A Monastery That Embraces the Old and Thrives on the New
By DEAN C. SMITH
ONCKS CORNER, S.C., Jan. 9 — It is 8 p.m., and the Grand Silence begins. Lights go dark in a spartan chapel, a bell tolls and the last word of the day's last psalm echoes to nothing. The monks, filing out, will not converse again for 12 1/2 hours.
That is how each day ends at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery that has strictly kept the Rule of St. Benedict — a code of chastity, physical labor and prayerful silence — amid moss-draped oaks along the Cooper River since 1949. Its schedule of communal prayer seven times a day has not changed in that time, but its fortunes have.
One of the smallest of the nation's 17 Trappist houses, long shunned by monks elsewhere for its Low Country humidity and snake-infested grounds, Mepkin seems to be blooming with new members, new buildings and, key to that dynamism, more than 15,000 visitors a year.
When financial supporters gathered last weekend at the abbey, 30 miles north of Charleston, the monks thanked them for a new library. When clergymen and lay ministers convened this week for a conference on elder care, the monks unveiled a wing for older monks to rival any nursing home. And when guests arrive now for retreats, they take meals in a tidy refectory and pray in a calming, wood-ceilinged chapel.
"We're very much in expansion mode," says the Rev. Francis Kline, which is very much a surprise.
When Father Kline, a Juilliard- trained organist, was elected abbot in 1991, he found on arrival an aging monastery dourly planning for decline.
Now, at the end of a 10-year, $8.3 million building program and with nine new monks arriving since 1995, Father Kline talks hopefully of the future.
"It happens imperceptibly, you know?" he said today in his new office. "You turn a corner. We just woke up to it this year."
Others among the abbey's 30 monks and priests talk less mysteriously about the turnaround. They call Father Kline a visionary. They say he has brought the techniques of a successful nonprofit manager, including aggressive fund-raising, to a monastery that had relied almost solely on a chicken farm for support. The new buildings would not have gone up without a capital campaign, grants that included $3 million from the Luce Foundation and a loan from the Bank of America.
Father Kline even manages to market what the monastery has most in abundance: its cultivated quietude.
"Some people who come here balk at the silence," the Rev. Guerric Heckel said. "They go bonkers. But most realize that a lot of communication goes on in the silence: joy, hospitality, peace. I think there's a real hunger for it out there."
That becomes more apparent as Father Kline gradually opens the cloister to outsiders. Daytime visitors wander the grounds, a former rice plantation donated 52 years ago by the publishing tycoon Henry Luce and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, who are buried here. Customers of the gift shop buy eggs from the farm and often leave with books and videos on the monks' centuries-old traditions.
"Part of the genius of Francis Kline is he takes the long view and knows that the monastic life has not always been secluded as a counterculture," said Michael Downey, Cardinal Roger Mahony's theologian for the archdiocese of Los Angeles and author of "Trappist: Living in the Land of Desire," a book about Mepkin, published by Paulist Press.
Those on retreats at Mepkin have more contact with the monks than at other abbeys. And unlike some other monasteries, Mepkin welcomes women as well as men, members of the clergy and nonmembers, Roman Catholics and non-Catholics. It also has a Web site, www.mepkinabbey.org.
Up to a dozen guests at a time stay free — though donations are encouraged — for a day, a week, sometimes months. Why? Most cite the code of silence, which they try to observe.
Eric Hoyle, a 20-year-old Moravian from Winston-Salem, N.C., planned to stay a month when he arrived on Monday. Mr. Hoyle chose to spend a semester away from the University of North Carolina, immersing himself in "the life," as the monks call it.
"I've always defined myself by what I do — I'm always so busy — but I wanted to stop doing for a while," Mr. Hoyle said.
Joan Brown, a 61-year-old retiree who lives nearby, planned to spend a week, just as she did six months ago and six months before that. Reared as a Lutheran, Ms. Brown had not attended church for two decades until a personal crisis two years ago led her to Mepkin. "The quiet, the no phone, the no TV — I need that spiritual space," she said.
Silence is not golden for everyone, though. It can be unnerving at first.
"There's a great deal of fear of silence out there," said Tom Vallie, who was director of children's psychiatric services for the State of New York before retiring to Hendersonville, N.C. "People need their distractions, but they're really just running. I think, with Sept. 11, a lot of people checked up short, and some realized they can't run anymore."
Mr. Vallie has been coming to Mepkin a week a year for four years, and each time he meets his friend Pete Peterman, a former Navy medic now retired to Brevard, N.C.
Mr. Peterman, who once considered becoming a monk, still finds the visits challenging. "Introspection can be very scary," he said. "You sit out on the river here and start asking yourself, What is important in my life? What is my life about?"
Those are good questions to start with, the monks say. And they hope to incite more, in more visitors, by creating a tourist-attracting botanical garden.
"I won't pretend this is not a tremendous risk," Father Kline said of balancing an inward mission and outward reach. "But our intuition says, This is a good thing, and it must be shared."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company