As Trappists, the 30 monks of Mepkin Abbey lead a strict contemplative life that purposefully separates them from what modern culture proclaims to be essential elements of human happiness: parties, TV, sports, restaurants, fashionable clothes, homes, cars, vacations, even families.
Mepkin Abbey is built on the ruins of a colonial rice plantation that was once a center of the slave trade.The name Mepkin is probably from the native Americans who lived in the South Carolina area before they were driven from the land. Mepkin's painful history echoes in many ways the monk's spiritual striving and reaches deep into America's spiritual past to dreams crushed and silent, to man's inhumanity to man, to the fleeting nature of material goods.
A Trappist is a classic monk. He wears a medieval white robe with black cowl. The greater part of his day is spent in solitude, study, and prayer. He lives in a small, spare room with only a handful of possessions. Meals are simple vegetarian, eaten without conversation. He rises at 3 A.M., and prays with the community seven times a day. His work is primarily physical labor at the monastery. The financial rewards of that labor never exceed the costs of maintaining the monastery and the community of monks that live and worship there. On the surface, it is a life seemingly at odds with the rest of society. The monk knows that his lifestyle is a severe counter-culture. He may not know that many in society consider his lfestyle to be out-of-step and out-of-date; but alluring nonetheless.
The desire of monks to be apart from what is considered every day life, has allowed myths to envelop the monastic culture. Polished public relations and hyperbole, while embraced by modern American society, are not a part of the monks' agenda. As a result, there is often great misunderstanding, and even fear of monasticism in our culture. But there is also an abiding curiosity, a fascination in both the religious and secular worlds about what draws a person to the austere, holy, and hidden life of a monk.
The roots of Monasticism can be found in the desert. In men like the prophets Elias, Hosea and John the Baptist. Western Monasticism probably began with Anthony in the fourth century. As the decay of the Roman Empire ushered in the dark ages, monasteries became havens for people who prized education, justice, peace and Judeo-Christian values. They were not only the driving force behind European religion, but also commerce, engineering, architecture, agriculture, education and government. At their zenith, monasteries rivaled in wealth and influence Europe's greatest kingdoms. Yet this material success led inevitably to the great monasteries demise, so that within Europe's now-ruined abbeys lie the same awe-inspiring lessons about spirituality vs. materialism that first formed them. And just as the purer aspirations of the Christian monk attracted the disillusioned Roman soldiers of 1600 years ago, it still attracts the child of the computer age today.
In recent years, monasticism is being greeted with renewed respect by a new generation that has propelled a simple CD of Gregorian chants into a totally unexpected platinum hit on the world's pop music charts. Best-selling books such as Kathleen Norris' Cloister Walk and the numerous popular works of respected physician/authors Herbert Benson and M. Scott Peck support many of monasticism's tenets.
TRAPPIST will look at the formation of a monk, the individual stories of men who have spent a half-century or more within cloistered walls, and of other men who are considering that monumental step. TRAPPIST will explore the monastery's place in the world today; its uncertain future in a world where the monastic values of celibacy, poverty, humility and selflessness are overwhelmed in a cynical riptide of materialism and sensation.
TRAPPIST will show that monks are not perfect people. Their problems are often surprisingly mundane, their struggles all too familiar. They share the same doubts, fears and inner burdens of all humanity. But as our post-modern culture accelerates its drive toward increasing stress, ruthless competition, and moral ambiguity, and its many attendant personal and social problems, the monk's steadfast and hopeful commitment to the contemplative life and its spiritual quests may offer some insight, some solutions. Our exploration of monasticism may allow people to discover within themselves some of those same qualities that have guided the Trappists and their forerunners to the highest peaks of success and through years of near-extermination over 16 centuries. Perhaps such lessons will help humanity vault the yawning ethical chasm that imperils its passage into the upcoming millennium.
Features interviews with best-selling authors Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul), Kathleen Norris (The Cloister Walk) and Herbert Beson, MD (The Wellness Book).