Farewell to my uncle

“I have some good news and some bad news.”

The voice was that of the abbot of Mepkin Abbey. I was standing with my wife in the meat section of our local Kroger’s, and Father Stan was calling to tell me that my uncle, Brother Gregory, had died. It was Friday morning, Dec. 23.

It was both good news and bad news, of course. My uncle was 92, and as Father Stan said, he had gone home.

It was all good news for Brother Gregory: a peaceful passing. In keeping with his character, he had inconvenienced no one. At one moment, he was in his room, up and awake and awaiting dawn’s arrival like all of his brother monks, and the next moment, when no one was looking, he slipped away to meet his Savior.

The bad news part is all about us: not just because he was the last surviving founding monk of Mepkin Abbey, but Brother Gregory was also my only uncle, whom we all loved.

Since living in Indiana, every year or two my family would go visit him at Mepkin, a beautiful abbey nestled under oaks and Spanish moss and perched near the Cooper River in South Carolina.

My children grew up with a much deeper familiarity of my uncle than I had enjoyed as a boy.

They also experienced his life — the cycles of prayer and work, the quiet of the monastery grounds, the meals eaten in silence in the refectory.

My uncle originally joined Gethsemani in Kentucky after serving in World War II.

I had asked him if Thomas Merton had influenced him to join the Trappists, but he had not. Instead, it was a book written by a cowboy turned monk earlier in the century that had fired his vocation.

After the war, the monasteries were teeming with novices, and so a band of 29 monks was sent in 1949 to South Carolina to a plantation that was donated to them by the Henry Luce family.

In heavy wool habits, they labored in the hot and humid South Carolina climate to build an abbey, and then support themselves. For 62 years Brother Gregory never left Mepkin and its near vicinity. He never returned to Los Angeles, even for a visit.

The man I only came to know in adulthood was bent over by age, but full of good humor and a humble disposition combined with an iron and energetic will. He loved doing outings with my family. When he was 90, and plagued by physical ailments, we went to the aquarium in Charleston. I followed him around with a wheel chair the entire visit, and he refused to sit in it the entire visit.

My uncle gave his whole life in service, but never became a priest.

He was a simple laborer in an isolated vineyard for the Lord. He saw abbots come and go, seasons come and go, hurricanes come and go. He participated in the daily cycle of prayer and labor that constitutes a monk’s life.

He lived the Little Way, one of God’s hidden treasures, his faith suffusing his every breath.

God seems to take delight in such hidden treasures.

He has created a vast universe, where worlds whirl and stars ignite unseen by anyone but Him. And in one corner of South Carolina, unknown, unheralded and unsung, my uncle lived a faith that made it all make sense.

We had received a Christmas card from Brother Gregory that he wrote shortly before he died.

His last lines captured the spirit of the man:

“May we all enjoy our most loving Savior’s richest blessings on His Birthday, and may His prayers for our sharing in His Eternal Embrace be as effective as possible. I’m with you always. Let’s join one another in praying for all God’s children.”

Amen.

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.