With the world in lock down and life itself on hold, you might think that the last place to look for answers would be a Trappist monastery. I humbly disagree. As an award-winning author and successful entrepreneur, I attribute my success to the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey.
Mepkin Abbey is located just outside Charleston, SC, and I have spent 24 years living and working temporarily alongside the monks as a frequent monastic guest. Currently the Monks have ZERO Coronavirus and they can teach us a lot about self-quarantining.
The following are six questions, with my answers, about monks and quarantines and lifestyles that have withstood the test of time.
What led you to start hanging out with Trappist monks in the first place?
In 1996 I was an entrepreneur doing some night teaching at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. My students persuaded me to go sky diving and I compound fractured my ankle. This precipitated panic attacks and I fell into a deep depression. Another Duke student happened to call and tell me that he was spending his summer at Mepkin Abbey as a monastic guest. The next thing I knew, Brother John was helping me bring my bags into one of Mepkin’s guest houses. I have been returning ever since. The monks saved my life.
In the face of this worldwide pandemic, what do you think uniquely qualifies the monks to offer us some useful advice?
Living life in lock down mode is nothing new for the monks. By choice, they live and work in seclusion in a monastery 365 days a year. They also spend hours each day in solitary prayer. They usually observe silence even when working at one of their monastic businesses; so social distancing comes naturally as well. Finally, Trappist monks have been living and working together in hundreds of communities worldwide for over 1000 years. They have survived Viking marauders, the Black Death and countless other disasters. So, even trials as challenging as what we are currently facing is again, nothing new for the monks. And since the monks don’t watch TV, they are perfectly used to a world suddenly deprived of sports!
You have spent months at a time living and working with the monks. What is it like being sequestered or cloistered from your normal life for such a long time?
For the first few days it is “romantic,” as you experience the exotic mood of the monastery. The second stage I call “detox.” You get a bit stir-crazy as little by little you let go of all the issues and burdens you brought with you. Stage three is “uplifting.” Eventually the rhythm of prayer and work along with the spirit of monastic kindness that permeates the monastery begins to pick you up and carry you along. The final stage I call “timelessness.” You become a bit disoriented in a pleasant, mystical kind of way as you discover that you are having a hard time deciding if that conversation you had with Brother John took place this morning, last night or two weeks ago!
You wrote a book called ‘Brother John’ that won the $100,000 Templeton Prize, and you mentioned him today. If we asked Brother John for his advice what do you think he would tell us?
What impressed me about Brother John and all the monks in 1996 and still does today is the sense that their roots are planted so much deeper than ours. I think Brother John would tell us that in order to weather the storms that life inevitably brings, we must be rooted in something far bigger than ourselves and our exigent concerns. Mepkin Abbey is regularly buffeted by ferocious hurricanes that blow in off the Atlantic. These storms often do a lot of damage. Yet each time the monks quietly rebuild and pick up just where they left off. Like the massive live oaks that pepper the monastic grounds, the monks know how to consistently bend when so many of us might break.
What other lessons can you share?
Imitate the monks and take a long-term view. Things look bad now, but this too shall pass. Also take a hint from the monks and live in a focused and mindful way. Staying safe and protecting others means paying attention and avoiding the distractions that lead to forgetfulness, and the monks are experts at that. If you are locked down and unable to work or live your normal routine, use the time wisely. Like a good monk, take some time to just sit quietly and reevaluate your life, your priorities, and your relationships. If your life needs some fine tuning, come up with a plan. The pundits keep telling us that in the wake of this pandemic we will probably never go back to complete normality. If so, this does not have to be all bad. Some deep thinking may very well mean making the changes that we all know we need to make in our lives.
How are the monks doing?
I just spoke to Father Joe, Mepkin’s abbot and Brother John as well. They told me that Mepkin has been in lock down mode for several weeks with no coronavirus in the monastery. All of the monks are healthy. The gate is locked, the guest center is closed, and no one is allowed in or out. Mepkin has its own infirmary and senior living center, so those monks are particularly vulnerable to the virus. The monks support themselves by selling the exotic mushrooms they grow to local stores and restaurants and their business is also closed. Yet as always, what struck me was how cheerful and optimistic they both are. Peaceful equanimity and loving kindness are constants at Mepkin, and that is what has been bringing me back for 24 years now.