I’m going to be breaking my story about my stay at Mepkin Abbey up into at least three more parts.
In this one I will discuss my arrival, the meals provided, some observations and a description of my lodging accommodations. I will get more into the emotional stuff in the next few entries. I would like to set the scene first.
I arrived at Mepkin Abbey directly from my friends’ wedding in Las Vegas. I was hung over. Wearing one eye contact and sporting flashy jewelry. (I had an unopened fresh set of contacts in my suitcase.)
I also was late. The cab driver didn’t know how to get to the monastery and so we got lost. It turns out the monastery is in the middle of 3,000 acres of land that it owns.
I left the airport 3 p.m.-ish, and it was 4:30 p.m. by the time I pulled my luggage out of the cab. I was 30 minutes late to check in and had 30 minutes before dinner started.
At that time, I didn’t realize how important punctuality is to the monks. If I had, I would have been even more mortified at being late.
Brother Paul, dressed in the catholic Benedictine/trappist monk traditional white robe with black cover and wide brown leather belt, patiently gave me a map of where I was allowed to go in the Abbey and pointed me in the direction of my cabin. My cabin, St. Benedict’s, was the furthest away from the monastic grounds and the dining room, called a refectory. Luckily, my path was a concrete road and sidewalk so it wasn’t a big struggle to get there.
Note: my suitcase was HUGE and one pound shy of the airplane carrier’s 50 pound limit because I had to pack two distinctly different types of clothes: one set for my weekend in Las Vegas and the other for my time at the monastery. One set had bright green, pink, blue and other sparkly colors, with very low necklines that required special bras, and four-inch heels and flip flops. The other set of clothes consisted of black, white and subdued colored, high neckline T-shirts and dress shirts. Jean pants, a pair of linen pants, Tennis shoes, brown leather flats and sandals.
I’ll let you guess which set was for the monastery.
I pulled my luggage for nearly 10 minutes along the road to the cabin, found my room, which was an adventure of its own, as it took me about 10 minutes to realize the front door was unlocked and that my key was for my cabin room inside.
Then I took off my bright and dangly jewelry, changed into something more subdued and quickly washed my face and went to dinner.
Meals at the monastery are simple and last precisely 30 minutes. Breakfast starts at 6 a.m. Lunch is from about 12:20 until a monk rings a bell about 30 minutes later. And supper begins at 5 p.m.
For breakfast, there was usually a covered tray of hard-boiled eggs, a basket of a variety of fresh fruit, several types of cereal, which were always in the cupboards, and bread with different jams and peanut butter fixings. There were also instant packets of oatmeal and cream of wheat and Lipton tea bags.
Dinner was similar in that there was fresh fruit plus bread and fixings for making a sandwich, including cheeses, pickles and condiments for sandwiches.
I learned an important lesson at the monastery. Although I was allergic to bread, really anything with wheat or wheat flower in it, I was able to survive. For breakfasts and dinner I mostly ate fruit-a banana with peanut butter. On a side note, I didn’t feel right eating a banana in its original form at the monastery. Not that they would have noticed but I didn’t want anything I did at the monastery to hint in the least at something lewd. So I cut the bananas into slices and dipped them in peanut butter.
Often I also ate instant oatmeal for dinner and the cheese slices with mustard on them and pickle spears. Funny, now that I think about it, I didn’t feel it important to cut up the pickle spears to eat them.
I found that if I had a BIG breakfast I could last through most of the day. Confession: sometimes I had to eat an energy bar during the day or after dinner to feel satisfied. That became less and less the situation as the days progressed.
The refrigerator in the guest refectory (dining hall) was always stocked with milk, orange juice, apple juice or water. And we were allowed to get drinks from the refectory at any time of the day.
For lunch, retreatants, the name for overnight guests such as myself, who attended the none (noon) worship would recess from the church to the dining area. This was the only time we were allowed to go through food serving line with the monks to get our food and it was the only officially hot meal of the day.
Later, I learned from one of the “Brothers” of the monastery that all the leftover food goes into a soup the monks eat on Friday, or some meal during the weekend when the guests have gone home – I just can’t remember which night the monk said.
Guests can be weekend visitors but most overnight guests arrive on Monday and leave Friday morning at 9 a.m.
The retreatants eat in a room attached to one in which the monks eat. The doors to the monks’ refectory are glass so you can see them eating coming and going. I tried my best not to be nosy and stare. I knew I was a guest in their very private and spiritually-intimate lives.
The retreatants eating area has wooden tables, but wider than the ones the monks eat at. The guests’ tables allow for people to sit facing each other, while the monks’ tables are just wide enough for their food trays. At least that was the way it looked to me based on only a few casual glances.
Our dining room chairs have four legs and backs. The monks sit on wooden stools.
Guests are supposed to eat in silence. And this brings me to another point.
I learned during my stay that I wrongly assumed that everyone would be coming to the monastery for silence and privacy. Some people were there just to get away but didn’t participate in the monastic religious services, which was optional. Some would chat with each other outside, and all too often, inside the eating area. And some came to work on projects in their room. It seemed that only a few came to be silent and solitary.
I was lucky that my cabin mate — I had only one for the first two days of my stay — also wanted to be silent.
The night she arrived I talked with her briefly and we agreed not to talk but that we would like to walk together each morning to the 3:20 a.m. service. Yes, you heard me right, 3:20 a.m.
And I went to every 3 a.m. service while I was there, except on Friday, when I mistook some Spanish moss and sticks on the ground as an alligator. On Friday at 2 a.m., I decided I was safer having a private worship in my room.
The cabin I stayed in had three rooms, a living room, a kitchen and one bathroom that I could find, although there were signs for a second bathroom in the back porch area. But the bathroom was right next to my room so there was no need to seek the other out.
The kitchen. p.s. I loved the old fashioned sink in the cabin. It was fashioned before dishwashers were invented so it assumes you need a place to dry dishes. I want one for my apartment, which is dishwasher-less.
The cabin had a wood floor; in fact, most of the furniture was wooden.
My room was more than adequate. It contained a single-size bed with soft texture white sheets and a lightweight blue blanket. I had a desk, desk chair, green leather rocking chair, big dresser, a lamp table and a closet. The room had two large windows. One faced the monks’ farm, an area that was off limits to guests. The other window faced a field.
The monks recently switched from being chicken egg farmers to growing mushrooms.
At the end of my first day there I was exhausted by 6:30, partly because I’d had less than 3 hours sleep in the last 24 hours.
After writing in my journal for a bit, took a contemplative walk through a labyrinth that is outlined by tall wildflowers, and read some of a book I was dead tired. I fell asleep by 7:30. Clearly I had plenty of sleep and had little problem waking up in time to make it to the 3 a.m. service the next morning.
One more thing. SILENCE.
Before I went to the monastery, I thought it would take a couple of days for me to reach my panic point in which the solitary lifestyle would make me face myself so deeply that I would either panic and ask to leave or move past the breakthrough.
There were several occasions where I clearly reached a new milestone. But in retrospect, my first night there was the hardest.
The silence, while at first was a salve to my soul, became my enemy in the night.
I woke in an attack of anxiety, my whole body shaking and damp with sweat – the room was not hot that night. I couldn’t define the feeling other than as an overwhelming sense of fear, sorrow, joy, loss, gain, nakedness and solitude.
It had been a long time since I’d prayed. It had been a long time since I’d really prayed in an intimate way. I didn’t pray that night, my heart was still hardened and clouded by years of hurry, scrambling and rushing to and fro in a busy city life.
Instead I cried. I cried for nothing in particular. I just needed to cry. I can’t recall any other time that I’ve cried without knowing, or at least thinking I know, the cause. Having blown my nose a couple of times and fully soaked one side of the pillow cover; I flipped over the pillow and went back into a restless sleep.
It was so quiet in there that the sound of wind crossing the pilot light on the little gas heater in the corner of my room kept waking me up.
Well that’s enough for now.
Check back in a few days and I’ll tell you more about my adventure and life changing experience at Mepkin Abbey.