MONCKS CORNER — Filled with mossy oak trees, the 3,000-acre monastery is far removed from skyscraper-filled cities that August Turak was used to.
But it was at Mepkin Abbey, with its serenity and religious hosts, where Turak, 66, came with a broken heart and crushed spirit. His stay there ultimately inspired him to write a book on his experience.
Located at 1098 Mepkin Abbey Road, the site is one of 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States. It’s inhabited by about 30 Roman Catholic monks who, abiding by the Rule of Saint Benedict, devote their lives to silence, prayer and worship.
Mepkin's Monastic Guest program allows some men who, without becoming monks themselves, find refuge.
For months at a time, the men immerse themselves into the monastic lifestyle. It involves rising at 3 a.m. for prayer, worshipping seven times a day, and helping work the abbey’s mushroom farm.
Turak, a former corporate executive in New York City, had a lucrative career that included working for MTV.
But his exciting life that included eating at the best restaurants and driving fancy cars came to a screeching halt when he suffered a fractured ankle in a skydiving accident.
It led him to massive panic attacks and periods of depression, and his financial success couldn’t save him.
“It was the beginning of my dark night of the soul ... when you feel like God’s abandoned you,” Turak said. “If you’re trying to find happiness and peace in the world, one dollar is too many and a million is not enough.”
After hearing about Mepkin Abbey in 1996, he visited shortly after and joined the monastic program where he succumbed to chores — mopping floors and scrubbing toilets — and 3 a.m. prayer vigils.
Over time, the depressed former businessman was struck by the monks’ humble acts of kindness.
He particularly remembers a chilly Christmas Eve night when, after forgetting his umbrella at a holiday gathering at the monastery, he prepared to walk back to his room in the rain. Standing at a door, a 60-year-old Irish monk — Brother John Corrigan — offered to help.
It may have seemed trivial to some people. But for Turak, he saw that life was about more than buying cars or hanging with big shots at fancy restaurants.
Turak said after he witnessed so many of what some might consider insignificant acts of kindness all around him, "it made me feel tremendously unworthy."
At Mepkin, the religious devotees show others that life’s purpose is found in displaying small actions of love.
For the the monks at the monastery, they are simply fulfilling their calling. With these displays of kindness, they hope to point monastic guests to God.
“We’re just living our life,” said Father Joe Tedesco. “Our life is to be mindful of God at all times. That’s just the way we seek to act all the time. It’s part of our vow of obedience, obedient to the needs of others.”
“Most people would take something like that for granted," Turak said. "That’s a sin. That’s what’s wrong with us: the miraculous things around us we take for granted."
Turak was so inspired by the monks that he wrote of his monastic experience and Corrigan's example in a 2004 essay "Brother John." He entered it into the Templeton Foundation’s Power of Purpose Essay Contest and, as a first-time author, bested 10,000 other entries for a $100,000 grand prize.
This year, he partnered with artist Glenn Harrington to turn the essay into a book that features more than 20 oil paintings of Mepkin Abbey.
Now 76, Corrigan doesn’t remember the Christmas Eve night when he helped change Turak's life. Having a book in his honor is nice, but he is keeping his mind on higher things.
“I take it with a grain of salt,” Corrigan said. “Why get excited about it? It’s all passing anyway.”