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Lessons from Trappist monks in a time of quarantine
Published Friday, April 10, 2020 3:51PM EDT
TORONTO -- The monks at Mepkin Abbey Monastery are standing resolute against the threat of COVID-19. August Turak says they remind him of trees.
“These huge hurricanes come flying off the Atlantic there in Charleston, South Carolina, and sometimes they do a lot of devastating damage to the monastery,” Turak says.
“There are all these gigantic oak trees that bend in the hurricane, they don’t break. The monks are the same. They bend but they don’t break.”
Turak is no stranger to the tranquil gardens of the Monastery in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. He is an award-winning author, entrepreneur and speaker, but he also happens to be a frequent monastic guest there (what Turak likes to call a “part-time monk”).
While the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the daily lives of populations around the globe, the Roman Catholic monks at Mepkin Abbey still rise at 3:40 a.m. every day. Also known as Trappist monks, they spend their days praying, attending church and farming oyster and shiitake mushrooms in the afternoons. The monks speak only when necessary, and go to bed early.
Turak says that, practically speaking, those struggling with the new reality of self-isolation should do what the monks would do.
“They spend time quietly, sitting,” he says. “This could be turned in to a tremendous opportunity to really sit down and ask, ‘Am I living the way I really want to live?’ ‘Are there people I need to forgive?’ ‘Am I spending enough time with my children?’ Come up with a plan about what’re you’re going to change when this is all over.”
Being in a state of lockdown is nothing new for monks. They live and work in seclusion 365 days of the year, voluntarily submitting hours of each day in solitary prayer and silence. Trappist Monks have been living and working this way for more than 1,000 years, their traditions spanning the tests of trials from Viking marauders to the Black Death. For them, physical distancing from the outside world comes naturally.
According to Turak, the principles that the monks live by can be applied to anyone’s journey through the anxiety and frustration that come with social isolation. The key to accepting this new state of being is not a series of practical steps, but a mindset.
“Your life has to be rooted in something other than your everyday routine,” he says. “The monks are rooted in a higher purpose. It’s not just religious- I call it service and selflessness. They’re dedicated to something much more profound. When you live that kind of life, you have a tendency to be able to retreat.”
Turak began visiting Mepkin Abbey in 1996, after a skydiving accident forced him to come to terms with the years of dark depression that preceded it. He says that his time at Mepkin Abbey changed everything.
“I’ve been going back ever since,” says Turak. “From 1998 to this day I’ve never had a moment’s depression. I’ve been battling depression on and off since I was 14-years-old.”
In 2005, Turak won a US$100,000 essay contest with a piece he wrote called Brother John. It’s about an especially life-altering encounter he had with a monk that transformed his perspective on living purposefully.
For Trappist monks, their purpose is rooted in a few key principles: one of them being a firm dedication to hospitality. Monasteries typically host guests on a donation basis, but three weeks ago Mepkin Abbey sealed its doors to the public.
A single case of coronavirus could be detrimental to the small group of monks, many of whom are elderly, who live at Mepkin Abbey. But with the gates closed to the outside world, COVID-19 simply doesn’t exist inside. Busy with a strict schedule of religious activities, manual labour and personal reflection, the rhythm of the Trappist monks remains untouched.