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IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD

By Will Martin
(McClatchy Newspapers/Beaufort Gazette)

The priest's words drove a wedge between Hugh's heart and his faith: "Hippies are the agents of devils."

It was 1966, and Hugh -- an aspiring New England artist in his early 20s -- had come to identify with America's emerging counterculture, its libertine spirit providing fertile ground for his artistry. Suddenly, the certitude of the Catholic Church seemed a suffocating contrast; he "defected overnight."

For the next three decades, Hugh garnered international praise as a New York City sculptor, embracing the Bohemian culture and pleasures his acclaim afforded him; and for the next three decades, his devout mother knelt in prayer.

"'I prayed you would come back to the church,'" she now tells Hugh -- Brother Hugh -- a Trappist monk at Mepkin Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Moncks Corner, less than an hour's drive north of Charleston. "'But you went through the front door and out the back.'"

His mother affectionately evinces a reaction common to the monastic vocation. Returns to faith are common -- but a monk? The word often evokes images as likely to bewilder as inspire.

The practice of isolating one's self from family and society in search of the sacred is neither new nor strictly Christian; spiritual contemplatives have been around since antiquity, and Hindu and Buddhist monks predate Christ.


Precursors to Christian monasticism are found in certain Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist, wilderness-dwelling cousin to Jesus who survived on a diet of locusts and honey.

But Christian monasticism as an institutional order probably emerged in fourth-century Egypt, when Saint Pachomius gathered ascetic hermits into a community to pursue the "counsels of perfection" -- chastity, poverty and obedience to church law. In Catholic theology, these "works of supererogation" are acts not required by God but chosen by those consecrated to seeking his continual presence. They flow from the heart of the monastic vocation, a calling that Brother Hugh -- like his Egyptian forefathers -- first felt in the desert.

The High Desert of Southern California's San Bernardino County is vast and still. If one longed to get alone to find self and God, it might be a good start.

By 1988, Hugh had realized most of his career aspirations, but neither accolades nor New York therapists could quiet his restless heart. In his travels out West, the artist's introspective spirit found something in the way of solace among the hot expanses of the High Desert's Mojave plains.

"I had meditated my whole adult life," said Hugh. "I had a desire to deepen (that experience)."

Monastic tradition holds such longing to be an intuitive response to a divine invitation, a beckoning to the heart of God. If the desert triggered something eternal in Hugh, it soon gave way to more Earthly considerations.

"I got involved with a woman," he said.

Over the next several years, Hugh continued his professional and personal pursuits, finding a measure of joy on both planes. Life, it seemed, was pretty good, and after the first romance failed, "another lady showed up," and the seeming success of that relationship caused Hugh to question the stirring born in the desert.

It wasn't long, however, before external accomplishment offered diminishing internal returns, and Hugh found himself increasingly disturbed by society's frenetic pace and his girlfriend's own inability to just be still.

"(She) always said that I was meant for something bigger," Hugh said. "I tried for five years to change her mind."

In 1997, Hugh's unrest led him to take a five-day retreat in New York among Benedictine monks. He decided to receive the Eucharist for the first time in 30 years. There, in the sacramental bread and wine, he felt the presence of God. And he was mortified.

"Jesus was there for me at that moment," said Hugh, who thought to himself, "I'm in trouble."


Both enthralled by divine rapture and deeply unsettled by what that might mean to his life, Hugh needed to test the validity of his experience. He received the sacraments the next day, only to witness the intense, ineffable presence of Christ again, confirming his heart's desire to draw close to God.

Saturated with a sense of the sacred, the sculptor wandered the monastic grounds and observed the monks engaging in simple, manual tasks. As they chopped wood, his artist's heart responded.

"This is really a creative life," he remembers thinking. The work, he observed, had "an integrity to it," and the monks weren't merely chipping away at timber, they "were in conversation with it."

The rift between Hugh's heart and faith had begun to heal.

Not long after his retreat, he ended his "unconsecrated" relationship and began to engage in congregational life in the Catholic Church. Increasingly, he felt a call to what he had observed during the Benedictine retreat, leading him to pursue the monastic vocation. After a year of church review and a rigorous battery of tests, to include a long weekend under a Franciscan psychiatrist's eye, Hugh entered the monastic life and ultimately arrived at the Abbey of Our Lady of Mepkin.

"For the first six of seven months here I cried every day out of gratitude," Hugh said. "We're privileged to spend the time where we can experience our brokenness."

In his early 60s, Brother Hugh bears a sturdy frame suitable to a sculptor. As a monk, his rugged hands still engage creatively as one of two cooks who prepare meals for the other 50 or so brothers and the handful of outside visitors.

"The kitchen is one of the more sacred spaces in the monastery," said Mary Jeffcoat, media representative for Mepkin.

Labor is essential to Trappist spirituality, forming one half of the Benedictine motto: Ora et Labora, or "pray and work."

By design, Mepkin's monks work hard and stay tired. Rising at 3 a.m., the brothers believe "certain defenses are eroded" by labor and lack of sleep. It is in this state, at the edge of what the monk is able to do in his own strength, that Brother Hugh says one is able to "let God take over."

The presence of God, he adds, is in the "thingyness of stuff," the spiritual being "bound in the practical," the creator in the created.

"You know how I know I'm a child of God?," he asks. "I work and I rest; that's what God does."

Such simplicity is echoed by the abbey's design. Resting along the Cooper River, its beauty is natural, and its architecture -- which has won international recognition-- is more serene than striking.

A community within the greater Lowcountry community, the 63-year-old Abbey is more public than most monasteries in that it welcomes visitors.


"It's not a bed and breakfast" said Jeffocoat, but it does offer space for spiritual retreat and for opposing organizations to resolve conflict. It is here, for instance, that groups involved in constructing the Cooper River Bridge found common ground.

In the end, however, this is land where monks dwell, and when a brother isn't working, eating or sleeping, he's engaged in sacred study or prayer. The monk's day is pervaded by religious practice -- vigils, readings, Eucharist, vespers, chants -- no mere Sunday ritual, such habitude is the daily breath and life of the monk.

The entire day at Mepkin is aimed at cultivating a mindfulness of God, for their own spiritual benefit and that of the greater world, which they continually lift up in prayer.

To encourage this singlemindedness, Mepkin's brothers take meals in silence, keep their conversations short, have limited outside contact -- their families are allowed one visit annually -- and peruse the Internet only as their studies merit.

Their goal? To be human.

And "to be human," said Francis Kline, former Mepkin abbot, "is to walk around with God in your heart."