By PAUL A. BARRA
CHARLESTON — Hundreds of people gathered Dec. 8 among the antique mahogany and crystal of the Francis Marion Hotel to preview a movie about the monastic life. They were moved by a dazzling display of the beauty of Mepkin Abbey and a gritty portrayal of the monks’ lives.
The documentary, “Trappist,” which will be shown on public television stations across the nation in the coming months, is the result of a cooperative effort between the Paulist order of priests and WTVI in Charlotte. It was filmed at Mepkin, which is located near the see city of the Diocese of Charleston, and it represents a kind of coming-out for the 29 contemplative men who have chosen to live their lives there. “Trappist” is a must-see for anyone who wants to move beyond the myths about monasticism and who wants to understand what motivates someone to become a monk.
It’s a beautifully professional work, but that very quality belies the stresses that seethed beneath the surface of its production. First, there was the natural tension between the journalists who wanted bare facts and honesty and the priests who hoped the film would also be an instrument for evangelization. Then there was the concern among the monastery population about the intrusion into their lifestyle that a successful movie was bound to perpetrate.
The co-producers wrestled to a draw in solving the first problem. Robert G. Maier of WTVI and Father John J. Geaney agreed to disagree, and they agreed to concede artistic points grudgingly.
“If either of us wanted something in, he had to justify it,” Maier said. “It took constant discussions. You had to fight for what you wanted and logically convince the other side of your point. But the result was more rich than I could ever have imagined.”
“Trappist” is rich indeed, both in beauty and in truth. The simple lives of these men, whose average age is greater than 65, is honestly portrayed. Trappists are required to support themselves, so the wholesale egg business that generates most of the income for Mepkin gets a plug.
“Trappist” did not avoid the abuses that occasionally crept into monasticism as the film interwove the 1,700-year history of the movement through the narrative. And the film also discusses public perceptions of contemplative life that can be less than complimentary. One of the strongest scenes came during an interview with Brother Stanislaus Gumula; the monk who came to live at Mepkin 38 years ago, admitted that his father “wrote me off” when he decided to enter the Cistercian order as a young man. Today, the monk can’t imagine being happy in any other life, yet he appreciates the changes that might come with a film as popular as “Trappist” is certain to become. He thinks it is time to go public.
“We’re one of the treasures of the Church and we need to share that with other people. This film portrays the reality of Mepkin, it shows our vision — even though we all fall short of it,” Brother Gumula said.
Brother Joshua Shlosberg admitted that it took time to build a consensus of support for the project among the monastery population. The popular abbot of Mepkin, Father Francis Kline, who Brother Shlosberg called “a visionary and a prophet, our spiritual leader,” had to work to convince the monks that their charisms would be enhanced by the exposure of television.
“We came to it slowly and gradually,” Brother Shlosberg said. “Now we see it as a Spirit-guided endeavor. It is opening the door, in many respects, and the visibility may bring radical changes.”
The monk said that it was no accident that the film was produced in the Diocese of Charleston. He said that Bishop David B. Thompson’s vision encouraged the monks to display their values to the world: “…anyone who cares about the Church (should) see something so alive and exciting.”
The monastic life as portrayed in “Trappist” is alive with hard work and music. The monks meet for prayer seven times each day, beginning at 3 a.m. It may be a spiritually exciting life, but the pace and contentment of the monastic life is the overarching feel of the movie. Father Geaney said that “the world needs (this movie). It will show viewers that they can live the kind of life that the monks live as they search for God.” He opined that the cooperative effort between his religious order and public TV will be the first of many such endeavors. A video and a coffee table book by Michael Downey accompany “Trappist.”
The prospect of publicity for the 3,900 bucolic acres along the banks of the Cooper River doesn’t disturb abbey benefactor Diane Yatkauskas.
She and her husband George drive the 150 miles south from their North Myrtle Beach home regularly to visit Mepkin, either to partake of the serenity of the place and the monks or to enjoy the concerts and lectures that use the monastic venue a few times each year. Yatkauskas admitted that she was jealous of her special time there — at first.
“Now I have a new insight of Mepkin that I was not aware of before. I think it’s wonderful that they’re showing all that beauty and I hope it encourages people to go there,” she said.
That may well be the legacy of “Trappist.” The documentary should inspire viewers to visit monasteries and to fashion at least part of their lives around the spiritual model of the monks of Mepkin. The film is already booked into 55 public TV stations nationwide and will undoubtedly spread even further into the lives of America as its reputation builds.
“Trappist” will be shown on South Carolina Public Television at 10 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 28.