Menu

Essay

The following is excerpted from Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith by Fred Bahnson, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster, Inc. The book tells the story of the author’s series of pilgrimages to communities that integrate religious practice, love for place, and the production of food, including Pentecostal coffee roasters in Washington State, young Jewish farmers in Connecticut, and, in the following section, monks raising oyster mushrooms in South Carolina. Printed by permission. © 2013 by Fred Bahnson.

Vigils, 3:20 AM

PRAYER BEGAN in darkness.

At three AM a buzzer rang in my cell. I dressed quickly and stepped out into the twenty-degree December night. The moon was full, and by its light a host of dark, silent forms glided across the cloistered lawn and into the abbey church. One of the shrouded figures, his face obscured by a hood, held the door for me. Inside a faint aroma of incense lingered from Vespers the night before. The walls were unadorned. Near the vaulted ceiling, windows ran the entire length of the nave. Next to the bare, granite altar, a leafless maple tree stood in an earthen pot, a symbol of the barrenness of winter. Some of the monks walked to a stone font in the center of the nave and dipped their fingers before crossing themselves.

I took my seat next to Brother Gregory and watched the other monks arrive. At 3:20 a bell began to ring. After a few moments the ringing slowed, and everyone stood and turned to face the altar. From somewhere behind me a set of knuckles knocked once on a wooden choir seat, and all bowed toward the altar. We then recited two lines from Psalm 51, the first words to pass our lips since the end of last night’s Compline, sanctifying the night as those words have sanctified every night for the past fifteen hundred years: Oh Lord, open my lips, a lone monk sang, and in unison we joined him: And my mouth shall declare your praise.

According to the guest handbook I found on the desk in my narrow cell, “It is in living out the horarium and doing the ordinary tasks of the day that you will discover the wisdom of this way of life.” The horarium, or Divine Hours, consist of the daily services, beginning with Vigils; spiritual reading; and manual labor: the three-fold path of Benedictine life.

The brothers knew which psalm to sing next, but I had trouble finding my way through the prayer book. Brother Gregory reached a clawed hand over and turned the page in my psalter. We sang the first verse of Psalm 57—Have mercy on me, God, have mercy, for in you my soul has taken refuge—and sat down. The prior’s side of the choir picked up the next verse, and then we traded verses, bowing at the end and singing Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, our words lifting slightly on “Spirit,” and our bodies lifting, too.

At ninety-two, Gregory was the last of the original founders of Mepkin Abbey. He would be my stalwart companion all week, guiding me through each day’s seven services. Despite his age, Gregory’s voice rose to meet the others—O God, arise above the heavens; may your glory shine on earth!—and I found my own voice growing in confidence.

When Vigils ended at four am we would leave in silence, returning to our cells for nearly two hours of lectio divina—spiritual reading—until we would gather again at daybreak to sing Lauds. When the abbot’s knuckles knocked and the monks stood to depart, Brother Gregory remained seated. At first he seemed to still be praying, but then I noticed a bit of drool on his lower lip. He had only dozed off, his head slumped so low that his chin nearly grazed his lap. To me it seemed as if Brother Gregory was returning to the fetal position, as if through all those years of bowing and rising God had been slowly curling him up again before bringing him home.

§

The two hours of reading were no chore; I had good books at hand: Thoughts in Solitude by the twentieth century’s most famous Trappist, Thomas Merton, The Conferences of the fifth-century monk John Cassian; Rilke’s Book of Hours, a mushroom grower’s guide called Mycelium Running, and a short book by the late Francis Kline, former abbot of Mepkin, called Lovers of the Place. That first morning I began with Kline. “The word enters our dreams and images more easily at the time before the sun’s light,” he wrote. “Only in the darkness are certain, more choice intuitions of God received.”

As I read, my mind traveled past the abbey church across the fields to a cluster of sheds, where millions of tiny threads of mycelium worked in the darkness. A string-like network of fungal cells, mycelium is the organism that produces mushrooms. The brothers of Mepkin cultivate mycelium, whose “fruit” supports their life of prayer. Their relationship with fungi was relatively new; they had taken up mushroom cultivation after many years in the egg business. But the relationship of fungi to life as we know it goes back nearly 450 million years. Indeed, without mycelium, there would be no life at all. Only recently have we come to understand the true magnitude of our dependence on these organisms. We now know, for instance, that at least 90 percent of all plants on earth form symbiotic relationships with fungi. These relationships are called mycorrhizae, Greek for “fungus-roots,” and they are ubiquitous, found in nearly every ecosystem in the world.

The relationship works like this: the fungus penetrates a plant’s roots and provides it with nutrients and water from the surrounding soil, which the fungus accesses through its mycelial network. The fungus in turn receives starches from the plant. When mycelium grows out into the surrounding soil it is said to “run,” and in so doing it not only forms symbiotic relationships with single plants; it provides links between plant species. In 1964, two North Carolina scientists chopped down a red maple tree and poured radioactive liquid into the stump. Eight days later they found that, within a radius of twenty-two feet, the leaves of nearly half of all the trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs contained radioactivity; mycelium provided the pathway through which the radioactive material spread. The experiment confirmed fungi’s link to every living thing. And every dead thing. “Fungi are the interface organisms between life and death,” mycologist Paul Stamets writes in Mycelium Running. They are our biological go-betweens to the world beyond animate life. And like monks at prayer, fungi do their best work in darkness.

§

“To sit on the side and gaze at our navel,” wrote Abbot Stan of Mepkin in an essay on work, “is to miss the great reality of life. We are co-creators with God of the earthly city.” Creation was not a one-time event, Stan writes; it is ongoing, and we are called to participate in it with the work of our hands. For the monks at Mepkin there was a constant back and forth between work and prayer, action and contemplation, the one feeding the other. For the first five and a half hours of the day they prayed and studied, but from 8:30 am onward they worked to co-create an earthly city in miniature. “If our work is to share in the creative activity of God,” Abbot Stan continued, “then it is precisely not a dominion of power or self-aggrandizement. It is one of humility before the creative presence of God; work must serve to realize our humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person…. We do not dominate by lording it over nature, but by treading lightly, knowing that we are all in this together.”

An austere order, the Trappists were modern-day ascetics who practiced silence and contemplation following the sixth-century Rule of Saint Benedict. While the Rule would become the foundational text for western monasticism, in the centuries following Benedict’s death his followers grew lax, softening his instructions to suit their own slovenly habits, in some cases forsaking them all together. In 1098 in Cîteaux, France, a small group of Benedictine monks led by Saints Robert, Alberic, and Stephen broke away from the Benedictines, repulsed by their accumulated wealth and moral lassitude, and started their own strict order. Later known as the Trappists, after the French monastery La Trappe, these men returned to the rigorous life of manual labor and unceasing prayer that had marked the monasticism of the fourth-century desert fathers. The Trappists also reclaimed the agrarian arts of the early Benedictines. They became known for taking swampland that nobody wanted and converting it into productive farmland.

Saint Bernard, the most famous of the early Trappists, often wrote admiringly of the fields and meadows around the monastery. While the later Romantic poets would find their inspiration in a world untouched by human hands, Saint Bernard wrote of the beauty of tilled fields and hay meadows. Working farmland, not pristine wilderness, was what caught his eye. Becoming co-creators with God means that our cultivation of the earth should not only feed us, but express beauty as well. How many modern farms, I wondered, could witness to that truth?

Though most of the brothers at Mepkin are too old to do much farm work, the Trappist agrarian ethos lives on at the abbey. In 2008 the monks gave up their longstanding egg operation for a new venture into mushrooms, looking for a business that was profitable while also being more ecologically sustainable. That change also inspired them to plant an organic vegetable garden. Father Guerric grows some of the vegetables that appear on the refectory table, as well as muscadine grapes, blackberries, and figs. “I think it’s a moral imperative to have a vegetable garden,” Father Guerric told me. “It saves energy costs. We eat healthier. You may get your hands red peeling beets, so there are minor inconveniences.”

The monks’ ecological footprint is also made smaller by their life together. “When people live in community,” Father Guerric said, “they need less, spend less, use fewer resources.” Guerric was quick to acknowledge that they haven’t taken a vow of poverty. “We’ll use a good piece of machinery. But we still live frugally. We don’t have many possessions. We have what we need, not necessarily what we want.”

The monks aren’t entirely self-sufficient; they do hire some outside help. But self-sufficiency is, ecologically speaking, a contradiction in terms and hardly a goal worth pursuing. The abbey’s economy overlaps with the local economy and, to a lesser extent, the national economy, but they maintain a certain sphere in which they don’t depend on those larger, inherently unstable forces. They have what the Greeks call an oikos (from which we get oikonomia, economy): a household that includes fields, people, and home. It is an ancient pattern of living, and one I longed for.

The brothers of Mepkin Abbey were heirs to the oldest continuous Christian agrarian community in the world and I thought perhaps I could bring some of their wisdom home with me. The man who wants to benefit from the monks’ wisdom, wrote a commentator on Benedict’s fifth-century Rule, “will be amply repaid by an examination of the monastic patterning of the quest, not so much its details…as for its spirit.” I was here to absorb their monastic patterns.

As the day dawned outside the monastery window, providing the only light in my narrow guest cell, out on the Cooper River a blue heron glided into the marsh for breakfast. A flock of crows squawked at the intruder, but the heron took no notice, stalking knee-deep through the still water, a creature utterly at home. “Taming the heart requires a sense of place,” Abbot Kline wrote. “It roots not just the mind to a set of principles, but also the body to a piece of land.”

The monks had been rooted to this piece of land north of Charleston, South Carolina, since 1949, when publishing magnate Henry Luce, at the nudging of his Catholic wife Clare Boothe, gave 3,100 acres for the establishment of a monastery. I had lived in eleven different houses before I left home for college, and I’d only recently rooted myself, moving onto a piece of land in western North Carolina. My wife and I planted an orchard, grape vines, asparagus—perennials you put in only when you plan to stay. By coming to Mepkin I hoped to learn patterns of work and worship that I might take back to our small farm, learning how the monks’ work helping mycelium to run also fed their life of prayer. I also came to escape the messiness of human life. Years ago I’d felt called to a life on the land, but I had realized that my spiritual resources for sustaining that life were too few. I was hoping to learn from the monks how to nurture those inner resources, both through deeper prayer and through discovering the balance of solitude and community.

§

Terce, 8:15 AM

After Mass we sang Terce, a short service of Psalms and readings, and by then it was 8:30. We had been awake for five and a half hours, yet our workday was just beginning. As I left the sanctuary my head was abuzz with prayers and chants. I will awake the dawn. Comfort, O Comfort my people. When we gathered in the chapter room to receive assignments, I was sent to work the oyster mushroom columns with Brothers Dismas and Anthony-Maria. Hopping on one of the monastery bicycles, I peddled out to join them at the mushroom sheds.

“Get ready, fellas,” Dismas shouted. “I’m hauling in some Christmas gifts.”

“I hope it’s cheeseburgers,” Anthony-Maria said.

Hardly. Dismas entered the growing shed wheeling a dolly with a hundred-pound barrel of pasteurized wheat chaff and cottonseed hulls. Into this substrate we would mix spawn, then pack the mixture into long plastic tubes—the columns. A foot wide and five feet long when filled, each tube weighed sixty to seventy pounds. After they were packed came three weeks of waiting, the mycelium running along its ancient pathways, slowly turning death into life until suddenly, out of the darkness, the mushrooms would emerge.

“If one mushroom can steer the world on the path to greater sustainability, fighting hunger, increasing nutrient return pathways in ecosystems, destroying toxic wastes, [and] forestalling disease,” writes Stamets, “oysters stand out.” I’m not sure the monks were particularly concerned with increasing nutrient return pathways in ecosystems, but oyster mushrooms had certainly steered them toward greater financial sustainability. The top restaurants in nearby Charleston, as well as several grocery store chains, were snapping up all the mushrooms Mepkin could grow.

Dismas and Anthony-Maria were in charge of making the columns. I stood beside Anthony-Maria, an African American man. He was quiet, with a serious demeanor, though his smile suggested a lively humor. He reminded me of a monastic Mr. T without the mohawk. Aside from a few terse directives—“Kneepads on that hook,” or “Spray some denatured alcohol on those tarps”—Anthony-Maria had uttered very few words. I was curious how he had ended up in a Trappist monastery and taken such an intriguing name. As we knelt on the concrete and started packing tubes with mushroom substrate, I asked him.

“Well, I was driving cab up in Philly, and somebody said, ‘Man, you too good lookin’ to be living in Philly—you need to move to North Carolina.’ And somehow this is where I ended up. You may not have heard, but I was voted Best Looking Monk in Monastic Quarterly four years running.”

“I thought you were just runner-up,” Dismas said.

“Naw, I was runner-up at internationals. Got beat there by a double cheeseburger.” The two tried to hold their faces straight, but Anthony-Maria erupted in belly laughter. I’d been had. In church, Anthony-Maria’s visage was inscrutable, but out here in the mushroom shed, the man who had been the gregarious Philly cab driver emerged.

Before he became Brother Anthony-Maria, his name was Rodney. After driving a cab for a few years he started a small business in computers. He kept a garden and mostly kept to himself. People told him he was shy, but really he was just comfortable being alone. He started reading about Zen Buddhism, which led him to Christian monastic literature, and when he read The Life of Saint Anthony, “that was it.” He became a Catholic. “I wanted to pray like Saint Anthony,” he said, lifting his hands, “and become light.”

Saint Anthony (251–356 CE), the son of well-to-do peasants, was sitting in church one day when a text from the Gospels was read, and in Jesus’s words to a rich young ruler Anthony heard instead a command addressed directly to himself: “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor and come and follow me.” He left everything behind and set out for the desert, where he discovered an abandoned fort and walled himself in. There was a spring inside the fort, and friends would bring him bread twice a year, but he otherwise had no human company. Later he moved into a cave, which became his permanent dwelling. For the next twenty years, Anthony fasted and prayed and fought demons, uniting himself to Christ. Word spread of Anthony’s holiness, and soon others were leaving their homes to become hermits in the desert of Egypt, marking the beginnings of Christian monasticism.

When Rodney finished reading The Life of Saint Anthony he knew he would become a monk. At first he thought he needed to go live in a cave like Saint Anthony, but then he learned that modern monasticism was much less rigorous than it was in the fourth century. For a time he continued working in Philly, leading a monkish life of prayer mostly on his own, and attending Mass. Then he moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, thinking he would join a Benedictine abbey there, but that monastery was located at the center of a co-ed college. During his visit he took one walk across campus with all the pretty women sauntering about and said, “No way.” Then he discovered Mepkin. That was two years ago. Now he had received the novice habit, an important first step toward becoming a Trappist, and assumed the name Anthony-Maria after his twin guides in the faith: Maria, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Anthony, the first monk. “Many times you hear something and it speaks to your whole being,” he said. “You want to respond to it, but nobody else is doing it so you don’t. But then you do it. And it turns out it wasn’t as difficult as you thought.”

After packing several hundred pounds of pasteurized wheat chaff, cottonseed hulls, and mushroom spawn into a dozen plastic columns, Anthony-Maria and I carted them over to a truck, where we hung them lengthwise on moveable racks. The columns were sealed on one end and tied with yellow twine on the other. Now we needed to punch holes in them so the growing mycelium would send out fruiting bodies. To do this, Anthony-Maria produced a wicked looking tool: a two-by-four with razor-sharp arrowheads screwed on. He went down the line, punching the upright columns like a seasoned street fighter, then handed the device to me. “Next row is yours.” After I punched holes in the remaining columns, we drove the truck around to a long line of tractor-trailers—temperature- and humidity-controlled grow rooms—and hung the columns from metal hooks. Here they would stay for the next month, producing several crops of oyster mushrooms.

It was clear that Anthony-Maria loved this life, but I wanted to know about its challenges. “Giving up romance,” he said, “that’s been hard.” Other monks I asked, especially the younger ones, said the same thing. I recalled reading in the introduction to the Rule that Benedict, whenever he felt lust rising within him, would roll naked in a patch of stinging nettles. If anything could quell lustful thoughts, I imagined, it would certainly be nettle-stung nethers.

Another big challenge for Anthony-Maria was giving up cheeseburgers. When Brother Vincent recently traveled to Scotland, Anthony-Maria asked him to bring him back his favorite food. Instead Vincent mailed Anthony-Maria a postcard with some cows on it. “This is all Homeland Security would allow me to send,” Vincent wrote. But cheeseburger deprivations for Anthony-Maria were minor. Dealing with himself had been the hardest. “You’re confronted by yourself here in a way that you’re not out in the world.”

Yes, I thought. I admired Anthony-Maria’s focus. I realized it was the hope for this kind of confrontation with myself that had brought me to Mepkin.

We drove back to the shed and found Dismas wrestling a second batch of columns onto a cart. “Working the columns” it was called, and Dismas loved it. Though slight of build, the man possessed a wiry strength. After a morning hoisting columns, I was eager to rest, but Dismas never stopped moving. One reason he came to the Trappists was that after four years of studying academic theology at Notre Dame he realized he couldn’t even fix a kitchen sink. “I needed to put the faith in my hands.” He had learned that certain mental and spiritual problems could not be resolved intellectually; they needed to be worked out physically, with one’s own body. Manual labor was the ancient monastic cure for many a spiritual ailment. “I see work as very incarnational. Jesus became flesh, muscle, sinew. He put his body where the question was. And then he walked the question.”

I asked Dismas what he meant by the question.

“Human sin. Broken relationships. Loneliness. Take the most agonizing question of your life—that’s the question Jesus came into and walked.” Which seemed a good way to think about what drove men like Dismas and Anthony-Maria to become monks. An agonizing question for which there were no apparent answers, a yearning without apparent remedy.

That is, until a way avails itself to the seeker. A way which becomes The Way, followed by a sudden and overwhelming desire to walk in it. As I understood it, this was the nature of a calling. With its rigors and rituals the monastic life offered a well-worn path to follow. The monastery anchored your spiritual life through life in the body: getting up at three am, packing cottonseed hulls into columns, putting the faith in your hands.

You put your body where the question is. Then you walk the question.

§

As the days passed, I was to learn that the monks of Mepkin felt called to this life in different ways, and from very different backgrounds. One day shortly before Sext, the noonday prayer before lunch, I was pedaling along the road under a canopy of live oaks and Spanish moss when Brother Theophilus passed me in a golf cart and waved. I waved back. Earlier in the week I had spent several mornings helping him in the shiitake grow rooms.

Incredulous. That’s the reaction Theophilus had when he realized God was calling him to this life. “Most Trappists are introverts by nature,” he said, “but I’m more of an extrovert. People call me an evangelical Catholic.”

Our first task was to release the submerged shiitake logs, which had been soaking overnight in a giant plastic tub. They weren’t actually logs, but were made from a blended substrate similar to the oyster mix, only these had been pressed into four-pound “logs” the size of footballs. Mottled brown with white splotches, they looked like overgrown Tootsie Rolls that had been sitting out in the rain for a couple of years. The vat held forty or fifty logs, and after fishing them out and placing them on plastic trays, we wheeled them on dollies into the grow rooms, where they would sit for two weeks before fruiting.

Before landing here Theophilus had been Alan, a district supervisor for a family grocery store chain in eastern Tennessee, then a manager of several Love’s truck stops in Kentucky and South Carolina. He was also a rabid sports nut. He loved to call in to talk-radio sports shows, where his handle was “Tennessee Big Al.” For many years he ran a website called Sports Parlor South, a gathering place for other sports fanatics like himself who wished to pay homage to their teams, especially the University of Tennessee Volunteers. Alan and some fans launched a big campaign to get a statue of General Neyland, the UT football coach, installed outside the stadium. After much time and effort at what became a quasi-religious pursuit, Alan began to wonder if this sports craze of his wasn’t masking some deeper hunger.

He began to get more involved in his local church, and his prayer life deepened, even as his marriage faltered. As his own faith grew, he and his wife grew apart, and she filed for divorce. With his four children mostly grown, Alan found himself living alone. Though pained at his divorce, he enjoyed his newfound hermit’s life of prayer. Something was happening to him. Once, after leaving a Denny’s restaurant where he had counseled a despairing friend, he was speeding down the highway and had to pull over. He felt as if waves were pouring over him. He thought, “Either I’m having a heart attack or this is the Holy Spirit.” After that he decided to go on retreat at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. Standing in the balcony during Compline, he suddenly experienced something momentous, unexplainable. He opened his eyes and everyone was gone. “You know when you’re making love to a woman and you just lose yourself? It was like that. You’re just utterly at peace.”

After stacking our shiitake logs in one of the grow rooms, we checked on the oyster columns made several weeks previously. Some were fruiting, the whitish-blue mushroom caps rising with humble beauty toward the light. In the fluorescent glow they appeared strange, as if they had come from another world. Alan showed me around the other grow rooms, old tractor-trailers in which he had cobbled together fans, humidity controls, and lights with timers. Because the abbey couldn’t always afford new equipment, they used what was on hand. I pointed to a fifty-gallon plastic trashcan suspended from the ceiling. It had been converted into a ventilation shaft, held loosely in place by bungee cords and duct tape. “Looks like a MacGyver rig,” I said. Theophilus smiled. “Almost everything we do around here is a MacGyver rig.”

For much of his adult life Alan was a tailgater—not just the beers-before-ballgames kind, also the riding-your-bumper kind. He would habitually drive fifteen or twenty miles over the speed limit. If people didn’t move to the right lane, he would tailgate them and hurl insults. “Pull over, speed up, or blow up, I don’t care—just get out of my way.” Prior to what he called his re-conversion, Alan knew he was hungry for truth. “I wanted to love God, but I didn’t know God to an extent that I could love him.” One night after his experience in Gethsemani, he knelt down and made God three promises. Every day from then on he vowed to read his Bible, make his bed, and stop tailgating people. “Then I passed the ball back to God. I said, ‘Lord, that’s the best I can do. Please help me to find my way.’”

“Did you stop speeding?” I asked.

“Nope. But I did stop tailgating people.”

Our mushroom duties complete, we hopped into the golf cart and zoomed off to one of the sheds. Along the way Theophilus stopped to unload a manure-spreader full of mushroom substrate and then jumped into the Bobcat and mixed this with leftover manure from the chicken houses. He was making compost he hoped to sell to home gardeners around Charleston, another potential income stream for the abbey. The earth was sustaining their life of prayer in ever-increasing ways.

After his experience in the balcony at Gethsemani and the visitation on the highway, Alan knew that God was pursuing him. One morning he was praying downstairs in his condo and decided to go up to his bedroom and lie down, desiring to go deeper in prayer. When he lay down on his bed, face toward the ceiling, he unconsciously stretched out his arms. He realized his body was forming the shape of a cross, and a thought came to him: I wonder what it would be like to be pinned like this. “And then—bam. All kinds of images came pouring in. I heard God pretty clearly saying, Okay, it’s time to follow me.” He went downstairs, lit a cigarette, made a pot of coffee, and began making a list. There were many things he would need to do before joining the monastery. Though he thought he would join Gethsemani, God led him to Mepkin.

He remains incredulous and not a little amused that God would want to make him, a garrulous evangelical Catholic, into a monk, and a Trappist no less, known for their practice of silence, though during my visit most of the brothers of Mepkin were kind enough to relax that practice to chat with me. Most times Theophilus follows this practice, though he’s found that in a community silence can occasionally become poisonous, hindering reconciliation between the brothers. “Sometimes you just got to cut through the bull crap and speak the truth, you know?” he told me. Even in his new life, the old Alan sometimes returns. One day he was in the golf cart on his way to the noon prayer, when he came upon a tour group blocking the road. “My first thought was: Crap—another bunch of old farts in my way.” Instead of waiting for them to move, he swerved into the grass and sped past. Telling me the story he shook his head, amazed that he was still capable of such blunders. “I was trying to get to church,” he said, “to learn such things as patience, peace, and loving kindness.”

In the oyster grow rooms most of the columns were black plastic, but I noticed a few smaller ones that were clear. The clear ones, Theophilus said, allowed the monks to watch for possible contaminations of mold, which could ruin an entire batch. So why not make all the columns clear?

“Because mushrooms grow better in darkness,” he said. “It forces them to reach toward the light.”


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Pin It on Pinterest