Despair to Delight: The Natural Evolution of a Spiritual Retreat

The last of my journal entries I’ll share about my time at the monastery. I hope you enjoy!


Saturday, February 9th, 2013, 7:00am

Could you imagine living the monastic life? Silence from 7:45pm to 8am.  Sleeping from 8pm to 3am. Four worship services, including a Eucharist Mass, before 9am. And we (absolutely and without exception including myself) can’t even manage to get to the 11am service on time!

The monks have a dress code, though I’ve yet to totally figure it out. One robe for Mass; another for the other services, sometimes with a white cloak, other times without it. Those who are still in the novitiate don’t get a black umm, …apron(?) to put over their robe. Father Victor, who as far as I can tell is not a monk but a bishop who has retired to the monastery, does not wear the robes but wears simple gray or khaki tunics and pants.

Footwear appears unregulated. The Abbot wears spiderwebby sneaker-sandals over socks, many wear sneakers, some clogs, others brown leather or suede sandals over black or white socks.  Rings on the right hand can be spotted, which surprised me. Most heads shine with a bald skull or at least a patch. Father Christian wears a flat black hat, maybe about 8 inches in diameter, that sits on the crown of his skull. It’s very endearing.

Most of the monks walk around at a very solemn, slow pace– as a monk ought, it seems. Father Christian, though, at 98, speeds around on his walker like a racehorse. I have only seen him walk slowly when trying to keep his walker’s wheels from making too much noise when he sneaks (“sneaks”) into prayer five minutes late.

During Eucharist Mass this morning he sat in his seat after it ended and said, over and over, “Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.”

This is the same Catholic priest of a man who, last time I was here, prayed for female clergy, and this time for female soldiers and for immigrants.  He has two PhDs and a flat, sort of angry-looking face, but when he smiles you can hear angels.


Sunday, February 10th, 2013, 11:45am

I’ll tell you this for free– you’ve not seen much of anything until you’ve seen a white-bearded monk in a red-blue flannel, jeans, sneakers, and a blue ball cap riding a bicycle down a gravel lane. It’s like looking a God on Her day off.


Sunday, February 10th, 2013, 4:04 am

Picture this: There I trudged, puddling through the rushing rain, laden with Bible, journal, and Barbara Brown Taylor, a flashlight in one hand, umbrella stem planted in the other, instantly rubbing blisters on naked feet within my sneakers because the socks I’d washed and put outside to dry had only gotten wetter through the rainy night, lamenting and frankly worrying about the fact that I’d forgotten to brush my hair…. and all this was going on at 3:12 am.

And then, because ours is a God who loves to put things like unkempt hair in perspective and who also loves to laugh, just as I drew near to the steps of the church, out of the bushes ambled a large, ugly possum. Mercifully, and by some miracle, I was somehow kept from swearing aloud– this being a monastery, after all, and also still well within the hours of the Great Silence.

But I suspect there rose a great laughter Up There at the spectacle I was. And I had to laugh, too. Because what else is there to do, really?


Sunday, February 10th, 2013, 8:20 pm

On the first day of our retreat we (the retreatants) all, independently of one another, gave ourselves over heartily to despair. We gazed upon our sin and greed, so frankly juxtaposed by the holiness and modesty of the monks, and we were duly ashamed. So we wallowed. There was frowning and deep penitential prayer, and of course weeping– although I suspect the weeping was more from the shame of not feeling more penitent than from the penitence itself. Isn’t that just always the way?

Some of us withdrew to secret places in the gardens, hidden by bricked-up hollow trees or separated by creaking footbridges. Others laid flat on the banks of alligator-laden rivers and ponds, as though welcoming a toothy attack as part of their penance.

When we all showed up the next morning at 3am bitten only by the cold night air, a sense of giddiness filled us all.  The night of weeping was over, and here fast approaching was the morn of song! We were reborn, resurrected, no longer slaves to our self-imposed punishments. We were free.

The scene in the gardens all that day was of frolicking, gamboling. We basked in the warming sun, daring the alligators to touch us in our new skin. We rolled in the grass, collected flowers and set them to sail on the still waters, and skimmed our hands along the tall grasses as we wandered through wide meadows. The prayers of the monks shot through us with fresh meaning, the Psalms flashed like jewels from our lips. We smiled at one another across the church and winked at the monks as they strolled past us.

We walked in the pitch darkness without our flashlights, happy and unafraid under the shelter of the stars. We drank orange tea and felt mystical and wise. At once we were newborn babies soaking up as much love and knowledge as we could, and also old women, dispensing and receiving wisdom from the ancient throats of the trees.

Tomorrow we will head out into the wilderness again, leaving this Eden guarded from us by the flaming swords of space and time. We will do all we can to carry this place with us, to be this place for those we love and those we meet. But it will not be the same. We will not be the same.

The Abbey, however, will remain the same. It is one of the most constant things in the world. After we are gone, the monks will have their services without us. After we are gone, new guests will fill our beds and our stalls in the church. And the monks will watch, amused, as these too suffer and do penance and are freed. I hope it gives them joy, the monks, to watch the endless parade of pilgrims longing and receiving in their presence. I know if it were me, I would be irritated by it. But they are better, they are kinder, for they wink back at me and they smile.

The Abbey: In Which a Bishop & an Abbot Struggle to Put Up with Me

The following are 3 (the first 3 of at least a few more, I expect) excerpts from my journal over my long weekend at Mepkin Abbey, which I have written about previously here.


Friday, February 8th, 7:00 pm

My stay at the Abbey this time is very different from last time. For one thing, they’ve instituted semi-mandatory orientation tours so that you don’t go around confused and anxious the whole time… like I did last time. Father Stan, the Abbot, lead us around paths and roads he knew so well that he walked backwards the entire time, looking at us kindly, and never once had to glance behind him to see where he was going.

He told us that the monastery was designed and built around these enormous live oaks, that in the process of building, they only had to take down one tree. “God took down a few others,” he added in an offhand sort of way.

I suppose I half-expected that I had romanticized the whole monastery experience in my head and that it really wouldn’t be that great in reality, or the second time around.  Well, I certainly romanticized it and it is slightly different, but that does not lessen its greatness.  Brother Paul has put on a few pounds (but then so have I!) and Brother Theophilus has exited the novitiate and is now a full monk with a very full beard, but Father Christian could still outrun and outthink me, at age 98.  The monk with the perfect pitch who serves most often as cantor smiles at me broad as ever. The African American gentleman always raises a playful(?) eyebrow at me, and Brother Robert helps me with the pages of my Psalmbook and hymnbooks, which are indecipherable without aid.


8:12 pm

My accommodations are different this time.  I essentially have a whole house to myself, complete with 4 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and two tiny but full baths, where last time I had roughly 20 square feet total.  It’s nice, but I am terribly far away from the rest of the monastery.  You don’t have to make any turns to get from the house to church, just follow the main road.  But it’s a long way off, about a five minute’s walk from the last cottage on the road, and so too from the last lights.

Of course there must be no lights along this remote part of the road, lest the stars be obscured.  I appreciate this in abstract theory, but in the distilled reality of stepping out into the void alone in the night, I find my appreciation dissolving rather rapidly.

The monks are kind enough to provide flashlights in each guest room, though mine was all but dead.  On the dark asphalt, it gave a glow so feeble, it looked like a shallow puddle of melted butter in a deep black pot. Not going to cut into the heavy veil of this darkness. As I am occupying this whole house alone, I went from room to room in search of brighter light (this, I imagine, is something like a metaphor for church, but I will leave that to you to parse out, dear reader).  My first and second tries were as pitiful as my given flashlight had been, but the third glowed bright as a handheld lighthouse.

So, off we trekked, my new flashlight and me, finding the night to be darker than I have ever known it to be. This little halo bobbed along on the cracked asphalt in front of me; I followed nervously, tossing my head back and forth like horses do when they get uneasy.

It occurred to me that I might be less uneasy if I could see a bit more of what was around me.  So, I swung the beam of the flashlight to my right and followed up and out along the trunk and limbs of a Mother Willow-style oak.  What was revealed was rather less heartening than I had hoped: mere feet above my head, even inches in some places, long fingery branches dripping with spidery Spanish moss hung eerily, reaching toward me.  Take it from me, if you ever have cause to wander around coastal South Carolina after dark, don’t shine a light up from the underside of one of these mossy oaks. Even M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t recreate the terror I had in that moment.

I tripped and galloped my way toward the nearest cottage, where two more puddles of light were just flickering on, signaling that fellow travelers were entering the road.  I was flooded with relief and tried not to feel silly, a child afraid of the dark.

Jesus 101: Church is that place where one frightened person can be comforted by nestling up close with other frightened people– even strangers– and all their little flickering lights join together to show the way.

So here’s the interesting part: At Compline, the 7th and final worship service of the day, the thing which I was braving darkness and coyotes (or, as it turned out, owls that sound like coyotes) to get to, the monks prayed Psalm 91, which proclaims that she who trusts in the LORD “will not fear the terror of the night.”

And do you know, I didn’t, after that? On my way back to my little house, though alone and cold, I found that I didn’t even have to use my flashlight for most of the journey. What before had been black as coal now had a blue tint, lit somehow by those cloud-veiled stars.

My eyes had adjusted in the dim church, and what before had been suffocating blackness was now navigable, even beautiful.  What’s more, my heart had adjusted in that prayer-soaked pace: what before held terror and isolation now invited wonder and deep, mystical communion with God.


Saturday, February 9th, 4:14 am

I continue to fail miserably at keeping up with the monks.  What page they’re on, what book they’re in… I grin sheepishly down until a brother (most embarrassingly, it’s usually the Abbot, Father Stan, or the retired bishop, Father Victor) steps over to flip pages, points, and return to his stall.

Yesterday I discovered that there are very faint vertical lines to the left of stanzas that call for evil, cursing, or judgment upon enemies (of which there are a distressing number in the Psalms), indicating that they not be sung. I appreciate this, from a theological perspective.  I do not, however, appreciate how fine and faint the lines are, such that I generally don’t see them in the dim church light, and carry on alone asking God to hate someone until a brother (again, usually the Abbot or the Bishop!) rushes over and stops me, as kindly as he can.

All told, it rather gives me reason to want to pray those hateful prayers over the editors of the books….. This, I assume, is not great Christian love.


More to come…….. and if you’re interested, I’ll be putting some of the poetry I wrote during my visit on my “Arts” page.

Where the Abbey Meets the Sanctuary: A Call to Authentic Worship Among Clergy

It’s 3 am and my alarm is going off.  Well, it’s not my alarm; I guess it’s a monk’s alarm.  I am in the tiniest, lumpiest twin bed ever built.  Mary and baby Jesus scowl and throw what could be misconstrued as gang signs down at me from a painting above my bed.  I click the lamp on to illuminate a room no bigger than a closet, containing only a desk, a chair, a night table, a wardrobe, and this bed. I want to be charmed, but it’s too early.

Ten minutes, a teeth-brushing, and a dusting of makeup (I can’t help it; even non-judgmental, celibate monks don’t deserve to see under-eye circles that dark) later, I’m following the halo of light created by my dim flashlight down a crumbling concrete drive.  I wander across a wooden footbridge, wind through a cluster of weeping yaupons and oaks, duck under some low-hanging Spanish moss, and emerge in the dark shadow of a beautiful chapel, lit from within by only a few candles.

The entrance to the chapel contains a large book which, I will discover later, is open to a page containing a single quote from Thomas Merton:

“Let there always be quiet, dark churches
in which people can take refuge…
Houses of God, filled with His silent presence.
There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least
they can be still and breathe easily.”

I curse the clacking of my hard-soled shoes and tiptoe to the stall to which Brother Paul directs me.  I am surrounded by the monks, looking half-asleep and swaying ever so slightly in their own stalls (these are seats, separated by wooden panels, which fold up and down to let you stand and sit alternately during worship).

The monks begin to pray, to sing, to chant.  Sometimes an individual reads Scripture or a quote from Chrysostom or Benedict, but largely they chant the Psalms back and forth to one another, accompanied by an acoustic guitar played most often by Brother Theophilus.

I am, I’m afraid, utterly lost.  There are a number of open prayer, Psalm, and song books open in front of me, obviously set there in anticipation of a visitor such as myself, but I search in vain to find which one we’re praying, chanting, or singing from.  Brother Paul, serene and kind with a ring of white hair around his largely bald head, hands clasped calmly behind his back, glides over to me.  He turns a page in my book and points to the correct line.  I smile gratefully at him, but he has already turned back to return to his stall.


I left Mepkin Abbey with the strange idea that this is how worship should be: A group of people who have devoted their lives to the worship of God praying and singing together. I am blessed that they allow visitors and that Br Paul was willing to help me (for over the course of my stay I continued to need near-constant help).

But what I got out of that experience was this: If no visitors were there, worship would still happen.

It’s sort of like a tree falling in a forest: If no one is there to see the monks pray, do the monks still pray? Yes, because they have given their lives to the worship of God.  This morning, January 22nd, at 3:20 AM, the monks scurried from their beds through the cold night air and gathered in the chapel to pray, chant, and sing.
There may have been other worshipers there and there may not have been.
The monks continue in their worship all the same.

Sometimes I lament the great importance we put on the number of people in worship.
Sometimes I lament the great disparity in our worship between the percentage of words spoken directed at human beings and the percentage of words spoken that are directed at God.
We as clergy spend so much time greeting the congregation, making announcements, pronouncing forgiveness of sins, announcing hymns, and giving stage directions on when to stand, sit, turn and greet one another, etc.
And don’t even get me started on preaching: It could be argued that, in the sermon, the greatest chunk of the service (and the one to which most churchgoers ascribe the highest value) has nothing much to do with worshiping God, but only with one human being talking to other human beings about God.  …which is good, but is it worship?  Perhaps, but… perhaps not directly.

When people talk about the old Catholic churches where the cleric speaks in Latin and faces away from the congregation, they often do so disparagingly.  “That’s so terrible and uninviting,” they say.  Perhaps.  But perhaps it is authentic.  The priest is there to worship and serve the Lord.  Why should he trifle with the people? Oh,

well, because we as clergy are not just tasked with worshiping God but also with teaching people to worship God.  We teach people how to worship, guide people in worshiping, and invite people to participate more and more fully in worship.

I think the best way to do this, though, is not through more words: It’s not giving more directions and announcements and clearer transitions and written explanations.  Those can be helpful, but those are not the most effective way of either teaching people to worship, or worshiping!

The best way to teach, guide, and invite to worship is to model worship.

When Brother Paul came over to help me find my place, that was all the invitation I needed. I was there to worship God.  I was there to experience the worship of monks and to participate in it.  I watched them and I was captivated by their devotion, their authenticity, their earnestness, and their faithfulness.  Every morning, there they were, yawning but present.

The oldest monk is in his late 90s, and he powers along on his rolling walker– he made it to all but one service in the time I was there (did I mention they have 7 service daily?).  He stood for everything that called for standing.  He helped lead Eucharist mass.  He sang every song loudly and with his voice shaking but strong.


What if we, as clergy, could teach by example more than by verbage? What if we could show, by our own devotion, authenticity, earnestness, and faithfulness, what worship can and ought to look like?  What if we could find a way, by modeling our own passion for worship, that we’re glad our congregation showed up– however large or small the numbers may be– but that they’re not the reason we’re there? That we’re there to worship God.  That they’re welcome to join, and we’ll help them as much as we can, but ultimately it’s not about them, or us, but about God?

What if we could find a way to tell our congregations, golly, we’re glad you’re here; but even if you weren’t, we would be doing this anyway, because we have been ordained (or commissioned, as the case may be!) to this work, to the work of worshiping God– and that means worshiping God ourselves…..?

What if?