Spring break features monks and mushrooms

The first night back at Mepkin Abbey with my family, we cooked pollo al limone for my uncle. I dedicated the meal to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Readers of this column may remember the story of how PETA exploited Mepkin for its campaign against the egg industry a couple of years back. Mepkin supported itself through the sales of eggs, and PETA attracted a great deal of attention with a misleading report that claimed the monks were abusing the hens. Cooking chicken in lemon sauce was a tasty epilogue to those sour events.

You may be happy to know that Mepkin's Trappists are recovering. The controversy was disruptive to their community, but they are now enthusiastically embarking on a new adventure: Mushrooms. Oyster mushrooms, to be exact, and they are providing markets and restaurants in their corner of South Carolina with some terrific culinary treasures. How terrific? Even my kids ate some!

The mushrooms sprout out of bags of straw hanging from the ceilings of trailers with carefully controlled humidity. They are a sight to behold, splendidly capped and in a variety of colors. The monks pick them daily and package them in containers that are both clever and earth-friendly.

It is important for the monks that they keep a connection with the land in the labora part of their daily cycle of ora et labora. Mepkin is situated in a part of South Carolina with a long history of agriculture, the perfect spot for a monastery that serves as a beacon of Catholic culture for the region.

My uncle is the last survivor of a band of monks who set out from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1949 and carved out a place of contemplation and prayer in what was, at that time, an isolated perch over the Cooper River in a somewhat inhospitable clime.

This month, my uncle will be turning 90. He is a wonderful man, and we enjoy spoiling him as much as we can when we visit the monastery. This time, we introduced him to Starbucks coffee, explored the Charleston Aquarium, and even dove into some great Carolina barbecue.

The truth is, however, that my uncle, his brother monks and the abbey grounds themselves give us so much more than we can ever give in return.

Spending spring break at a monastery must sound a bit odd to folks more accustomed to Mexico, Florida and other traditional destinations for the winter-weary. It gets even odder when we describe a day built around Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. We would attend compline or vespers each evening, and I loved setting out in the morning dark for lauds, the abbey church resounding in chant and song as the sun approaches dawn's horizon.

But there is adventure enough to keep the kids interested. This year we cruised about the abbey grounds looking for alligators and turtles. Nature at Mepkin is not always as peaceful as its human caretakers. Besides alligators, there are fire ants and wasps, carpenter bees and mosquitoes. Watching where you step is encouraged.

Yet there is a peaceful coexistence at work here. Abbey meadows are thriving with native species, and there is even a labyrinth lined with local wildflowers. Night comes with an inky blackness no city has, and a canopy of stars can be viewed beyond the moss-draped branches of the towering oaks.

Mepkin has become a voice in the Christian environmental movement, and it is easy to see why. Away from city lights and city sounds, it recalls a time when man did not necessarily see himself as apart from the natural world.

Our family always leaves Mepkin calmer than when we arrived. We are indeed fortunate to know this band of brothers, men of work and prayer and joy who remind us that the harmony we all seek is still possible to find.

Greg Erlandson is the president and publisher of OSV.