A place for silence

Each private room has its own bathroom at the retreat center.

It’s a cool and cloudy day at Mepkin Abbey, the kind that speaks of silence, save the occasional rumble of a car passing a small sign to the monastery’s new retreat center.

From the beginning, the monks have welcomed guests to the abbey’s enchanting 3,000 acres of preserved woodland that grace the Cooper River banks near Moncks Corner. After all, what is a monastery without hospitality?

The Rule of St. Benedict, which the Trappists follow, states simply enough: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.”

The new St. Francis Retreat Center and the Fr. Francis Kline Memorial Chapel fulfill that command using the basic elements of stone, wood, glass and steel to fuel contemplation among those who seek solace and prayer here.

The monastery’s late Abbot Father Francis Kline envisioned the center and pursued its creation in his final years of life on its grounds.

Where else, amid what other moss-draped grandeur, immersed in what other man-made silence, can one peel away the earthly distractions of email and errands and endless to-do lists deeply enough to hear something more?

With 3,000 largely undisturbed acres to choose from, the monks faced an enviable decision: Where to build the retreat center and chapel?

They chose a site near the monastery’s church and cafeteria to provide easy access for retreatants who want to worship and eat with the monks (although they aren’t required to). The spot also sits tucked amid a wide swath of mature woodlands overlooking a winding creek.

“We see nature itself as the presence of God,” explains Father Guerric Heckel, guestmaster and retreat center director.

Completed in August, the center includes a commons building, chapel and 16 private rooms. Already, the wait for rooms stretches three to six months.

The space also means the monastery can host more organized retreats. That’s largely because the new commons building includes meeting areas with couches, chairs, tables, offices and a conference room.

Although much of Mepkin Abbey is reserved for silent contemplation, retreatants using this space can talk in groups, use the communal guest kitchen and borrow books from a small library.

Earlier this month, for instance, the center hosted a contemplative aging retreat for 20 people and had to turn away others.

“They have been very popular,” Heckel says.

The entire retreat center’s design reflects the Trappists’ unadorned lifestyle and devotion to prayer and contemplation.

Long single-story buildings surround a central courtyard lined with natural river rock. With straight and simple lines, the roofs slope in toward the courtyard on one side and back out toward the woodlands on the other.

At the retreat center’s heart sits its chapel, a simple and elegant space with a high ceiling and vast windows to let in light and woodland views.

This is not a chapel for communal worship but rather for individual prayer and contemplation.

A simple, gray cross hangs on one wall. From chairs or benches, guests can watch the stars and clouds through floor-to-ceiling windows.

And on the chapel’s roof leans a scupper, the kind used on ships to carry water overboard. It catches rain to create a waterfall flowing from the chapel’s roof down past its windows.

“When it rains, you are one with the rain,” Heckel says.

Throughout the retreat center, built with exposed maple wood and raw concrete, hues match the natural world beyond.

Each of the private rooms includes a twin bed, small desk, bathroom and a large window to the outside.

The architects aimed to provide everything a person could need minus any clutter that might crowd a room — or a mind.

There are no TVs, no radios, no phones, no computers. As it happens, the copper roofing blocks most cell phone signals, by happenstance rather than intention, he adds, though its suits him fine.

“It helps to quiet one,” he says.

In 2004, Abbot Kline and several other monks walked around the three separate buildings that housed retreatants back then. None were designed for that purpose. Spread around the abbey’s property and worn with age, the buildings clearly needed an upgrade.

The monks began to dream and plan.

But in 2006, Mepkin Abbey suffered a terrible loss.

Kline passed away at age 57, leaving the monks, and the larger community, to grieve an abbot known for the depths of his faith, musical gifts and love of God’s creation.

However, after his death, donations poured in from those wanting to honor his legacy and assist the monastery. By late 2008, the retreat center Kline envisioned was funded.

The monks hired acclaimed Virginia architect W.G. Clark, who began his practice in Charleston and developed a reputation for his reverence to nature. He later handed to project over to his associate Joshua Stastny.

The architectural renderings took on physical form.

Jimmy Hightower grew up down the river from Mepkin Abbey. For 40 years, he heard its bells ring seven times a day to call the monks to prayer.

“I often wondered what it was like on the other side of the river. Now, I know,” Hightower said at the center’s dedication.

The monks hired his firm, Hightower Construction Inc., to build the retreat center and chapel. They prayed daily for its crews and the residents who later would benefit from their construction.

When work ended, the monks blessed and dedicated the retreat center near the seventh anniversary of Kline’s death.

“In his final months in this life, my brother, Francis, confided to me that he had three regrets. The first was that he would not be able to see the completion of his envisioned retreat house,” Kline’s brother, Ron, said at the dedication.

But Kline attended, in his way. The abbey’s organ played a “recording” of “Finale of the First Organ Symphony of Vierne,” one of the Juilliard-trained organist’s sessions on that very instrument.

Heckel apologizes for the folks cleaning rooms and changing linens. But it is Friday, turnover day, when one set of retreatants leaves and the next group arrives.

Mepkin’s 15 monks, who prepare, serve and clean up from three meals a day here, limit retreatants to 12 so they can provide proper service and spiritual care.

Butch and Nell Green offer Heckel thanks in hushed, monastic tones before heading out.

Both have been to Mepkin Abbey on retreat before, but this was their first time staying in the new center.

Because the new guest rooms sit near the Abbey Church, Nell Green rose in the still darkness of night to join the monks at 3:20 a.m. for the hour of Vigils.

After, she strolled back to the retreat center to find Father Guerric already preparing fresh coffee for the guests.

“I have to say, this new set up has made the whole experience so much more refreshing for me,” she says.

She often takes a chair during long walks through the abbey’s woods and gardens, stopping where she chooses. This visit drew her to the monastery’s labyrinth, grown tall with grasses and blooming splays of goldenrod for fall.

“If this doesn’t draw you closer to God, I don’t know what would,” Nell Green says. “It’s just a wonderful place to come and be.”

The couple, who work with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship out of Texas, have traveled to many retreat centers. Mepkin Abbey, they agreed, remains their favorite.

“It is truly a holy place,” Butch Green says.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563.