By Dena J. DiOrio
One can learn a great deal on how to live a more simple and fulfilling life from monks, I found one lazy Saturday af ternoon, as I treated my mother to aday trip to Mepkin Abbey in Berkeley County. About an hour’s drive north of Charleston, the Abbey is situated on the former Mepkin Plantation, skirting the banks of the Cooper River. Home to a small community of Roman Catholic monks living in accordance to the Rules of St. Benedict, known as Trappists, they live mostly in solitude, silence, and in meditative study, quietly and communally in search of God. The monks rise early at 3 a.m. to begin their daily ritual of prayer, meditation, scripture readings, agricultural work, and hosting guests by way of tours, retreats and lectures.
I was in search of the famed Mepkin Abbey shiitake and oyster mushrooms that are cultivated on premise and grace the menus of numerous lowcountry restaurants, but there were no farm tours in my future on this sun-kissed day. The experience of being there, however, was much more transcendent.
We turned right at the entrance and commenced the long, quiet drive down the grand boulevard of live oaks (the allée of live oaks, as its referred to in the Mepkin brochures). Immediately, my soul was put at ease, being drawn to this majestic land like a horse to water.
After parking, we headed into the visitor center that was both welcoming and inviting. A well-curated selection of cookbooks, rosaries, handmade soaps, flower-inlaid candles and a bevy of monastic sundries made by monks the world over, including the famed Mepkin Abbey mushrooms, lined the shelves.
"Graced by an infinite number of footsteps before you, ask yourself the question "Where am I going?" as you plod along the winding rows. The short answer is, nobody knows, and the labyrinth suggests that you are not alone.
Our small group gathered outside the visitor center and we were met by Father Joseph Tedesco, the superior, who recapped the history of these sacred grounds, from the early days as a rice plantation, to the second home of Henry and Clare Boothe Luce of the Time Magazine empire, to the donation of the land to the Roman Catholic Church in 1949. And we listened, with great attention, to this history so rich and complex that it would take a true scholar to fully comprehend.
From the visitor center, our tour guide led us into the abbey toward the church, pausing only to admire the exterior of the Clare Boothe Luce Library, home to a collection of over 43,000 volumes spread over two floors and available to the public by appointment only. Mrs. Luce was an integral part of the soul of Mepkin, having laid plans for its exquisite gardens that she designed with the then-renowned landscape architect, Loutrell Briggs.
Our tour continued to the church where the inhabiting monks pray seven times a day. A stark study of minimalism, its natural beauty was overwhelming yet calming at the same time. Designed by Ted Butler and Frank Kacmarcik, Obl.S.B., the church won the 1995 American Institute of Architecture award for religious architecture. Upon visiting, one will see why. Three main architectural elements were achieved: the use of natural light, natural materials, and balanced proportions. The aesthetics provoke a nondescript stillness that both quiets the mind and creates the space for intense meditation.
As our tour ended, we were left to roam the public grounds. If strolling the garden path leading you past centuries-old live oaks, naturally beautiful lawns and a blue-green wading pond are not enough to feed your soul, a restorative walk through the labyrinth is just in order. Graced by an infinite number of footsteps before you, ask yourself the question "Where am I going?" as you plod along the winding rows. The short answer is, nobody knows, and the labyrinth suggests that you are not alone.
After spending some time at Mepkin, I couldn't help but feel that I had been to a place reminiscent of this in my past. Visions of my travels to the Norbulingka Institute in Sidphur, India, near the Himalayan town of Dharmsala and not far from the town of McLeod Ganj where the Tibetan government resides in exile, swirled through my head. The parallel was astounding—similar, yet extremely different. Was it that both places, steeped in history and surrounded by bountiful nature, are used in a spiritual context favoring hospitality, selfless service and community, that was so compelling to me? Or was it the extraordinary majesty of their natural worlds pulling the soul closer to the sublime? In any case, the déjà-vu was real and a reminder to do this more often.
Cloistered and contemplative is a monk’s life, our tour guide explained. The takeaway for the layperson might be a lesson of sacrifice, or perhaps one of reverence for the unknown. In any event, the old adage of “less is more” holds true. A day trip to Mepkin Abbey goes beyond the mushrooms. Every visitor will have their own unique experience of this sacred place, but the realization that we are all worthy of a personal retreat from the pressures of the everyday and the mundane is real. Admission to the public grounds is free, and a guided tour is only $5 a person, which raises the question: why not go more often?