MONCKS CORNER — The roads to Mepkin Abbey are long and narrow through the pine forests of Berkeley County, and pocked with gnarly potholes.

But the moment one turns into the Abbey, the rough going is smoothed. Perhaps it’s the embracing arbor of live oaks, an allee of moss-cloaked gentle giants bidding a gracious welcome. Or maybe it’s the hallowed hush that envelops Mepkin’s expansive green space and gardens overlooking the Cooper River.

Whatever the reason, the sense that one has entered sacred ground is palpable.

Mepkin is a place of quiet, astounding beauty and peaceful contemplation, and not just for monks. Rather than being sequestered or restrictive, the Abbey is a welcome refuge for laypeople.

“Visitors often say that as soon as they come through the gate, they can feel their blood pressure drop,” says Father Guerric Heckel, one of the 14 Roman Catholic monks who currently make up Mepkin’s Trappist community.

Hospitality a guiding principle

Established in 1949, the monastery is centered on 3,200 acres of what once was Mepkin Plantation, owned in the 18th century by patriot Henry Laurens and later, from 1936 to 1949, by Time Magazine publisher Henry Luce and his wife, writer Clare Boothe Luce.

The Luces commissioned noted landscape architect Loutrell Briggs to transform the grounds into Mepkin Gardens. They bequeathed the property to the Trappists of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, who in turn founded an offshoot monastic community here in Moncks Corner.

As part the worldwide Cistercian Order, the monks of Mepkin abide by the Rule of Saint Benedict, observing silence for most of the day and living a contemplative life of “ceaseless prayer and sharing the sufferings of the present time until the Lord returns” (a directive from Romans 8: 18-23).

In addition to prayer, silence, meditative Scripture reading and physical work (Mepkin’s mushroom farm produces between 1,200 and 1,600 pounds of oyster and shiitake mushrooms a week), hospitality is a central tenet of the order.

Mepkin’s gates are open daily to visitors, many of whom come simply to enjoy the lovely camellias and stroll the grounds, while others peruse the unique collection of the Clare Boothe Luce Library.

'Our waiting list stays full'

For those seeking a deeper experience, Mepkin offers various retreat opportunities, a part of the abbey’s ministry that has expanded significantly since Mepkin’s St. Francis Retreat Center opened in August 2013.

Featuring a clean, simple design by W.G. Clark and Associates, the retreat center offers 16 guest rooms and a conference building cloistered around the Father Francis Kline Memorial Chapel, named in honor of the abbey’s beloved former abbot. Natural materials of wood and glass, stone and steel reflect Mepkin’s groundedness and commitment to simplicity and sustainability, and the aesthetic “draws our inner spirit to touch the invisible,” as Abbot Stan Gumula expressed at the center’s dedication.

These comfortable accommodations allow up to 12 guests to stay for a weekend or a weeklong private retreat (the four additional rooms are reserved for visiting priests or other special guests).

“We host some 700 retreat guests each year, and our waiting list stays quite full,” notes Father Guerric, Mepkin’s retreat center director. An online reservation system on the abbey’s website streamlines the registration process. The cost is a “pay what you will” donation request.

Mepkin retreatants are welcome to observe the Liturgy of the Hours with the monks, joining in worship and prayer at all seven daily services in the Abbey Church, beginning with Lauds at 3:20 a.m. and ending with Compline at 7:35 p.m. Or not.

Guests can observe strict silence if they wish, or not. Simple vegetarian meals are eaten in silence in the Refectory, and tea and coffee are always available in the conference center. And everything else is free range — no expectations or obligations. Nor does one have to be religious, Christian or Catholic to be a Mepkin guest.

“Many people come because they’re not feeling spiritually nourished, and they’re seeking to explore and deepen their inner life,” says Father Guerric. “The more desperate the world gets, the more places like this are needed.” For those interested, guests can request a 30-minute session of private spiritual direction.

A monastery, not a museum 

Mepkin is what Guerric calls “transformational space,” a safe place to rest, reflect and grow.

“A place in which to listen to the still small voice within their hearts,” adds Abbot Stan, where people can “experience the welcome of God and leave renewed and refreshed.”

But Mepkin also hopes that fewer will “leave,” so to speak. The small, and aging, number of monks at Mepkin is a concern, as are the declining numbers of men and women entering religious vocation globally. A comfortably robust monastic community at Mepkin would number closer to 25 men, instead of the current 14.

To address this, the abbey will introduce a Mepkin Affiliate program this summer, expanding on its existing Monastic Guest program (different from retreat guests, Monastic Guests spend one to three months living within the monastic community).

“We believe the best way to welcome new members is for each one of us to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the monastic life to which we are called and to which we have dedicated our lives," says Abbot Stan. "We also constantly are thinking of new ways in which we can share the treasures we have with others.”

The new affiliate program enables those considering religious vows the opportunity to live and study within the monastic community for one year, a time of immersive reflection while considering a lifelong commitment.

Whether its guests stay for a day, a weekend, a month or a year, this monastery on a bluff beside the Cooper River offers a sanctuary of solace and renewal.

And the blessings go both ways. As retreat director, Father Guerric embraces the legacy of Father Francis Kline, whose insight, Guerric says, “was that the monastic church has something to offer laypeople, and vice versa."

"We need to create a dialogue between the monastery and the world beyond,” he adds, “Otherwise, we’re just living in a museum.”

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.