II have missed my annual retreats at Mepkin Abbey, South Carolina, during the Covid years. As a necessary precaution for the health of the senior Trappists-- much of the community--contact with guests and retreatants was severely hampered. Happily, the retreat program has resumed, and Margaret and I returned late Friday from our first retreat in three years.
I had high hopes for this opportunity, and overall, they were met, though in ways that surprised me. The grounds, situated on the Cooper River about thirty miles west of Charleston, are massive, but impressively maintained. I would say, though, that on every visit to Mepkin the drive seems further—it is over 400 miles from our home, much of it on I-95 and then two hours on backwoods South Carolina roads. On the other hand, the route takes us past three Buc--ee’s, which bakes the world’s largest frosted cinnabuns.
Last weekend I posted about the changing face of retreat houses, given the decline in the number of priests, and particularly the religious order men who have done outstanding work in this ministry for many decades. It was immediately obvious to us that the community at Mepkin was smaller than at our last retreat, and much smaller than it was in 1998, our first retreat. In those days the monks were able to manage a much greater percentage of the plant’s operation in a hands-on fashion, including the kitchen and an egg farm to generate funds. Today there is much more administration on the shoulders of the abbot and the leadership, and fewer “’9 to 5 men” so to speak, and there are more “hired hands” these days to assist in the quality of life for the monks, retreatants, and a remarkably wide range of others who seek the location for a wide variety of personal needs and inspirations.
The religious orders of monks sing the Divine Office seven times a day in union with the universal Catholic Church. At Mepkin, this routine is followed, beginning at 4 AM;  Office of Readings;  Morning Prayer (Lauds);  Mid-Morning Prayer (Terce);  Midday Prayer (Sext);  Afternoon Prayer (None);  Evening Prayer (Vespers);  Night Prayer (Compline). At the end of Compline, the abbot blesses each monk and retreatant, and the community retires at 8 PM. The spacious and comfortable reading lounge for the retreatants is open all night, though. Silence is observed.
I readily acknowledge that I have never gotten up for the Office of Readings in twenty-five years of retreats, though Margaret has never missed, even when it used to be at 3 AM. On this retreat I was up and about around 5:30 AM for a quiet toast and coffee breakfast, and then pulled into the choir for the 7 AM Mass and Lauds and do my part of singing/praying in common for the rest of the day. This year, with the smaller number of monks, my conscience would have killed me if I didn’t join them, though my poor mastery of voice and hymnals was probably as much distraction as anything. I have a very brief clip of Trappists singing the Office at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, where the famous monk-writer Thomas Merton spent his entire 27-years. There are no visitors or retreatants in the clip. [You can imagine yourself in one of the empty stalls.] I am attaching here a link to today’s Vespers, to give you an idea of how much singing is involved in each service, and how seriously the monastic orders take their mission to pray—to God, for the Church, and for the world. You can use this link, Universalis, to pray any of the hours that move you.
When we arrived at Mepkin, we received an afternoon orientation for our stay. You might remember from my last post that I said this: “If the figures I am seeing are correct, most religious educators, speakers, and scholars in our major schools and university are women, and the retreat ministry in the U.S. may become a woman’s enclave, if it has not already.” Little did I know. The monk who serves as retreat director [and my spiritual director] told us that due to his press of responsibilities, he would not be available for this retreat, but that a fine woman counselor/spiritual director would be available for any retreatant wishing to discuss the progress of his or her retreat. I hadn’t quite planned on that—I am quite fond of this monk who has helped me in the past—but I made an appointment to see her later in the week.
Despite the prayer schedule [which is entirely voluntary for each retreatant], a retreatant has about eight hours to be alone in silence each day. [Mine was a private retreat. If you have never made a retreat before, you might begin with a “directed retreat,” which provides public conferences, more “on-site” personal attention, recommended readings, etc. Eight silent hours per day is a long time by yourself in a retreat setting if you have never experienced it before.] I need a focal point to make good use of the introspective time, and I put a lot of time into selecting the text[s] I want to use. Just in time to make a Prime overnight purchase, I discovered Shaped by the End You Live For: Thomas Merton’s Monastic Spirituality  by Bonnie B. Thurston. [I noted, with humor, that on the last day of retreat I discovered the Abbey’s excellent bookstore carries this book in stock. Who knew?]
I have been reading Merton—his own writings, and literature about him—since about the time I joined AA in 1990. I will review Thurston’s book soon, but I can tell you that her text provided me with a multitude of insights that I found consoling and challenging. Merton was not the most focused human who ever lived. He entered the monastery in 1941, and in just ten years his letters and diaries began to contain speculation on living alone in a hermitage on the monastery grounds, something he eventually received permission for in 1965. And yet, he had his thumbs in many pies, in terms of correspondences, publishers, advisory projects, and visitors—I had read several volumes of his letters previously, and I was reminded of the old saying about Teddy Roosevelt: “He was the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” He was no less busy in his hermitage than he had been in his common life with the monks.
As much as I love the man, I had to admit that his routine resonates with some of my lesser virtues. As I explained to some longtime friends last night over dinner, my seventy-fifth birthday this year “got to me.” The clock is ticking, even with good health, and there is that nagging pressure of deciding where to invest whatever time and energy I have left into something worthwhile…and how to make room for a God I will be meeting intimately, sooner than later. The spiritual message that kept ringing in my ears was simplicity, as in “you can’t do everything, and you can’t remain competent at what you do if you are doing too much or try to do too much…or even harboring fanciful thoughts of what might be done.” Retreat is, in part, an opportunity to step back and look at the project called life.
There were other issues, to be sure, but the idea of establishing a God-centered routine—a virtue I much admire about the monks—was a critical one to take home. I know the word “downsizing” is quite in vogue these days, but again I was reminded of the many instances in which Merton had discussed the perennial problem of “distractions” in prayer. I had a very pleasant meeting with the spiritual director late in the week, a woman with backgrounds in both healthcare and theology, in which I dumped this mass of reflections on her desk to get her take on whether I was on the right road.
During our meeting she asked me to provide a brief biography of my life’s major episodes, which I did, and she commented to the effect that I had lived a rather full life in a number of settings. This brought home to me another of the tasks of seniority: taking an honest inventory of one’s life and, in the words of the AA Big Book, “making amends wherever possible.” It occurred to me on this retreat that seniority is also the time to memorialize and celebrate the good moments, the happy moments, and the people who were [and in many cases, still are] major players in those gifted times and places.
Oh yes, and I need to devote myself to the study of St. John’s Gospel.
By the end of the retreat, I wasn’t euphoric, I was tired. On previous retreats I had napped more, utilizing the opportunity to rest. But having missed the “desert experience” for several years, I had work to do—but always with the prayer and the hope that this is the kind of work God intends for me here and now.
On My Mind