On Tuesday, August 14th, while I was on vacation in Charleston, SC, I rode out to Mepkin Abbey in the coutryside along the Cooper River near Moncks Corner. And, when I say "countryside," I MEAN countryside. If the Trappist Brothers had wanted to find a more remote place on the Eastern Seaboard, they would have been hard pressed.
I went to Mepkin for a number of reasons. First, as a teacher of religion, I wanted to acquaint myself with the monastic life of Catholic monks. Second, the monastic life of solitude has always had an appeal to me. Third, I'd never been there in the more than 12 years I've lived in SC.
When I initially drove in, down a long lane under a canopy of moss covered, 250 year old Oak trees, I saw a little fawn off to my left, loping slowly into the nearby woods. Wow. Not that I think that was a sign from God, but the natural beauty and peace of the landscape certainly brought me a feeling of comfort and rest.
I had the opportunity to tour some of the 3,200 acres that has belonged to the Cistertian order since it was given to them by Henry and Clare Booth Luce in 1949. Of course, much of the property is reserved for the Monks only and is off limits. But the Docent was very open and answered a plethora of questions from the dozen or so of us in the tour party. The tour lasted about an hour, and we had the opportunity to attend the noon prayer service in the Abbey Church -- one of the seven times of prayer the monks observe daily between their 3 AM rising and their 8 PM bedtime. Of course, we were seated in a small gallery to observe, not participate. There were, however, both male and female "retreatants" there who did participate. They stay from a few days to a period of months in some cases, and they don't have to be Catholics -- though to be a monk, of course, one DOES have to be Catholic.
I picked up some great books and CD's at the small Abbey bookstore. A couple of small books by the late Thomas Merton, one of my favorite devotional writers. I also picked up an official copy of The Rule of St. Benedict. Good stuff, and the basis upon which these monks base almost every practice of their lifestyle. I also picked up a CD of Gregorian Chants and a couple of CD's of Russian Orthodox choirs doing the traditional deep, rich acapella vocals they are so well known for. I don't understand a word. I do sense the power.
Which brings me to the questions that my time at Mepkin Abbey left me with. The most personal question that occurred to me was, though I would love the solitude of a life in Mepkin, could I deal with the relative isolation from the outside world? And, with all the silence and solitude, would the absence of the busyness of my life drive me insane in about 10 minutes? And here's a big issue for me -- could I stand the daily grind -- rising at 3 AM, praying at the same time, reciting the same prayers and chants seven times a day, to bed before dark in the summer at 8 PM...? Could I be that disciplined?
I suppose those who feel called to that lifestyle are enabled to live that life. I can't imagine myself being able to do it. Still, there is that lure, that appeal that such a peaceful and prayerful unhindered communion with God offers....
I'm not a Catholic. I haven't converted. I am still as Protestant as I ever was. Sometimes though, I think Protestants "threw out the baby with the bathwater." Protestants have largely forgotten much of the history of the church -- especially prior to the Reformation. We've also thrown out much of the devotional character and practice that eventually gave birth to Protestantism -- or at least provided the groundwork. I got in touch with some of that Spirit at Mepkin Abbey -- and for that I am thankful and much better off -- at least for a time.