“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 past 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 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 the Rev. 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 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,” Gumula 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,” Gumula 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.
For decades, the monastery relied on an egg farm that produced as many as 30,000 eggs per day. But in 2007, in the aftermath of an immensely disruptive PETA investigation, the abbey announced plans to phase out its egg operation. Eventually the monks settled on growing mushrooms.
“We wanted a good product, a healthy product,” Father Stan explained. “And it’s not backbreaking work, because we’re an older community.”
(In the 1950s, when their numbers were higher and the average age was much lower, the monks’ working life was more varied and physically intense; they ran a lumber mill, raised cattle and had a large-scale bakery.)
The monastery now produces around 1,400 pounds of mushrooms each week – half oyster mushrooms, half shiitake. Most of the crop is sold fresh to local restaurants and markets in Charleston.
The monastery also generates income from the store at its visitors’ center, which sells dried mushrooms and a slew of other products, many of which are produced at other Trappist monasteries; its retreat center, which hosts both individual and group visitors; timber that is harvested by outside contractors; and a new nondenominational columbarium, which offers a place for funeral urns to be stored on Mepkin’s grounds.
While many monks at Mepkin are concerned about the monastery’s future, they also see this moment as an opportunity to pioneer a new form of monasticism. In recent months, the abbey, in response to its aging population and its lack of young novices, formed a committee for its future development and drew up a set of programs aimed at attracting a younger and more spiritually diverse group of people.
Be a monk
The abbey’s new affiliate program will offer two new short-term monastic options for people of any, or no, faith traditions: a monthlong monastic institute, open to men and women, and a yearlong residency. And in a departure from its otherwise passive approach, Mepkin created an ad campaign – albeit a small and highly targeted one – to publicize the program. (It featured copy that read: “BE A MONK. FOR A MONTH. FOR A YEAR.”)
“We’re at such a – you might say desperate – point,” said the Rev. Guerric Heckel, “that we’re being forced to try something new and innovative.”
Many young people of the Roman Catholic tradition, Guerric added, will simply not be attracted to forms of monasticism that require celibacy and a lifetime commitment. But there’s a growing belief among Mepkin’s brothers that certain elements of the Trappist tradition – its cultivation of mindfulness, stillness and inward exploration – are increasingly relevant to today’s youth. And the abbey, they say, is a repository of wisdom about the benefits of contemplative living.
“What young people keep telling us,” said the Rev. Joe Tedesco, chairman of the committee for Mepkin’s future development, “is that they’re interested in the spiritual life journey, but not in institutional religion. So let’s give them an experience of the place without a commitment, and see what happens.”
Mepkin’s interest in cultivating what they call “interspiritual” experiences – via the long-standing programs at their retreat center and with its proposed affiliate program – is evidence, Father Stan said, of the abbey’s welcoming and accepting nature. “We’re a very nonjudgmental and nonexclusive community,” he said.
That sense of acceptance was affirmed by Rob Hagan, who spent 30 years as a monk at Mepkin before leaving the monastery in 2007. (While there, he used the first name Aelred.)
Hagan, who is gay, said he renounced his monastic vows to explore life as an openly gay man, free from the Trappist rules of chastity and seclusion. “I just felt like I had to acknowledge that part of who I am,” he said.
“The brothers knew,” Hagan said. “I was very honest with them.”
“And they were just so,” he said, breaking into tears. “They were just so loving.”
“It took a lot of strength to leave,” Hagan said, noting that his fellow monks at Mepkin would have welcomed him to stay if he’d so chosen – despite the Catholic church’s official, if conflicted, position on homosexuality in the clergy. “And, for me, that kind of strength could only have come from having lived the monastic life in that community.”
“That sense of welcomeness and hospitality,” he added, “is just a wonderful aspect of the place. It really is the grace of Mepkin.”
Despite their hope for the future, the monks at Mepkin are cleareyed about the likelihood that their new initiatives – which will probably attract young, interfaith and short-term visitors – will fail to attract Roman Catholics who are interested in a long-term commitment with the core monastic community.
Trappist monasteries in the United States are likely to consolidate, Gumula said. And there’s a chance, too, that American monasteries will be forced to rely on the arrival of more monks from overseas. (Several Trappist monasteries in Africa and Asia, for example, haven’t been plagued by the same decline in vocations – and some, at least partly because of the stability of monastic life and the unfamiliarity of the message, Gumula said, are brimming with young monks.) Some aging monasteries, including Mepkin, have had to rely on greater numbers of paid employees and volunteers, which has helped avert a shortage of labor.
Still, Mepkin’s future is anything but certain. “I don’t want to spend my remaining years simply hanging on,” Gumula said. “I’d rather be in a community that has a vital energy and a good community life. And if that means closing Mepkin, that means closing Mepkin.”
“I believe there’s going to be a turnaround,” he added. “Is it going to be a turnaround that’s quick enough for Mepkin? I don’t know. But I have great hope in the future.”
The Rev. Columba Caffrey, the newest member of Mepkin’s monastic community who, at 60, is also one of its youngest monks, was cautiously optimistic. “If you’re waiting for a whole lot of people to come to the traditional monastery – well, that won’t happen,” he said. “But maybe a smaller number will. And maybe, by some creativity, looking to the future, they can help to hold on to, and spread, this tradition.”
The overarching sense here is that Mepkin has so much to offer to the world’s spiritual searchers – irrespective of their ties to any formal religion.
“There’s tons of young people who are interested in spirituality,” Tedesco said. “Maybe they’re not ready or able in this culture to make a lifetime commitment. But they’re interested in prayer, and they’re interested in finding ways to connect with their center.”
The Trappists, he added, have been around for a thousand years. “And we expect to be here for another thousand years,” he said. “But it’s going to look different.”
“And Mepkin Abbey, these monks present here – we want to be part of shaping what the future will look like.”