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.
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.