It is becoming more difficult to escape the outside noise these days. Whether we are at work, at home or out to dinner, the world begs for more of our attention through media – and, in turn, the window of time for doing something meaningful can feel as though it is shrinking away, leaving us with no space for our breath and our thoughts.
More than 10 years ago, Mount Pleasant resident Carole Nicolini, assistant to the director at the St. Francis Retreat Center at Mepkin Abbey, recognized the benefit of a quiet place to foster a relationship with the spiritual world. A new resident of East Cooper at the time and a “cradle Catholic,” Nicolini became a devoted member of Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant. One evening, while attending a lecture at the church with friends, she learned about Mepkin Abbey.
“The keynote speaker that evening was Abbot Francis Kline, who was the abbot of Mepkin at the time,” she remembered. “He impressed me with his intellect and his humility. I thought to myself, ‘Once I get settled in South Carolina, I want to know more about Mepkin Abbey.’”
Nicolini answered her first calling to visit the Abbey in the form of assisting its community gardens. She’d recently taken a gardening course through the Clemson University Extension Service and received a list of properties in search of someone with a green thumb and extra time. Nicolini commented that although many other possibilities were on the list, she zeroed in on the Abbey and made immediate plans to volunteer.
“I came here to the gardens and fell in love,” she admitted.
Nicolini’s relationship with her beloved Abbey, now led by Abbot Stan Gumula, has remained fruitful. For about a decade, she volunteered as the bulletin editor in the parish office at Christ Our King and eventually gave her time at the Retreat Center at Mepkin as well. She marveled at how her home church and the Mepkin Abbey communities “helped each other in every way they could,” and made it easier for her to stay in touch. Eventually, she was offered the chance to be on staff at the Retreat Center after about a year of volunteer work.
“I was in awe that I would have such an opportunity,” she said.
Now, many months later, Nicolini has settled into her position, fully embracing the Retreat Center, which was recently remodeled and is frequently booked with individuals looking to escape everyday life. Hospitable and calming, Nicolini struck me as the ideal person for the job when we met; her soft-spoken voice and earnest belief in the importance of quiet time in nature convinced me, as it has convinced others, that such a retreat is worthwhile.
Though the Abbey is Roman Catholic, visitors who book a room at its St. Francis Retreat Center come from all walks of life and all faiths, according to Nicolini. During their scheduled stay – either Friday through Monday or a Monday through Friday – guests can choose to experience either absolute silence or to mingle with others staying at the Center. There are 12 retreat rooms, each with a private bath, and couples are accommodated in adjoining suites. Aside from soaking up the solitude and natural beauty of the landscape, retreat-goers are also invited to participate in prayer sessions each day with the monks. They have simple but tasty meals in the guest refectory, adjacent to where the monks eat. And they can choose to meet with Father Guerric Heckel, director of the Retreat Center and a Trappist monk, who offers what Nicolini called “spiritual guidance.”
While guests of the Retreat Center are able to sleep in, the monks of Mepkin rise every day at 3 a.m. for prayer, Mass and breakfast before beginning their daily duties. The monks work six days a week – mostly agricultural tasks such as growing Mepkin Abbey mushrooms or tending the grounds – and take only Sunday for rest. Nicolini believes that the monks are a major reason peace prevails throughout the Abbey.
“The presence of the monks, who have sacrificed their lives to prayer, make Mepkin Abbey a place of peace with prayers all around,” she mused.
Though Nicolini spends a good bit of her time at the Abbey, she likes coming home to Mount Pleasant – and her son and daughter-in-law, who reside in San Diego, enjoy visiting her as well.
“I love Mount Pleasant,” she remarked heartily. “We have amazing people from all over who make it a strong community.”
Story by Denise K. James
Photo by Barbara Gore