I look forward to the journey. To become more compassionate. To “listen with the ear of my heart” (St Benedict). To appreciate more that the Earth “is charged with the grandeur of God”(GM Hopkins).
The MG Program provides this by requiring MGs to immerse themselves in the prayer and work of the community. We pray the Hours seven times a day. Attend Mass daily. And work four hours a day six days a week. While this may seem like a rigid schedule, there is plenty of time for meditation, reading and exercise.
Over the years, the Hours have had a powerful impact on me. Especially chanting the Psalms.The individual monks and guests become one in the chant. In holy communion.
Often, a single phrase in a Psalm sung many times before can melt the heart to the point of tears. Not tears of sorrow, but of cleansing water.
After a few visits, a person gets to know the monks, the Mepkin family. With all the wonder and warts of our own families. Each one is on the journey of life sharing the road with us. Some feel the physical effects of aging. Some get testy when they are tired. Some break the silence once in a while. Just like folks outside the cloister. That said, they all guide by example. And seem to have infinite patience with occasional visitors.
The beauty of the place is astonishing. The Cooper River with all the life on the surface and in her womb. The Live Oak and Spanish Moss. The birds. The gardens. The church and library. The silence.
People are advised to get physical exams once a year. Especially after a certain age. The soul should be examined and refreshed as well. I do it twice a year. At Mepkin, my home away from home. I hope to return in the Fall.
Mepkin Abbey Monastic Guest Program was an opportunity for me to experience Christian monasticism close-up, something I’ve wanted to do for sometime. As a contemplative from a different tradition than Catholicism, I had a strong interest in exploring the forms and the devotion I understood to be an integral part of Trappist life.
The brothers welcomed me with open arms and a grace that could only come from hearts truly opened to God and their fellow brothers and sisters. I lived, worked and prayed right alongside the brothers. I felt a part of the community. I was included wholeheartedly into their daily lives, and I was offered the opportunity to include them in my daily practice of prayer, meditation and work.
The gift of this program is the holistic nature of the experience. It is rare in our busy lives that we are offered the opportunity to bring our prayer and contemplative practice into our workaday world. At Mepkin, ideally, all the aspects of the daily routine -prayer, work, meditation, personal time – are of a single piece, a seamless blending of a heart turned to the transcendent reality of love and grace. In a sense, I felt that God was living and working alongside me at Mepkin.
It is a rigorous schedule, one better driven by faith than just curiosity. It isn’t a vacation. But there was the support of the brothers and the resource of their vast experience to help me through it.
I feel that I got out of the program what I put into it. I was dedicated. I left with a wonderful feeling of peace, contentment with myself and others, and a closeness to God that I haven’t felt in a long time.
Monastic Guest (MG) experience of Carl Rosenberg at Mepkin Abbey, Moncks Corner, SC
My time spent as a monastic guest at Mepkin Abbey was one of the best months of my life. I hope to join them again soon. I retired September 1, 2017 after over 38 years of military service. I had a four day retreat at Mepkin the end of August and found a draw to the beauty and grace of the place. Praying the hours in community helped deepen my prayer. So, after my retreat I made application to live with the brothers for a month as a monastic guest.
When brother Gerard Jonas gave me my orientation I felt euphoric. He explained the silence kept in the cloistered area and took me behind the serpentine wall. I was overcome with joy, serenity and contentment. I had a sense of what Psalm 84 expresses, “one day in God’s courts is better than a thousand elsewhere”. Part of one of the prayers I prayed early on in my stay was “Finally, as my heart slows a little after the work of the years, may it expand in Love for You and all people. May it rest secure and grateful in Your loving Heart until I am lost in You, completely and forever.”1
I feel like I got to play on the edge of a forested wilderness but in one month’s time I never got so deep that I was “lost in Christ” completely nor forever. I was on the edge and it was wonderful. After returning home for more than a week, now, I know I could get lost in the world again. However, the glimpse of being lost in Christ still inspires me in contemplative prayer and in recognition of Jesus in my day to day mundane activities.
Work in the monastic way is meant to be done prayerfully. For Cistercians silence is a goal for prayer or the “ora et labora,” work and prayer. Work at the mushroom farm is practiced with minimal talking. The silent atmosphere does foster a sense of God’s presence in the work.
Work is minimized on Sundays and Desert days to allow for rest and an opportunity to go deeper in prayer. My stay included participation with the community in one of their monthly desert days. Its title comes from the practice of the desert fathers and mothers. Mepkin’s beauty is not like a desert but it certainly can be a setting to have a wilderness experience. My visions during the “desert” prayer were definitely forested and I had a sense that I was close to the garden from which Adam and Eve were exiled. Prayer is so personal and the images or symbols that I have from those desert prayers are very difficult to put into words – written or spoken. The depth and wonder of my prayer I credit to the communing I experienced through ora et labora in the Mepkin community. The brothers do not communicate in the worldly sense but they do commune in a divine life. They are human. They are also examples of living Paul’s exhortation “…to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1, NRSV) Over the years I have had education and professional certifications that allow me to ethically add titles and letters before and after my name. My month at Mepkin gave me my favorite letters, Carl Rosenberg, MG.
1 Prayer by Sr. Moya Hanlen, fdsnc (Australia) www.ministryofthearts.org
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.
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.
God brought me to a place of complete physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion and depression and then unexpectedly opened the door for me to retire after twenty years of running customer sales and service call centers. I understood Him to be telling me to take a sabbatical and get rested in preparation for my next mission, which He will reveal in due time. One of my first thoughts was to take time for a retreat with Cathie Powell, who founded a contemplative ministry in Greenville, SC, called The Anchorage. She was leading a retreat at Mepkin Abbey in March, but I had a schedule conflict. However, I took time to explore the Mepkin Abbey website and learned about their monastic guest program, a thirty day program for men to live, worship, and work like one of the monks. I felt God drawing me to participate, thinking that perhaps He was going to use that time to reveal my next assignment. My first question to Father Guerric: Is a non-Roman Catholic person permitted to participate in the monastic guest program? He told me that the program was open even to Presbyterians like me!
I hope that everyone is enjoying the onset of winter over there. The weather in Sydney is fantastic and warm. Here is the reflection on my time at Mepkin Abbey we spoke of my writing.
I arrived at Mepkin abbey in the beginning of September. The weather was warm and clear and the days were starting to get shorter, giving every prayer at compline a unique character as the sun set over river and cast its last burning rays through the high church windows while the monks sang to God, asking for his protection through the night.
Read more about John Asher’s beautiful experience as a monastic guest at Mepkin Abbey
Whilden Nettles, a 27 year old man from Pawley’s Island, SC, came as a monastic guest. He had just finished his job as a probation officer. He expressed the following about how he hoped to use this experience at Mepkin Abbey. “I would like to use my time at Mepkin Abbey to not think about the past or the future, but, instead to commune with God, and focus myself for the journey ahead. I want to experience a life where instead of living for my own gratification, I can fully focus on serving God and others, and hope to take that with me when I leave.”
Read about Whilden’s experience as a monastic guest at Mepkin Abbey
For further information or to make reservations, contact the Monastic Guest Master, Father Guerric, using the email contact form, or by phone or mail: (843) 761 – 8509 1098 Mepkin Abbey Rd Moncks Corner, SC 29461