By CATHERINE ROMAINE
“The present is the past and the past is the present.”
Peter Blauner, from the Intruder
MONCKS CORNER — Just outside of Charleston, moss-covered trees line a road that leads to one of the state’s most beautiful places and best kept secrets. It is there, at Mepkin Abbey, that 28 monks celebrate the life of Christ through their dedication to a religious life of contemplation. Gone are the days of complete silence — a welcome change brought on by Vatican II. Instead, their prayers lift above the tops of Our Lady of Mepkin Abbey in a place where the traditions of the past bring comfort and spiritual solace to the reality of the present.
On a plantation with a detailed history of nearly two centuries, these cloistered religious —the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, an order of the Roman Catholic Church —are one of 12 trappist monasteries in the United States, and possibly only 90 in the world. They open their doors to all who care to encounter the spiritual peace and serenity that lurks there.
This place is also where 24 parishioners from St. Ann Church in Florence gathered one rainy Saturday in October to savor the experience of life from the road less traveled. “You can feel the peace here,” said Caroline Mills.
The group joined the monks for noon prayer and then had a picnic lunch in the private gardens by the waters of what used to be the rice fields. When a quiet rain settled in, the spiritual seekers congregated in the rustic welcome center for private prayer and conversation before going to the ecumenical chapel for Mass, followed by a talk from Brother Christian, a former abbot at the monastery. It was there they learned the rich history of Mepkin.
In the mid to late 1700s, the Laurens family owned the Mepkin Plantation where they prospered as rice farmers. Twelve more owners claimed title to the land over the centuries. In most recent history, circa 1936, the property was bought by the Luce family, who purchased 7,000 acres of the lush Carolina lowcountry. With enthusiasm, Brother Christian recalls how world renowned editor and publisher Clare Booth Luce and her just as famous husband Henry, traveled by boat from Charleston and purchased the land for $150,000. Following the death of her only daughter, and her subsequent conversion to Catholicism, Clare and the Luce family donated the land to the trappists at Gethsemani, Ky., in 1949. The Luce family is buried on the property.
The monks believe strongly in the history that pervades Mepkin Abbey. The Bell of the Seven Spirits serves as a visible reminder of those who have lived on the land: the American Indians, the Laurens family, the African-American slaves, the Luce family, friends and relatives buried on the property, the monastic community in glory and the monastic community on the way.
“We live a life of prayer, reciting the psalms,” says Brother Steve, one of the Abbey’s monks. This is done in a daily ritual that begins at 3 a.m. each morning and ends at 8 p.m. each night. By praying the liturgy of the hours, focusing on the Psalms, the monks praise, thank and petition God on behalf of the Church and all human-kind. It takes about two weeks to go through all 150 psalms before they begin again.
With no active ministry — like a prison outreach or parish life — the monks earn their daily bread by raising poultry and selling eggs. They manage 40,000 chickens and occasionally sell timber from their 3,000 acres. In addition, they also sell plants, herbs and compost under the trademarked EarthHealer name. All the financial gains support the monastery.
With a life of no television, fashionable clothes or sports, Brother Steve says, “Not too many people are interested in the monastic life.” Indeed, at Mepkin, the average age is 69, and fewer young people are attracted to monasteries each year.
When asked if living the monastic life was difficult, Brother Steve responded, “I would say our lives here are much less complicated and difficult than yours.” A monastery is a place where the first commandment — to love the Lord God with all your heart, mind and soul — truly takes root in a life dedicated to prayer and seeking the Spirit, unlike the world outside, where the struggles of the day often interfere with our spiritual quests.
Bob and April Reger, St. Ann parishioners, believe the atmosphere at Mepkin Abbey contributes to the quest for spiritual oneness with God. Bob said, “The setting, particularly in the gardens overlooking the river, was so picturesque. It’s a place where you can spend hours just contemplating.”
One of the world’s most famous monks, Thomas Merton, who settled at Our Lady of Gethsemani, once said that the monastic setting offers a place “to entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God to pray for your own discovery.” In the beauty and stillness of the gardens overlooking the Cooper River, the travelers from St. Ann experienced that voice on a small scale during their brief visit to Mepkin Abbey, and perhaps the discoveries made there changed their lives forever.
Catherine Romaine is a St. Ann parishioner living in Hartsville.