Notes from the Waxhaws

Into the silence

leave a comment »

“There is a lot of healing to be found in silence…”

Sacred Reading, Michael Casey

I spent the last three days at a monastery on retreat. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time, and so on Friday morning, I packed up the dogs, dropped them off at the kennel, and headed on down the road, south to Mepkin Abbey, near Charleston, South Carolina, about a three hour drive. The monastery is located in (strangely enough) Monck’s Corner, in the low country of South Carolina along the eastern banks of the Cooper River. The abbey was founded in 1949 by monks of the Cistercian Order (commonly known as Trappists), on land that was donated by Henry R. Luce and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, the well-known writer and congresswoman. The most imposing thing about the monastery grounds, which are considerable in size, are the very huge and very old live oak trees that dominate the landscape. Their large branches bend back toward the ground, draped with Spanish moss.

Mepkin Oak with Spanish moss

Our Lady of Mepkin

When I arrived at the reception center of the Abbey, Brother Paul welcomed me in a rather low, gentle voice, and provided me with a map of the monastery grounds. He tested me on the location of various buildings that would provide for my well-being during my stay…the guest dining room…the church…the library…and oh yes…the guest house where I would be staying. I was about to tell him that I knew my way around maps pretty well…but decided that was probably unnecessary talking that might be frowned upon. When he was satisfied that I wouldn’t get lost, or possibly end up in a pit of alligators, he handed me the key to my room in St. Benedict house (which happened to be about a half-mile from everything…so a lot of walking was in store). After settling in to my room, and briefly meeting two other gentlemen who were staying in the same house, I was off to a short orientation for first timers to the Abbey, led by Fr. Stan, who I later learned was the Abbot of the monastery. Today’s tour included only myself, and Sister Nancy. Fr. Stan graciously walked us past the library, and then into the church which was rather modern in design, built in 1993. It was beautiful…but again, dominated by the giant live oak which hovered just outside the entrance. He finally showed us where the guest dining room was, and since it was already 5 pm (supper time), he let us go have our supper (the monks have their own dining room next door). Supper was a bowl of what I think was clam chowder, assorted homemade breads, cheese, and some fruit…very good. There’s a policy of complete silence during meals, and this took a little getting used to. Silence is a big thing in a monastery…and it’s something that we tend not to think much about in our usually noisy, media-filled everyday intentional, almost complete silence can work it’s way into your very being, actually affecting how you look at and live in the world. After supper, I walked back to my room, read for a few hours, and then turned in early. Grand Silence begins at 8 pm, and lasts until about 8 am.

early morning walk

On Saturday, I woke up at my usual time of 4:30 am, and since I was up this early, decided to go to the Lauds morning prayer service, which takes place everyday at 5:30 am. Since there was a brilliant, almost full moon in the sky, I decided to forego the use of the flashlight that had thoughtfully been placed on my bedside table. The ensuing half-mile walk to the church, through the morning darkness, was memorable. The chilly air…the shadows of the live oaks that loomed overhead…the many stars that graced the heavens ( I spotted Orion, and the Big Dipper)…the forlorn call of an owl…all interspersed with the occasional muffled thwack of acorns falling from the lofty oak branches and hitting the ground beneath. The silence was starting to envelop me…the world seemed more alive in the darkness than in broad daylight. Arriving at church, I took a seat in the back, and waited as the monks silently filed in and took their seats in the choir, two rows of wooden benches on each side, facing one another. Lauds lasted about thirty minutes…singing the Psalms, and a reading from Jeremiah. The monks meet seven times per day for such services, which comprise the Liturgy of the Hours ( the first at 3:20 am…the last, Compline, at 7:35 pm). If there is anyone helping to hold the world together through their unceasing prayer…it’s men, and women, like this.

Afterwards, at 6 am, breakfast…a bowl of oatmeal…a slice of cinnamon raisin bread…and a much-needed cup of coffee…yums! I even got a cup to go

in the garden

As daylight was breaking, I took a walk to the Mepkin Abbey Gardens, situated on low bluffs overlooking the Cooper River. At that time of day, I had the whole place to myself (it opens to the public at 9 am). The feeling of peacefulness was…indescribable. And…oh yes…I checked out the alligator pit.

Here be alligators

wood carvings


Most of Saturday I spent in my room (or should I say cell), reading a book that I bought at the visitor center, Sacred Reading – The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, by Michael Casey, a Cistercian monk and prior from Australia. Lectio Divina is an age-old, contemplative way of reading sacred books, primarily the Bible. I highly recommend the book.

Supper included rye bread and a slice of cheese, water…and a cup of coffee. It’s not like they starve you…I could have had more…I was just attempting to eat light this weekend.

Cooper River

Sunday morning, after breakfast, I took another walk though the stillness of the gardens. From the bluffs…a mist hanging over the river…the trees in the distance tinged with the red of Autumn…a Great Blue Heron wading on the opposite bank. A very…very…beautiful morning. It’s probably the closest thing on earth to what I imagine heaven must be like. I know that many would say that living in a cloistered life like this just isn’t the real world…that it’s just a form of escapism. But experiencing this for just a few days…the beauty…the hospitality…the all-enveloping silence…THIS is the real world…or what and how the world should be. It was simply amazing, to me, how the silence grabs hold of you and grounds you in what is actually real. I then imagined Sharon whispering in my ear, “If you think this is beautiful…think a gazillion times more beautiful than this…”

in The Labyrinth

Gulf Fritillary

I reluctantly checked out Sunday evening (someone I met there said that I wouldn’t want to leave), dropping off the key to my room at the visitor center, and then beginning the drive back north as the sun was setting…along the road the tops of the trees were aglow. I was in a very good mood until the gloom of darkness fell…driving by fields with luminescent grayish-white cotton bolls waiting to be picked…and through small, unkempt looking towns with their inhabitants flocking to the local fast food joints. Out of the silence…and back into the real world, I suppose. A little disappointed…but at the same time determined…to hopefully bring back a little bit of that world that I briefly experienced…back to my tiny hermitage in the woods.

P.S. I did remember to pick up the dogs…Belle is sound asleep at my feet…snoring away.

Written by Jim

October 17, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: