Mepkin Abbey, third day

Labyrinth entrance

Labyrinth entrance

Wednesday 28 August

Same morning routine, which of course is the whole point. (The purpose of the monastic life, according to a book of Merton’s I skimmed in the library, is to remove all obstacles to prayer).

Read for only a while in the library (from a very wonderful text and commentary of Isaiah from the Collegeville Bible series, which I’d never heard of) as I wanted to go into the gardens during early morning prime photography light. (Why Isaiah? Because at the just-before-noon prayer service that I went to every day the monks and visitors who cared to sang-chanted a prayer that included the phrase “the root of Jesse will flower.” Who was Jesse? A bible concordance in the library had only one reference, to Romans 15:12: “And again, Isaiah says, ‘The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.'” The reference, concordance or no concordance, is to Isaiah 11:10: “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.” Jesse was the father of David, king of the Jews.)

It was a little after 8 and what did find but at least a half dozen trucks and a dozen workmen (they’re all volunteers, getting good karma), running power mowers and weed whackers. I toughed it out, since the light was excellent, then went up to the half-mile-or-so Oak Allée that runs to the main gate, and did a couple of round trips, doing serious battle at one point with a horse fly that would not quit and scored several bites that still itched hours later. Bring antihistamine to Mepkin if you come. And insect repellant, though I’d spritzed myself with that, which only seemed to make the fly madder. There was even a mower about to have at the labyrinth. He shrugged as I passed and said, “This beautiful silence is about to end.” I smiled Trappistically.

Or actually Cistercianly, since I discovered that the monks are members of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, part of the monastic tradition formalized in the 6th Century by St. Benedict of Nursia in Italy and developed at Cîteaux, France, in the 12th Century. The tradition was renewed at the abbey of La Trappe in Normandy, France, in the 17th Century, hence the name Trappist.

All this from a tour I took that afternoon with Julie, a docent; Richard, a docent-in-training; and a couple from Santee, South Carolina, a 60-year old man with a white goatee and an alligator-skin cowboy hat, and his slightly younger wife, who carried an iPad to take pictures. I learned of the tour on a morning visit to the somewhat-hard-to-find book store, where I bought Thomas Merton’s Seven-Storey Mountain. While there, I asked about the morning tour that I’d bumped into the day before while waiting for the noon service at the chapel. The clerk said that as a retreatant I couldn’t take the morning tour but should join the three o’clock tour, which I hadn’t heard anything about. Thanks, Father G.

My tour mates were goofy as hell. Julie and Richard griped about the heat. Everyone marveled that the monks are vegetarians. Richard, who had been invited to eat in the refectory while doing some manual labor at the abbey, said he and his co-workers walked outside after dinner (the noon meal) and said, “What did we just eat?” Julie said her husband, who had also done work at the abbey, worried in advance that they’d “have to make a Big Mac run.” The man from Santee just shook his head at the notion of eating nothing but vegetables at any meal any time anywhere. Weirdly, since the Santee couple seemed far from worldly, it turned out they’d been to Israel, to, among other places, Masada. They identified themselves, when Julie asked if anyone was Roman Catholic, as Presbyterians, but I inferred that they were the kind of born-again Christians who value visits to Israel.

After the tour, I invited Julie and Richard to see my room, since I (and Greg or Craig) was a pioneer retreatant and they’d only heard about the rooms, with their Memory Foam mattresses and towels and linens from the Company Store. I was glad I’d made my bed, although they probably wondered about my four pairs of footwear–Mephisto sandals, Chaco sandals, flip-flops, Montrail running shoes–that line one wall. (There’s not much closet space, as you might expect. In the closet were my fifth pair of shoes, Toms.)

I read for a while after supper, thought about watching a movie on my iPad, couldn’t do it because of the absence of an internet connection (the dividing line between signal and no signal seemed to be right outside my door), read some more, got into bed at 8:40, went right to sleep–despite the one persistent sound here (other than crows and owls), the regular husky beat of what I think must be some kind of pump, perhaps to drain the ponds or some other low-lying area. The ponds that, by the way, have a sign saying alligators live there and that I’ll take at its word.

About Greg or Craig. He’s gone. He came too late to dinner to get any food and ate some cold cereal, although Father G. offered to get him a plate of hot food. He showed up at the bookstore just after the tour, looked surprised to see me there, said he was leaving, and asked me to turn in his key. Father Guerric came to where I was sitting outside the library after supper (interrupting me yet again) and asked (yet again) if I needed to talk to a spiritual adviser before I left. I said no thanks (yet again), and mentioned that I had Greg or Craig’s key. He was surprised to hear G or C had gone, and said they’d been supposed to talk that evening.

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