The Monastic Guest Program: An Appreciation
When my wife died in the 60th year of our marriage, I knew I needed time out, a chance to give thanks for the past and face into a new future. I had in mind a few days in a monastery or retreat program in the San Francisco area. To my surprise, I found nothing that fit my mental picture. Then I saw an ad in a magazine a friend had passed on: “Be a Monk for a Month!” It sounded exactly right.
I hadn’t planned on a month or on going from coast to coast, but if I was serious about taking time out, this was clearly what I was looking for. And it was. You don’t need to be recently bereaved to find this program right for you. When I arrived, another Monastic Guest was just finishing his stay and would be returning to his wife and four children and the daily commute to his law firm. When I left, a new monastic guest was arriving: still in his twenties and looking for time to give his life clearer direction. All of us, at every stage of life, need opportunity to remember who we are and why we are here and draw closer to the “Source, Guide, and Goal” of our lives.
Built on a high tract of land above the Cooper River where a plantation house once stood and slaves tended rice fields, Mepkin Abbey has everything you might expect in a monastery: a church with monastic stalls, a cloister, a dining hall, a library, extensive grounds, even a labyrinth. The monks raise mushrooms to support themselves and involve the Monastic Guests in that program as well as the daily preparation of meals and washing of dishes. There’s no charge for your visit because you share the work.
But the center of life at Mepkin is prayer. Seven times a day, beginning at 4 a.m., the monks and guests assemble in the church, and join in prayer. There’s usually a modern hymn and there are a few prayers, but the monastic life is centered on the psalms. Chanted usually to a simple cadence, all one hundred and fifty of them every two weeks, they get into your bones. They shape you and center you in the Source of life.
And the silence: the best gift. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given . . .” in the words of familiar hymn: “so God imparts to human hearts the wonders of his heaven.” The silence itself is a gift: one hard to find in the usual round of life. Perhaps we will use it to reflect on a word or sentence in the service; perhaps we will fill it with the Jesus prayer or our own words; perhaps we will use it simply to sit quietly in God’s presence. Best of all it’s a gift we can take back with us when we return to our daily world.
There’s not space for many in the Monastic Guest program, but those able to share it will find their lives deepened and their spirits renewed.