I was to present a five-day retreat at Our Lady of Mepkin Abbey in Monck’s Corner, South Carolina in May: “Devotions and Spiritual Exercises: Mary Oliver and Thomas Merton as Mentors for Contemplative Living.” We would use Oliver’s last volume of poetry, Devotions, as the text for this retreat. As I described in my last post, I was still suffering from depression. I did not want to get on the plane. Once I arrived at the airport in South Carolina I wanted to leave on the next plane out. Fortunately, I was met at the airport by Father Guerric, Mepkin’s retreat center director, who expertly calmed me down and enabled my beginning the retreat the next day on Monday afternoon. I wrote this “story” at Gerric’s urging for a book of essays kept at the retreat center.
May, 2018 at Mepkin Abbey
Never having been to Mepkin, I arrived in distress to present a five-day retreat animated by the poetry of Mary Oliver and Thomas Merton, mentors for contemplative living. I had experienced three deaths in close proximity within months. Heavy rains in New Jersey, despite the best efforts of the sub-pump, forced water into my basement for a week. I suffered insomnia. I walked into the lobby of the Saint Francis Retreat Center on Sunday afternoon barely in my right mind.
And thus the first object in the retreat center I spied upon entering was an attractive jar with a red top marked “Abbey’s Treats” in black marking pen. I thought without second guessing that these round pretzel objects with peanut butter centers were a Mepkin Abbey industry akin to cookies sold at Genesee Abbey, jam at Spencer Abbey, and candy at Wrentham.
In the early hours of Monday morning, still dazed and unable to sleep, I wandered into the living room of the Retreat Center, made a cup of herbal tea, and thought to try an “Abbey Treat.” I took only one, chewy enough to satisfy but I marked its bland taste. The monks should do better.
After presenting the first conference on Monday afternoon, I congratulated myself on how well it had gone despite my depression. To celebrate while the retreatants went to Vespers at the Abbey Church, I again poured herbal tea and, wanting to refuel after expending energy on the conference, I took the jar of “Abbey’s Treats” from its low shelf and ate at least five of them before I told myself that I should not hog them from the other retreatants. It was only then, as I returned the plastic container to its shelf, that I saw the retreat center’s mascot Abbey lying just outside the window. Abbey. Abbey’s Treats!! I picked up the plastic jar whose packaging I had ignored to realize that I had been feasting on dog food: Wishbone Dog Treats. I laughed long and hard at myself.
Later that Monday night, I along with the other retreatants as we tried to sleep, heard Abbey barking furiously outside our bedrooms. The next morning some conjectured she had been facing off with an alligator from the Cooper River or perhaps was protecting the Center from a bear. Only I guessed that, as usual having counted her treats nightly after all retired, she had realized I had poached her jar. She was barking at me to cease and desist.
As the week went on, I saw how Abbey became an object of affectionate attention by every person approaching her. We were united in our devotion to her good nature and to her open hospitality to each one of us. It was only on the eve of the end of the retreat that I confessed to our group that I had eaten Abbey’s Treats. Everyone howled. The next morning of our departure, as part of our last ritual of gathering in a circle, I had placed twelve of Abbey’s Treats on a “communion” plate on the table before us. At a good moment, everyone smiling in anticipation of what might come next, I passed the plate to share an Abbey Treat with each participant.
Many elements of the retreat would unite us forever as we departed for our homes from Mepkin, I began to explain, and Abbey would abide in memory to bind us. We might forget all that was said during the retreat, and eventually forget each other’s names, but we would never forget Abbey. Abbey would unite us with all those who had come to Mepkin before us, whom she had also accompanied, and she would unite us with all those in the future upon whom she would exert her ministry of hospitality. Therefore I urged that each of us have a final private appointment with Abbey to thank her for her generosity and her affection during our stay. Offering her one of her own treats in thanksgiving, we would show her gratitude and bow down.
As I gazed into her eyes to say my own good-bye, I promised not to forget how she had shared her jar with me and pulled me for a moment from the pit.