Douglas Hertler reflects on Monastic Guest Experience

January 2020

Douglas Hertler reflects on Monastic Guest ExperienceHow grateful I am to have randomly (or perhaps not so randomly…) seen the ad in America magazine to “Be a Monk for a Month.” I knew immediately that this was something I could/would do. After all, I had just begun portraying a monk in my new one-man play, Merton and Me – A Living Trinity, and I had been engaged in spiritual reading and reflection ever since this monk Thomas Merton had come into my life in 2002. Monastic life was therefore not new to me, in theory that is…. But the romantic idea of a new spiritual adventure is by no means the same thing as making a concrete decision to start the new year by moving away from your wife and stepson for a month, traveling out of NYC (and one’s source of income), and relocating to a monastery in a place called Monck’s Corner, SC to live the daily life of a Trappist monk! And yet, by God’s grace, and thanks to a very supportive and loving family, that’s exactly what I did.

For all those who think that being a monk is just prayer and silence all day long, well, you’ve only got it half right! Monastic Guests are expected to work four hours a day, just as the monks do, and when combined with meals and periods of time reserved for private reflection, you have a very full and active day. Being immersed in such a community was sheer gift for me. Father Columba, the Guest Master, was always available for consultation if a spontaneous question arose, and he went out of his way to ensure that I felt at ease. He scheduled weekly opportunities to meet and discuss the experience, introduced a Christian meditation practice in the tradition of John Main, and shared a short movie on the history of the Rule of St. Benedict, along with a small, thoroughly digestible booklet outlining the Rule itself. The Library resources, along with computer access if needed, were readily available. A small gym with a healthy variety of equipment was also accessible any time of day. The accommodations were spartan yet comfortable. The food was vegetarian and surprisingly tasty and amply prepared. And I can honestly say that I did not miss eating meat or drinking a beer while I was there, (ok maybe I missed the beer once!).

The silence, which I know for some people can be quite intimidating, was not so radical as one might think. While it is true that the monks speak very infrequently to each other,
there are obvious exceptions in order to ensure that such a community (which is more like a town!) can function effectively. The Monastic Guests know they can communicate to the Guest Master should they need to, as well as with each other in moments of personal need or practical necessity. The rule of silence, while very important and integral to the community life, and thus expected to be respected and honored by those who visit, is not experienced as a medieval prohibition on human contact, but rather as a shared communion of persons wishing to be receptive to the “still, small voice” of God speaking to them in their lives, and hence in the community’s life as related members in the one body of Christ. It might also be added that while there is no direct dialogue during the prayers of the day, the chanting of the psalms, the singing of hymns, the reading aloud of Scripture, and the preaching of daily homilies blankets the guest in a different kind of sound that itself seems to take on a quality of silence over time.

As I slowly adjusted to such a unique and sacred rhythm of life, I simultaneously witnessed a quieting of my mind and heart that left me feeling a deep sense of gratitude and humility. And that, I can say, is how I felt about my entire experience as a Monastic Guest at Mepkin.

My return flight to NYC was booked for January 31, and while the poetic beauty of that departure date had escaped me when I made the reservation, I was later reminded that it was Thomas Merton’s birthday… Of course it was… Another random coincidence I’m sure, just like the day I picked up a magazine and felt the call to Be a Monk for a Month…