The Secret Life of a Monk

January 27, 2007

The food was surprisingly good, considering that it was without meat and very simple. And the grounds were so beautiful and peaceful that one can actually imagine a person choosing to stay there for the rest of their lives. But the hardest part for me to believe was that these men wake up at three every morning to begin their day with prayer. Every single night, when everyone else is sleeping, they rise at the stroke of a bell to worship God with chanting of psalms and meditation upon Scripture. No sleeping in… ever!

I’m speaking of the monks of Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina. It is hidden about an hour outside of Charleston, overlooking a beautiful view of the Cooper River. I recently spent five days there on a silent retreat as part of the preparation for my priestly ordination in July. There were about nine other guests of various ages and vocations on retreat at the same time, staying in special guest houses spread throughout the abbey grounds. We were offered the unique experience of participating with the monks in their communal prayers, sharing their meals, and immersing ourselves in the monastery’s peace and silence.

The abbey has about two dozen monks, ranging from several saintly-looking brothers in their eighties and nineties to several younger brothers in their twenties and thirties. They wear white robes with a black scapular, leather belt, and hood. (See the links below for photos.) By the time they celebrate Mass at 7:30 each morning, they have already spent four hours in prayer and worship! They will then spend the day in manual labor (most work on the abbey’s chicken farm), pausing several times throughout the day to reunite in the chapel for prayer. Outside of conversations that are necessary for their work, the monks keep silence so as to better pray throughout all of the day’s activities. And finally, after closing the day with night prayer, the brothers retire at 8:00 so that they will be ready to begin all over again at 3:00 the next morning!

A brother was once asked by a visitor, “So what do you do here?” The brother responded, “We pray.” The visitor continued, “No, I mean, what do you do, why are you here?” Again the brother responded, “We’re here to pray.” Exasperated, the visitor cried, “But don’t you guys run an orphanage or a hospital or something useful like that?” A third time, the brother explained, “No, our job is to pray. We pray for the entire world.”

Living in our product-oriented culture, it is easy to react like that visitor and think, “What a waste of one’s life! If they’re going to make such a sacrifice, why don’t they do something useful for society?” But Mepkin Abbey, and the thousands of monasteries and convents like it, reminds us that we were all created for the sole purpose of giving honor and praise to God. This is what brings true joy to our daily lives. How fortunate we are that religious communities like Mepkin Abbey exist, whose members are praying night and day not only for themselves, but for the entire world! Why not take a moment and offer a little prayer of thanksgiving for all of the cloistered brothers and sisters in the world, praying for us even though we’ve never met them!


Photos that I took on retreat at the abbey

Mepkin Abbey’s website

Tags: , , ,