by PATRICK HARWOOD
College students living like monks? And doing so voluntarily? It may sound far-fetched but that’s exactly what a group of College of Charleston students did this summer as part of a unique new history course.
Maymester, the college’s intense three-week summer semester, is sometimes used by professors to offer special interest courses. Vince Lannie, an adjunct history professor, designed his new “Monasticism in Western Civilization” class with a special twist. He and the students would live for a week at Mepkin Abbey, a monastery in rural Berkeley County that is home to 30 Cistercian monks. The Cistercians were organized in 1098 and are also called Trappists because of their relationship to the La Trappe Roman Catholic monastery in 17th century France.
“We have one of the best monasteries in the United States 40 minutes from the college,” said Lannie, who taught at Notre Dame for a decade before coming to the College of Charleston 15 years ago. Lannie and his students spent the first week on campus studying the history and theories of Western monasticism. Then they all went to Mepkin Abbey for the second week to “live the rhythm of monastic life,” according to Lannie.
“Rhythm” is a word often used to describe life at Mepkin Abbey. The monks’ day is structured by set times of prayer, contemplation and work. “The monks pray together seven times a day,” said Lannie. “That’s their main job, to pray. They also engage in physical, manual labor. The third part is spiritual and scholarly reading and meditation.”
“Serene and lovely” Mepkin
Mepkin Abbey’s setting is conducive to serenity, spirituality and privacy. According to local lore, the word “Mepkin” is of native American origin meaning “serene and lovely.” The monastery is located along the Cooper River in Moncks Corner. It’s on part of a 3,000-acre tract claimed in 1681 by Englishman Sir John Colleton, one of the original Lord proprietors of the Carolinas. Over the centuries, the plantation had different owners including the American Revolutionary patriot Henry Laurens. In 1936 the plantation was acquired by Time magazine founder, publisher and philanthropist Henry R. Luce and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce. The beautiful Mepkin Gardens were created under Mrs. Luce’s guidance. In 1949 the Luces donated a major portion of the property to the Cistercian-Trappist monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky who founded the present day Abbey of our Lady of Mepkin.
Today the monks go about their quiet, orderly lives amid frequent visitors who are welcome to tour the grounds and attend liturgical services. The abbey also has retreat opportunities for both men and women. Professor Lannie has been associated with Mepkin Abbey for several years.
He’s helping the monks assemble a comprehensive collection of literature on monasticism. Last summer he lived at the abbey for three weeks. “I lost 11 pounds,” he quips. “Their diet is all vegetarian.” The experience spawned his idea of bringing students to Mepkin. The abbot, the monastery’s elected spiritual leader, agreed to his proposal.
Lannie wanted to keep the class small, so he limited enrollment to 10 students. He said he had several inquiries from local ministers and other community members intrigued by the course’s unique travel component. Nine College of Charleston students enrolled. A few were history majors while others were studying communication, music, business and historic preservation.
“As soon as I heard about the class I immediately went home to Cougar Trail and signed up for it,” said Lindsey Liddell, a senior historic preservation and community planning major from Southern Pines, N.C. “I had read the book about this monastery when it came out in 1998, and I’ve always wanted to come here.”
But Liddell and Amy Mullen, the other young woman to enroll in the course, each admitted to being a little nervous about how they would be received at the all-male monastery.
“At first I wasn’t sure how the monks would look at us and respond to us,” said Mullen, a senior communication major from Columbia, “but now I feel completely comfortable.”
3 a.m. wake-up call
Getting into the rhythm of monastic life requires getting up early very, very early. Seven days a week, the monks rise at 3 a.m.
“I think I’m going to feel a lot worse going to bed at three knowing there are people getting up at that time for reasons much more worthy than what I’m staying up to do,” said Ray Burroughs, a senior history major from Connecticut.
The monks spend the first three hours of their day in public prayer and private meditation. Breakfast is at 6 a.m. The Trappists believe meals are a time for quiet contemplation, so trays in hand going through the food line and sitting down together at long tables to eat, are all done in silence.
By 8:30 a.m., following more periods of contemplation, prayer and a eucharistic service, the monks begin their physical work. Many of them have jobs in Mepkin Abbey’s thriving egg business. Down a dirt road from the central monastery are the chicken coops, home to more than 40,000 hens, which lay thousands of eggs each day. A big part of the monastery’s operating expenses are covered by this industry, as well as a growing compost business. During their week at Mepkin, the students worked alongside the monks at the chicken coops, the compost piles and the greenhouse.
During breaks from their labors, the students had the chance to speak informally with some of the monks.
“We worked with a guy named Father Kevin the last couple days, and he was just great,” said Marty Tomlinson of Mount Pleasant, a junior majoring in history. “I think I learned more about the monastic lifestyle from him than anybody except Professor Lannie. We’d take a water break, and he’d talk about his life, how he came to Christ and monasticism. It was just really interesting to get the chance to ask him about his lifestyle and his being so open about it.”
After the midday meal, the work continues. Supper is served at 5 p.m., followed by evening prayer and an hour for individual and community activities. The Mepkin day winds down at 7:35 with the final “compline” prayer. At 8 p.m., it’s bedtime.
Bells cue the start and stop of each activity. The daily schedule is the same with slight variations on Sundays and special holy days. Some students struggled with this sameness.
“Probably what gets me most is the repetitiveness of it all,” said Burroughs. “But it’s also what you eat here. I’m a carnivore of sorts, and these guys are vegetarians. But you get used to it. I’d say it’s definitely gotten easier, with more of a groove to each day.”
“To tell you honestly when I first got here I was very taken back and shocked by the life they’re living here,” said Mullen. “But as the days have gone by and I’ve experienced the rhythm of the life, I cannot express how much I respect these men and the life that they’re choosing to lead. And also, it’s absolutely beautiful here, and I’ve greatly enjoyed being able to go out into nature and experience that aspect of it.”
The vows: a lifetime commitment
The students’ schedule also included daily afternoon discussions with different monastic leaders. The students learned more about the monastic life and lifestyles and the relevance of monasticism in contemporary society. The monks also talked about the three vows that guide and control so much of their lives:
Obedience The abbot leads the monastery. His authority shall not be questioned.
Stability Acceptance into the monastery is a lifetime commitment. The monks are expected to stay there the rest of their lives.
Conversation of manners “For God’s sake,” the monks also embrace poverty, silence, and celibacy.
During a discussion with Father Aelred Hagan, whom Lannie describes as “the second in command” at Mepkin, the students had many informed and insightful questions. One student asked what is looked for in a prospective monk as far as being able to fit in at the monastery.
“There must be an inner energy about living the monastic life because we’re talking about the long haul, we’re talking about life, the ups and downs,” said Father Aelred. “The monastic life is about taking yourself apart and putting yourself back together, all in a Christian context.”
Another student asked how a candidate can be sure he wants to enter the monastery for the right reasons and not the wrong reasons.
“Is God really asking him to be here?” responded Father Aelred. “We’re following the call that God has given us. That’s why it looks as peaceful as it does here.
“Time here is very strange; it’s kind of like taffy,” he continued. “It stretches and goes back. You don’t live for the weekend; there’s no ‘Thank God, it’s Friday.'”
Like studying abroad
“It’s been a definite eye-opening learning process,” said Burroughs. “I’ve studied abroad, and I’d put this experience in that same category because this is as far away from me as any foreign country I’ve seen.”
“I have nothing but respect for these people because it’s just not something I could do at all,” said Tomlinson. “I couldn’t ever see myself living this way every day for the rest of my life. These people command my utmost respect. They’re just amazing people when you get to know them and talk to them. You’d never expect them to be as warm and open and funny as they are.”
“This is an unforgettable experience that Professor Lannie has made possible for us, so I’m very grateful,” said Mullin.
At the end of the term, the students had to write 10-page papers on some aspect of their Mepkin Abbey experience.
“These were the best papers I’ve ever read,” Lannie said. “I’ve never read anything like these. One of the students even is thinking of taking on the monastic life.”
Relevance for the ages
Lannie is teaching his Western Monasticism course in the Fall 2001 semester. He again is planning to take his students to Mepkin Abbey, possibly for a long weekend instead of a full week.
It’s a course and an experience that the students who were part of the first class recommend with enthusiasm.
“Oh, absolutely, it’s been fantastic,” said Liddell. “I’d been raving about it for weeks before I even came here, so when I go home, I’m going to talk about it even more.”
“In many ways it is almost like stepping back in history because in a lot of ways the monks practice the same way they did 800 years ago,” said Tomlinson.
Mepkin Abbey proved a living history with spiritual relevance for the ages.
They joked about being “monks for a week,” but the students saw, heard and felt things during that week that will live with them forever positive, introspective, subtle rhythms in their own lives, perhaps, that the monks at Mepkin Abbey could appreciate.
Patrick Harwood is News Service Manager with the Office of College Relations at the College of Charleston. He is a member of St. John the Beloved Catholic Church in Summerville.