Why not be a monk?

Abbot Stan celebrates the Easter Vigil in the Abbey Church. Photo by: Mepkin Abbey
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BY KEVIN T. DI CAMILLO

Perhaps one of the biggest detriments to young men entering the monastic life is the lifelong commitment — that, plus the extremely long time it takes to become a monk.

And, of course, the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. For life.

To quote the vocation literature of the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration (the Carthusian Monks): “Who is called to such a life?”

Not many. Regrettably, monastic vocations are down across all the many various monastic orders — Cistercians, Brigittines, Carthusians, Camaldolese, Benedictines, and Trappists, as well as stricter versions of the Praemonstratensians and Carmelites — not only in the United States but worldwide.

What’s to be done about this decline?

One American Trappist monastery has come up with a unique response to the drop in vocations: letting young men come and live as monks for a time, to be enriched by monastic life for the rest of their lives. Some may like what they experience and feel the call to more.

Fr. Joseph Tedesco, OCSO, of Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, is the junior director of monks. “We now have two men in formation,” he says. “One is a novice, and one is a professed junior.” [A new postulant will join the community on Sept. 8].

Admittedly these are not huge numbers in terms of vocations. But the new Mepkin Affiliate Program hopes to attract men to come and investigate Trappist life in South Carolina from within.

This seems to fly in the face of the accepted wisdom of monastic life: a life that is cloistered and cut off from the world.

Fr. Tedesco says that the affiliate program grew out of the fact that their retreat house was “almost always full, and we wanted to build on our monastic guest program which had been around for over a generation.”

Mepkin Abbey is the third daughter house of the Abbey of Gethsemani (home to Thomas Merton) and was founded in 1949.

Fr. Guerric, the director of the Saint Francis Retreat Center at the abbey, in his office. Photo by: Mepkin Abbey

It is part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance who belong to the Benedictine family of communities that follow St. Benedict’s Rule, according to the reforms of the Abbey of La Trapp in France — hence the term Trappist.

“The point of the program is to not only invite people to come and see what we are about, but to live and work and pray — ora et labora — with us, to literally immerse themselves in the Cistercian life,” says Fr. Tedesco.

Since the retreat house at Mepkin is full nearly year-round with retreatants, Fr. Tedesco says, “We wanted to be a resource for people who are wondering how our monastic life is relevant. Our answer is ‘Come and see!’”

It’s not a coincidence that those three words are taken right from the Gospel (see John 1:39).

Fr. Tedesco explains that “Mepkin’s Affiliate Program came about several months ago during a dialogue about ‘who comes to our retreat center?’ and ‘how do we give them a deeper version and vision of the contemplative prayer experience?’ In the discussion about this, we discovered that, as monks, we have something to share with people, because it is evident that there are so many people out there who are sincerely searching for a deeper spiritual life.”

“We think we have a lot to offer here at Mepkin. And since for the past 40 years we’ve offered the Mepkin Guest Program (where men can come and live with us for a month), we started brainstorming with the abbot and a committee I chaired on the growth of this abbey on how to expand and extend this program.”

Shiitake mushrooms grow at the abbey’s mushroom house. Photo by: Mepkin Abbey

If this sounds like something you may have read, you might be thinking of Fr. Henri J.M. Nouwen’s classic 1976 text, The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery, in which the author, a secular priest, goes and lives (and works and prays) with the Trappists of Genesee in upstate New York — which is the fifth daughter house of Merton’s beloved Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.

However, much has changed in the past 40 years. Not only are fewer men becoming monks, but the monks who have stayed are living even longer (monks are notoriously long-lived). Further, even at Genesee, three retreat houses are filled nearly year-round with searchers, seekers, and men and women religious of all stripes.

But perhaps the biggest change is that many “spiritual” people now no longer associate themselves with an established religion.

Not that the Mepkin Trappists are changing their spiritual DNA to accommodate possible postulants.

The present-day Mepkin community. Photo by: Mepkin Abbey

“We remain a cloistered community and we observe silence — still. The affiliate program hasn’t changed that. What has changed is that people can now come and work and pray with us from the inside,” notes Fr. Tedesco.

“Our monastery is a school in the Lord’s service,” Fr. Tedesco says, “and for some — many — of our retreatants, a more substantial experience was inviting. Hence, the formation of the affiliate program.”

“We’re probably going to have a full house for our Monastic Institute and the program itself,” says Fr. Tedesco.

Also novel is the fact that Mepkin Abbey is actively advertising in America, The Christian Century, and Crux to raise awareness about their monk-for-a-month (or year) program.

“We have three different levels here [at the Mepkin Abbey]: First, there is the institute, which is for both men and women for a month-long seminar about monastic values and practices. For men who want to be a ‘monk-for-a-month,’ we now have the affiliate program, and, of course, if someone wants to immerse themselves for a year, we have a yearlong monastic residency program — all of these in addition to the traditional monastic novitiate. How do we live the Christian life in a more profound way in today’s world?” asks Fr. Tedesco.

The monks don’t pretend to have the only answer with the affiliate program, but the focus of the program is not recruitment, but inviting people into a deeper Cistercian experience.

“The archetype of monkhood is in everyone — of course, God is the center of our life — but what we are trying to do is help anyone who comes to us find their center, whether or not they become a Trappist monk,” Fr. Tedesco says.

“We just want to open up our monastic life for people who are searching, and we find more and more people interested in this, and in us. And we are happy to help them find their true selves.”

Monastic myths

Perhaps no life is more misunderstood or misrepresented than that of monks. Here we debunk some ancient canards about monastic living:

MONKS SLEEP IN THEIR COFFINS: This myth entered the mainstream in James Joyce’s novella The Dead (1914) and was revived in the John Huston film of the same name in 1987. “Stuff and nonsense!” says Br.Anthony Weber, OCSO of Genesee Abbey. “We sleep in beds, just like everyone else.”

MONKS TAKE A VOW OF SILENCE: It’s another falsehood. Most monastic orders observe silence, and at Mepkin Abbey even the affiliates are encouraged to observe “The Grand Silence” from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m.However, this is not a “vow” or a promise. It is simply something the monks agree to observe.

ALL MONKS ARE PRIESTS: “All monks are brother-monks,” notes Fr. Joseph Tedesco, “and some of us have taken Holy Orders [been ordained to the priesthood].” However, many monks are brothers, while others are priests.

MONKS DAILY DIG THEIR GRAVES: This is like the bit about sleeping in their coffins. Fr. Tedesco is quick to dismiss this as pious legend. “We do, do a lot of digging, but it’s to plant our oyster and shiitake mushrooms, which we grow and sell [about 1,500 pounds a month].”

THE CHAPTER OF FAULTS IMPOSES SEVERE PENANCES: Perhaps this was once true, but not since the end of the Second Vatican Council have monks had to publicly confess breaking the monastic rules before the whole of their community.

MEN BECOME MONKS TO ESCAPE THE WORLD: This is maybe the greatest misconception about the monastic life — that it is somehow an “escape” from the “real world”of bilk-and-money. A monk enters the rigors of the abbey not to escape reality, but to meet it head on, to encounter life unfiltered by the noise of the outside world. He gives himself up to the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity, and obedience — and also stability) to not only “seek the living God,” but to embrace life — not escape it.

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