Notes from the Waxhaws

Into the silence II

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I needed to come to a Trappist monastery to realize just what a gift of silence I already have…right at home. In the room next to mine in the retreat house, there is an older couple. The walls are thin, and in the evening they’re talking and reading to one another. I was somewhat jealous…but at the same time…a bit irked. It seems we have this urge to hear ourselves talk…to somehow constantly reinforce our realities…our identity. Hmmm…something for me to work on this weekend.

It was very warm today. What a difference being a hundred or so miles further south makes. But, there are some familiar sounds…a  Carolina Wren…the incessant chatter of cicadas. A pleasant scent of leaves burning somewhere. I find myself reading John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara (Gaelic for ‘Soul Friend’). He appreciates the mystery of life…something I’ve struggled with all my life, having somewhat of an analytical way of looking at things. But I’m learning…to appreciate the unknown…coming to term with the mysterious. It’s probably futile to try to understand too much. There’s always that admonition from Proverbs 3:5-6 that keeps reminding me…“Lean not on your own understanding.”  OK…just give up already, and sink into the mystery that is life.


During the very early morning hours of Saturday, I was awakened by a very unusual sound in the darkness. It was an owl, very nearby, calling with a voice I’d not heard before. Six ascending, very articulated notes…and then a descending hoot trailing off into silence. It sounded rather spooky as I lay quietly in bed and listened. In the morning, I checked my Audubon Guide to Birds (there’s an app for that)…and discovered that it was my old friend the Barred Owl. I’ve never heard that particular call back home…but it was a serendipitous highlight of my trip to Mepkin Abbey.

When I first arrived at Mepkin, I noticed a small sign on the way to the visitor center…African-American Cemetery .8 miles, and a path leading into the woods. On Saturday morning, I decided to go take a look…my spontaneous adventure for the day. The trail started out dark and dim…under a canopy of trees covered with Spanish moss.

dark path

After I walked about two-tenths of a mile, the path broke out into brilliant sunshine, opening to a very large farm field that had recently been tilled. Another sign pointed the way across the field, on a narrow strip of grass that bifurcated the field.

field path

On the far side, the trail again hugged the perimeter of the field. Another sign…this time pointing again into the woods, with another field beyond.  Finally, I arrived at the cemetery…a dark, dismal, forlorn-looking place…guarded by an old, black, wrought-iron gate. I lifted the rusty latch, opened the gate and walked in. There were only four well-worn headstones that I could see amidst the overgrown grass and weeds, in the shadows of the dense trees overhead. I later learned that this was the old Clermont cemetery…the final resting place of slaves that had lived on the old Mepkin plantation. The cemetery was discovered about fifty years ago by some monks from Mepkin Abbey, when they were clearing land in the vicinity.


While fending off mosquitoes…I paid my respects to those who rested here. I could make out the names on two of the gravestones…Rosa Lee…and Ethel. A string of colored beads was wrapped around one gravestone. Hallowed ground…in the middle of a dark and almost forgotten patch of woods in the low country of South Carolina. I said a prayer for these women, who had lived in very troubled times, but who now, as noted on their headstones…were asleep in Jesus.

Walking back to the Abbey…hugging the edge of the fields on wet, overgrown grass…hearing a lonely train whistle in the distance. It seems that our lives are but a jumping off point to a world of which we know nothing. We cling to this life, trying to make it home, when in actuality we’re but standing on the shores of an immense, unseen ocean…not even capable of imagining the distant lands on the other shores beyond. On a path…through the dark wood, that leads out into the blaze of sunlight…crowned by a glorious dome of blue.


live oak

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.

— from Prayer Upon Arising, St. Patrick’s Breastplate

…and home again.

2 Responses

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  1. Sounds like retreat time, Jim. The owl definitely got my attention, must have been an eerie sound in the middle of the night, or was it comforting? I think I would have liked it. I know what you mean about the couple…odd isn’t it. I miss the intereaction, but I also enjoy the quiet…kind of confusing. Sounds like you had a serene, insightful weekend. p

    Patti Grace

    April 30, 2012 at 3:08 am

    • Yes Patti…it is very confusing at times. It’s somewhat like the idea of having a ‘phantom’ limb? I love the sound of owls calling out of the darkness…and think they’re the very essence and embodiment of the night. I listened for it the following night…but with no success. Like a lot of things in life, one has to appreciate and savor it when it comes calling.


      April 30, 2012 at 7:32 am

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