Mepkin Abbey, Moncks Corner SC, 16-20 January 2017
This was my third visit to Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery established in 1949 on the Cooper River, 40 miles north of Charleston. I went there first at the end of August 2014 for an individual retreat–a getaway vacation, really, since I had no experience with places like this. I arrived, coincidentally, the afternoon of the opening of a new visitors center, a very spiffy place with Memory Foam mattresses, Company Store linens, and lamps you turn off and on by rubbing your finger along the arm. Except for one other man, who spent a lot of time on his cell phone and/or off the grounds, I was the only retreatant for my three- or four-day stay.
I went a second time in February 2016, the first stop on a trip to Deerfield Beach FL to visit Carolyn Bell, a high school classmate I got back in touch with at our 50th reunion in the spring of 2010. I think I recall a few other retreatants, though I don’t remember specific individuals. Mainly I remember Abbey, a wonderful mixed breed dog who had showed up at the abbey abused and traumatized and who was nursed back to health by the monks, especially by Father Guerric Heckel OCSO, the abbey’s director.
This year I was enrolled in a retreat on Contemplative Eldering. Here’s a description from the abbey’s web site: “The Institute of Contemplative Aging at Mepkin Abbey schedules several retreats a year for those in the second half of life (those 60 and older). During the retreat, contemplative practices are explored as a way to welcome the inner life of self-development and spiritual growth as we move into elderhood. Through sharing of common experiences and fears of aging, participants have the opportunity to view aging as a gift and an opportunity for growth rather than decline.”
The retreat was directed by Father Guerric and a “team” of lay volunteers:
- Mary, a former nun, and her husband, Christian, a former Xaverian brother and former Time Inc. executive, from Tampa FL
- Lyndall, a native of South Africa, a gerontologist, from Charlotte NC
- Kath, a clinical social worker, Reiki practitioner, and former nun, Portland ME
The retreatants (and what they shared about themselves or what I learned) were:
- Dori, Satellite Beach FL
- Becky, Charleston SC
- Bob, a Navy officer during the Vietnam war; an auto dealer and business owner, Tulsa OK
- Glenn, a psychotherapist, married for 39 years to…
- Lynn, also a psychotherapist, Charlotte NC
- Beth, an accountant, Alpharetta GA
- Laura, an English teacher, Tampa FL
- Jerry, a writer, Chapel Hill NC
- Ralph OFM, a Franciscan friar, St. Louis MO
- Brian OP, a Dominican friar, Arlington TX
- Kathleen, an academic librarian and volunteer, married for 52 years to…
- Bill, a urologist, Charleston SC
I had an exceptional experience that I won’t go into here but that I hope to write about in more detail about at some point in the future. As an example, though, of the kinds of things that came up, we were encouraged to recall “stepping stones” in our lives, significant moments that for whatever reason persisted in our memories. Driving down to South Carolina, I’d noticed signs on I-95 that said “Florence-Columbia,” two cities I’d lived in with my parents when I was somewhat around 1-2 years old. Obviously, I have no memory of them, and have never been back, although I have passed the sign more than once over the years without remarking on it.
Recalling stepping stones “to discover or deepen contemplative practice” is a technique described by Ira Progoff in At a Journal Workshop: Writing to Access the Power of the Unconscious and Evoke Creative Ability. You’re encouraged to begin by writing “I was born, and then….and to list important moments, in no particular order. The Florence-Columbia sign had reminded me of a photograph that my parents kept that may be from that era of my life; it shows me in playing with a hose in an inflatable pool with an unknown girl. I put the image on my list and the “…and then” process led to a series of other water memories: I swam in a lake (Michigan); I played in the ocean (the Atlantic); I spent summers by a lake (Taconic, in northwest Connecticut), and more. In a freshman English composition class at Columbia, assigned to write about “an interesting autobiographical experience,” I began it: “I went to see the river every day,” which wasn’t true, and somehow I think presaged my career as a novelist and playwright.
After Mepkin, I drove to St. Johns FL and stayed the weekend at Marywood Retreat Center on the St. Johns River, a wonderfully wide river that flows 310 miles from a marsh near Vero Beach to the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville.
Last year, I drove from Marywood to Deerfield Beach, a 300-mile trip I didn’t care to repeat. This time, I reserved an AirBNB room in Gainesville and drove there by way of north central Florida, through rundown towns like Green Cove Springs (which had a hip coffee shop, Spring Park Coffee.
That stretch of Florida resembled the midwest more than Florida I was familiar with from nearly a dozen trips dating back to the late 1960s. This is near Keystone Heights, at one end of the Palatka-to-Lake Butler State Trail, a 47-mile walking and bike path along the former route of the Norfolk Southern Railroad.
Gainesville (population 127,000, compared with Chapel Hill’s 57,000) is an attractive city of mostly one-storey homes on streets lined with live oaks and Spanish moss. I stayed in a charming AirBNB in the Duck Pond neighborhood, went to a movie (“The Founder”), ate at a nice restaurant (Civilization) and walked in two terrific nature preserves, Paynes Prairie…
…and Sweetwater Preserve.