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3/18/2018 7:41 am  #1

​The World Is Changing. This Trappist Abbey Isn’t. Can It Last?

The World Is Changing. This Trappist Abbey Isn’t. Can It Last?

Meet the monks of Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina, who are trying to maintain age-old religious traditions in a rapidly evolving world.

MONCKS CORNER, S.C. — “A year and a half ago, I could do anything — run the chain saw, cut up trees, use a backhoe.”

Brother Joseph Swedo was bent forward in his chair, his rugged hands folded delicately in his lap. As a monk at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina, he maintains that Roman Catholic order’s code of prayer, work, seclusion, poverty and chastity. And for the last 73 years — since he joined the order at age 17, answering a call from God, he said — physical labor has been an integral part of his daily routine.

Lately, though, Brother Joseph’s health has taken a turn for the worse, narrowing the scope of his monastic life. He is no longer strong enough, he said, to regularly attend the first or last of Mepkin’s seven daily prayer services — vigils at 3:20 a.m., and compline at 7:35 p.m. Nor can he fully participate during the roughly five hours set aside each day for agricultural work and the upkeep of the monastery’s grounds.

“Right now, it’s a bleak situation,” he said. “We’re all getting old.”

Mepkin Abbey — part of a global network of Trappist monasteries that for nearly 1,000 years have provided their communities with reliable sources of prayer, learning and hospitality — is edging toward a potential crisis. In keeping with broader declines in the ranks of priests, nuns and brothers, Mepkin’s monastic community is dwindling. Only 13 monks remain, down from a peak of 55 in the mid-1950s. Over the same period, the monks’ average age has steadily risen by nearly 50 years — up to 77, from around 30. The abbey is struggling to attract and retain younger novices.

Another Trappist community facing similar challenges — the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, in Huntsville, Utah — celebrated its final Mass last August, then shuttered its monastery. Its eight remaining monks took up residence in a nursing home in Salt Lake City.

Across all orders, the number of Catholic brothers in the United States has declined by more than two-thirds since 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. But Trappist communities may be particularly vulnerable, since their traditions are more isolating and, in many ways, more resistant to modernization.

While members of other Catholic orders — Dominicans and Jesuits, for example — focus partly on outreach, Trappists, who are formally known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, do not. And because Trappists see their lifestyle as a vocation, or a call from Jesus, they don’t actively recruit new members.

Their digital presence is also extremely limited. So far, Mepkin has shunned all forms of social media — both individually and institutionally. (Other religious organizations, like Hillsong Church, for example, have used Instagram and other platforms to reach and engage with younger generations.) And although they were quick to adopt a website, the monks have limited internet access and, with few exceptions, don’t use cellphones.

The economics of monastic life can also present challenges. “We don’t have a big financial reserve,” said Father Stan Gumula, Mepkin’s abbot, adding that an endowment, which the monastery does not have, “goes against what Trappists are for.” Even the profit margins on the monks’ agricultural business — which helps sustain the monastery and, by their accounts, is quite profitable — is limited by their daily prayer schedule, which severely restricts the number of hours available each day for work.

These tensions pose a thorny question: To what degree can — and should — age-old religious traditions adapt to survive in a rapidly evolving world?

To be sure, many of the Trappist traditions at Mepkin are helping to sustain the monastery. Hospitality is central to the monks’ lives, and the beauty of the grounds at Mepkin is a major draw both for day visitors and for people who stay overnight at the abbey’s retreat center — which is often fully booked months in advance.

Monks at Mepkin also adhere to a strict vegetarian diet and maintain a largely silent atmosphere — “although it’s not as if we don’t speak,” Father Stan explained.

“For us, the silence is second nature,” he said, adding that visitors often find it conducive to a transformative experience.

The monastery itself, which comprises a church, the monks’ refectory (dining hall) and living quarters, administrative offices, and a library, is nestled within a landscape dominated by large oak trees draped in Spanish moss.

“In everything we do here, we try to respect the land, the ecology and the environment,” Father Stan said. “The main architecture is the trees. All the buildings have been built around the trees.”

The community sees itself as a steward of the monastery’s grounds, and as a leader in the local environmental movement. Founded by monks from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1949, after a 3,132-acre plot was donated to the Catholic Diocese of Charleston by Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, Mepkin was placed under a conservation easement in 2006, in concert with several neighboring properties.

Work is another central pillar of life for the Trappists at Mepkin — as a means of supporting the community, providing solidarity with workers, and promoting a healthy mind and body.

Continued at:

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

3/18/2018 5:18 pm  #2

Re: ​The World Is Changing. This Trappist Abbey Isn’t. Can It Last?

It is very sad.

In the Keystone State I am aware of one convent--the Adorers of the Precious Blood of Christ--which has basically closed; and another--the Sisters of Sts Cyril and Methodious--which is barely holing on.  The latter had not received a postulant in 30 years.

In fact, this is more than sad.   This is tragic.

The health of the Church depends on a triadic relationship between parish churches; "domestic churches" (active prayer life/shrines) in the homes of the laity; and monasticism.  These three can be likened to the legs of a stool or the separation of powers in the Federal government.

Weaken one leg and instability ensues.

Remove one leg and it collapses.

Lord, have mercy.

Life is an Orthros.

3/19/2018 7:40 am  #3

Re: ​The World Is Changing. This Trappist Abbey Isn’t. Can It Last?

The question then arises -- is it time (or even mandatory) to allow married people to normally be a part of these servants who have traditionally been not allowed to be married and serve in their religious positions ?. 

"Do not confuse motion and progress, A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress"

3/19/2018 9:10 am  #4

Re: ​The World Is Changing. This Trappist Abbey Isn’t. Can It Last?


The answer is a double edged sword.

Some years ago I heard an official from the Scranton Catholic Archdiocese tell a group of Protestant clergy  "the problem with my church is that they cannot accept a married priesthood and the problem with your church is that you cannot accept the gift of celibacy".

In other words, there is a two dimensional matrix/grid of laity/clergy and married/celibate.  Some laity are called to one marital state, some to another.   Likewise clergy.

The Orthodox Church has solved that problem by allowing its Priests to marry if they do so prior to Ordination.  So they have a mixture of married and celibate clergy.

Life is an Orthros.

3/20/2018 4:35 am  #5

Re: ​The World Is Changing. This Trappist Abbey Isn’t. Can It Last?

There is also the issue that very few people would seem to be interested in living a cloistered life.

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 
     Thread Starter

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