Thursday, March 22, 2018

Mepkin Abbey in the NYT.

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a story on Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina facing an uncertain future as the resident monks grow older and decline in number:
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.
The NYT story includes poignant details about Mepkin's decline, noting the community's increasing struggle to continue the agricultural work that supports the monastery and quoting a nonagenarian monk's assessment that Mepkin faces "a bleak situation" because "[w]e're all getting old." The article further explains that the monks have decided to respond to the apparent dearth of monastic vocations by reaching out to people who don't intend to become monks at all:
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.

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.")


"What young people keep telling us," said Father Joe Tedesco, the chair 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."
Despite the NYT's suggestion that the Mepkin "affiliate program" represents "a new form of monasticism," the monks themselves realize that it does not. As NYT reporter Stephen Hiltner observes, "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." Mepkin's abbot also frankly admits that the monastery may not survive: "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."

As Terry Mattingly points out at GetReligion, the NYT article is very one-sided, focusing on monasteries that are dying without ever asking questions about monasteries that actually are drawing vocations. Most Trappist monasteries in the United States seem to be in straits similar to those of Mepkin, at least judging by yearly statistics published by the Trappist Order. On the other hand, it isn't difficult to find monasteries in the United States (albeit those of other orders) that continue to attract (and retain) young vocations: one thinks of the Benedictines at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma or Saint Louis Abbey in Missouri, or of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas (a monastery I've written about once or twice before). To extensively scrutinize a dying monastery's efforts to revitalize itself without considering how other monasteries have succeeded in drawing vocations is, to say the very least, a bit bizarre. To be fair, the author of the piece is not a religion reporter - a dying breed, it seems, as more and more media outlets cut staff in response to declining revenues - but even a journalist without those credentials could do a bit of Googling to flesh out the context of a story that touches on broader social trends.

Despite the evident sincerity of the monks at Mepkin Abbey, their sense of what young people want belies data about what young Catholics in particular are looking for. As the monks acknowledge, seeking to provide a haven for 'spiritual but not religious' types will not lead to an influx of new vocations. The monks may realize, too, that Millennial Catholics who take their faith seriously are also serious about commitment and likely to be unimpressed by a strategy that is specifically tailored to seekers who are "interested in the spiritual life journey, but not in institutional religion." In this sense, it's interesting to contrast the NYT story on Mepkin Abbey with a NBC News story from just last week that highlighted the rising number of American Millennials who are choosing to enter religious orders - and who enter looking for a solid sense of identity and commitment that is countercultural. They represent a generation of Catholics who find themselves, as Tracey Rowland writes, "in full rebellion from the social experiments of the contemporary era" as they seek "to piece together elements of a fragmented Christian culture." Some will find the resources they need to assemble those fragments in one or another of America's remaining monasteries - but not, it seems, at Mepkin Abbey. AMDG.


At 3/22/2018 11:25 AM, Blogger Mary said...

That their rule of life and vocation to prayer, that the prayers themselves are, efficacious, seems to be interwoven with the terms of professing the Catholic Faith itself. It is difficult to see how curiosity seekers looking for a short term stay will be able to support the monks' raison d'etre. Recently I visited a Ruthenian Catholic monastery of monks seeking spiritual respite after some difficult years. Their chanting of the hours underscored to me that while I could join in to an extent, partake of their way of life, and appreciate their charism, I still had no calling whatsoever as a lay Catholic to that life or vocation, and that our lives as Catholics were different and yet good in those differences. We nonetheless enjoyed the communion of believers. Unless people visit these NY Times profiled monks in a spirit of mutual appreciation for the role of prayer in the life of the Catholic Church, I cannot see how an opportunity to be monk for a month could be beneficial for the community or the wider Church commensurate with their vocation to prayer. Best regards and thanks for an interesting read today.


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