It’s difficult to capture in words my experience as a monastic guest at Mepkin Abbey. So difficult that it’s taken me four months to write about it—although I’ve thought about the month I spent with the brothers every day since. The community welcomed me graciously, steering this befuddled monastic neophyte patiently through the order of the day. I had done some reading about Cistercian monasticism beforehand but was (and am) terribly ignorant. Monks stepped in patiently mid-liturgy (and more frequently than I would like to admit), to find the right page in the psalter for me or to tell me which direction to face. (They also gave me first-class training on the correct techniques for growing, picking and drying shiitake mushrooms! Maybe on my next visit I will graduate to oyster mushrooms 101.)
It would be easy to romanticize my time at Our Lady of Mepkin. Anyone who reads these words can be assured that photos of its gardens and surroundings accurately reflect the beauty and evocative nature of the physical setting. The Abbey enclosure, the retreat center, the labyrinth, the surrounding woods and fields, and the expanse of the Cooper River together—and separately—invite meditation and contemplation at all times of day and night. (That is, when the gardeners’ leaf blowers fall silent after preening the grounds for the annual Creche Festival!) The “functional” Mepkin not often seen in photos—the library and mushroom houses, music room, kitchen, storerooms, improvised exercise room and garage of vintage bicycles in various states of repair (for getting around the farm)—make up a real, working, lived-in place that is home to its residents. The scriptures and teachings of Jesus are present in these functional parts of the abbey where I also found prayer, contemplation and the presence of God.
The simple beauty of the heart of the Abbey, the church, is transformed at every hour. It is that most “awesome” of places: “nothing else but the house of God, the gateway to heaven.” In my ignorance, I discovered Jacob’s phrase at Mepkin. No wonder it resonated with me immediately: I only learned at Mepkin—from a homily by Father Joe—that the Trappists have for centuries especially embraced this passage and Jacob’s ladder. To be at Mepkin as Father Stan concluded his term as Abbot and Father Joe took on the mantle of superior, to celebrate Joy Never Ending Sunday and the blessing of the graves of brothers who have gone before, were all special blessings during my stay.
In the areas of the enclosure where the fabric of silence is stretched to allow quiet conversation, and at work in the mushroom house, I found humor, sharp minds, practicality, kindness, and a wealth of experience that spanned decades and continents—as well as deep faith. I also discovered a community infused with a sense that there is not a moment to waste. But this is not the busy-ness we often encounter outside the monastery. The members of the Mepkin community exude a spirit of purpose: on their way to liturgy, as they work at the mushroom house, in the kitchen or the retreat center; as they tend the garden or go about other tasks. A smile may cross their faces as they pass you, either at a quick clip or at a slower pace; they may appear preoccupied or deeply immersed in a task—but they never give an air of aimlessness or idleness. Their sense of purpose is, of course, most palpable in the liturgy. The readings, music, and homilies bring the individuals into sharp focus as a community dedicated to doing God’s will; devoted to prayer for all of God’s’ creation. This sense of purpose and focus at all waking hours; this quiet, intense love of God and of one another brought the message of Jesus alive in a way I’ve never before experienced.
For all its tranquility and joys, even at Mepkin there were moments when I struggled to focus on what really matters, or when I fought the urge to “do something,” and engage in some mindless activity. But these moments subsided with the rhythm of the hours and the resonance of the scriptures, read, sung and spoken. A month at Mepkin passes too quickly, however long the days.