Reflections of Monastic Guest Jack Erlanger
My path to spending a month at Mepkin and living the life of a Trappist started when I took a class my senior year of college in which I was introduced to the Desert Fathers, the early Christian hermits of the Egyptian desert, from whom Christian monasticism, as it is today, arose. What struck me so profoundly when I read about the Desert Fathers was how absolutely humble, simple, and above all real and authentic they and their way of life were. In a world in which you are often so caught up with distractions, so caught up with activity, and so caught up in a culture that very much calls you to build up your own ego, I was rather taken aback reading about these men who fled from the world into the desert, leaving distractions, comforts, attachments, and their own wills behind, in order to seek God and their true selves in utter simplicity and humility. This led to a great desire of my own to want to experience such a life as it is practiced today, and so when I saw that Mepkin invites people to share in living their Trappist life for a month, I recognized that I needed to ignore the busyness and hurriedness which we are called to give into in this modern-day world, to just give up a month of my life and forget everything else so that I could experience the life of a monk.
There are numerous impressions which I take out of my month as a Monastic Guest. One of the things that most struck me during my stay is that, contrary to what I thought and to what I think is generally thought about the life of a monk, a monk can often be a busy person with a busy day. Interspersed throughout the day are quite a number of activities: praying the Divine Office together seven times, celebrating Mass together, working in the morning and the afternoon, going to community meetings, washing dishes, and many other such things. The busyness of a monk, though, is very different than the busyness of modern life, in which, with our smartphones and all our technology, we often finding ourselves focusing on sometimes at least three things at once (whether we actually have to or not), so that we often feel overwhelmed and deadened by the stimulus of all that we have to do and all the things which are calling to our attention. At Mepkin, though, you may be doing a lot of different things throughout the day, but as I experienced the Trappist life as a Monastic Guest, you are called to just focus on the task or activity at hand and not think beyond it, whether it be picking shiitake mushrooms or doing the dishes in the morning, whether it be helping set up the books in the choir stalls for the retreatants or throwing on your work clothes and boots. I just found it to be liberating in a way how the life taught me to just do something when I had to do it and only really think about that, and that is for sure a type of wisdom that I hope to carry with me.
Another thing that made an impression on me is just how living pretty much the same exact schedule every single day really calls you to find God and happiness in the mundane, the simple, and the repetitive. Often in life, we look for happiness in some future event or occasion: the vacation which we are going to take, the job which we are going to get, the new item which we are going to buy, and so on. The monastic life, however, takes such things mostly out of the equation, so that your tomorrow is going to look just like today, and this makes it so that your happiness is called to be in the simple and regular here-and-now. There’s a book I really like called A River Runs Through It by Norman McLean, and there is a part of it in which the author remembers how his father used to say that “only by picking up God’s rhythms are we able to regain power and beauty.” I found myself reflecting on that quote throughout the month, because there is a tangible rhythm to the day at Mepkin in which, through the Divine Office, through Mass, through periods of prayer, through small things like your bike ride to work, or seeing the stars before dawn each morning, or catching the sunset over the Cooper River each evening after supper, or just enjoying the quiet of the church before each service, you are called to fall into the rhythm of God found in the daily schedule and thereby live contemplatively. It is for sure a hard thing to do – I would definitely not say that I was always able to keep in that rhythm – but when I was able to do so, it just be made me feel so grateful towards God and towards those around me. It helped me better to live a life of prayer, a life of continuous praise to God, which I find so often hard to do in my life.
I think gratefulness is the feeling that I most remember when I look back upon my month as a Monastic Guest. I remember that during a homily, Father Guerric said something along the lines of, “It is not our happiness that makes us grateful; rather, it is our gratefulness that makes us happy.” I definitely found what Father Guerric said there to be very true throughout my stay at Mepkin. I just found myself to be so grateful to be at such a beautiful place, to have the chance to be living such a calming and spiritual life, and to be around the monks who very much inspired me with their love of God and who were just so very welcoming and offered such a community of spiritual solidarity. Instead of looking for happiness in something big and momentous in my life, the Trappist life called me instead to just find gratefulness in the simple, beautiful things around me, and building up gratefulness in those small things can really bring joy, I found.
One of the most memorable parts of the month for me was a time in which I got to sit in on a Chapter Meeting, in which Father Joe, the superior, gave a spiritual talk to the monks about their monastic life. The talk was very moving, and I remember at one point Father Joe said something along the lines of, “We all know that, beyond the struggles and difficulties, this monastic life that we live here is just a wonderful life.” After being a Monastic Guest and being at Mepkin for a month, I can definitely concur that being a monk there is a wonderful life, and I am very happy that I experienced such a life. It is very different to most other ways of life – it is a hidden, obscure, and laborious life – but it is a life which, as I experienced it, can bring about joy and will lead to a deepening of your prayer life and your relationship with God. I definitely miss Mepkin a fair bit, and I am sure I will be back.