Interview: Author August Turak Talks on Life with Trappist Monks and Effective Quarantining

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With the world in lock down and life itself on hold, you might think that the last place to look for answers would be a Trappist monastery. Yet, August Turak, award-winning author and successful entrepreneur, would disagree.

Turak attributes his success to the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey, located just outside Charleston, SC, and Turak has spent 24 years living and working temporarily alongside the monks as a frequent monastic guest. 

Q: Welcome August, first of all, what led you to start hanging out with Trappist monks in the first place?

A: In 1996 I was an entrepreneur doing some night teaching at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. My students persuaded me to go sky diving and I compound fractured my ankle. This precipitated panic attacks and I fell into a deep depression. Another Duke student happened to call and tell me that he was spending his summer at Mepkin Abbey as a monastic guest. The next thing I knew, Brother John was helping me bring my bags into one of Mepkin's guest houses. I have been returning ever since. The monks saved my life.

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Q: In the face of this worldwide pandemic, what do you think uniquely qualifies the monks to offer us some useful advice?

A: Living life in lock down mode is nothing new for the monks. By choice, they live and work in seclusion in a monastery 365 days a year. They also spend hours each day in solitary prayer. They usually observe silence even when working at one of their monastic businesses; so social distancing comes naturally as well.

Finally, Trappist monks have been living and working together in hundreds of communities worldwide for over 1000 years. They have survived Viking marauders, the Black Death and countless other disasters. So, even trials as challenging as what we are currently facing is again, nothing new for the monks. And since the monks don't watch TV, they are perfectly used to a world suddenly deprived of sports!

Q: You have spent months at a time living and working with the monks.  What is it like being sequestered or cloistered from your normal life for such a long time?

A: For the first few days it is "romantic," as you experience the exotic mood of the monastery. The second stage I call "detox." You get a bit stir-crazy as little by little you let go of all the issues and burdens you brought with you. Stage three is "uplifting." Eventually the rhythm of prayer and work along with the spirit of monastic kindness that permeates the monastery begins to pick you up and carry you along. The final stage I call "timelessness." You become a bit disoriented in a pleasant, mystical kind of way as you discover that you are having a hard time deciding if that conversation you had with Brother John took place this morning, last night or two weeks ago! 

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Q: You wrote a book called 'Brother John' that won the $100,000 Templeton Prize, and you mentioned him today. If we asked Brother John for his advice what do you think he would tell us?

A: What impressed me about Brother John and all the monks in 1996 and still does today is the sense that their roots are planted so much deeper than ours. I think Brother John would tell us that in order to weather the storms that life inevitably brings, we must be rooted in something far bigger than ourselves and our exigent concerns. Mepkin Abbey is regularly buffeted by ferocious hurricanes that blow in off the Atlantic. These storms often do a lot of damage. Yet each time the monks quietly rebuild and pick up just where they left off. Like the massive live oaks that pepper the monastic grounds, the monks know how to consistently bend when so many of us might break.

Q: What other lessons can you share? 

A: Imitate the monks and take a long-term view. Things look bad now, but this too shall pass. Also take a hint from the monks and live in a focused and mindful way. Staying safe and protecting others means paying attention and avoiding the distractions that lead to forgetfulness, and the monks are experts at that. If you are locked down and unable to work or live your normal routine, use the time wisely. Like a good monk, take some time to just sit quietly and reevaluate your life, your priorities, and your relationships.

If your life needs some fine tuning, come up with a plan. The pundits keep telling us that in the wake of this pandemic we will probably never go back to complete normality. If so, this does not have to be all bad. Some deep thinking may very well mean making the changes that we all know we need to make in our lives.

Q: How are the monks doing?

A: I just spoke to Father Joe, Mepkin's abbot and Brother John as well.  They told me that Mepkin has been in lock down mode for several weeks. The gate is locked, the guest center is closed, and no one is allowed in or out. Mepkin has its own infirmary and senior living center, so those monks are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

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The monks support themselves by selling the exotic mushrooms they grow to local stores and restaurants and their business is also closed. Yet as always, what struck me was how cheerful and optimistic they both are. Peaceful equanimity and loving kindness are constants at Mepkin, and that is what has been bringing me back for 24 years now.

A: Any final thoughts?

Q: Father Joe told me that the wife of one of Mepkin's key patrons is very sick with the virus. He told Father Joe that he sits by her bedside and reads my book 'Brother John' to comfort her. This and similar stories mean the world to me. Being there for people like that man's wife is what the monks are all about, and that is why I wrote 'Brother John.'

I often say that when you live the right kind of life you become prone to "happy accidents." Happy accidents are the blessings we can never predict. If the virus is a Black Swan event, then happy accidents are Gold Swan events. I have been gifted with many unforeseen blessings, but in retrospect the happiest accident of my life was my skydiving accident. Without it I would never have been drawn to the monks and I would never have written 'Brother John.'


AUTHOR AUGUST TURAK is a highly successful entrepreneur, award-winning author, speaker, and contributor for Forbes. com and the BBC. He is the founder of the educational nonprofit the Self Knowledge Symposium Foundation (SKSF). As a frequent guest, Turak has been living and working alongside the monks of Mepkin Abbey since 1996.

His first book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks, was published by Columbia Business School Publishing. This book uses 1000 years of Trappist business success and his own entrepreneurial experience to demonstrate that Trappist monks are not successful businessmen despite adhering to only the highest ethical values but because they do.

His latest book, Brother John: A Monk, a Pilgrim, and the Purpose of Life, published by Clovercroft Publishing, combines Turak's Templeton Prize winning story with original oil paintings from award-winning artist, Glenn Harrington. Brother John offers higher meaning and purpose in a world that so many find bereft of meaning and purpose.  |

ARTIST GLENN HARRINGTON is an internationally recognized and collected artist. His paintings have been featured in American Arts Quarterly, American Art Collector, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, International Artists Magazine, and the covers of American Artist and US Art. He has had numerous solo exhibitions in New York, Japan, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and has exhibited at the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Museum of American Illustration, and the USGA Museum.

Glenn's oil paintings have been published on over 600 book covers. His portrait work is highly regarded, having won the Portrait Society of America's Draper Grand Prize in 2007, its Honor Award in 2008 and 2005 during its international juried exhibitions. Harrington's portrait of Maria Callas was used to promote the Tony Award-winning play, Master Class.

MEPKIN ABBEY is a community of Roman Catholic monks established in 1949 on the site of the historic Mepkin Plantation located on the Cooper River, north of Charleston, South Carolina. Founded by the monks of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the brothers of Mepkin belong to the worldwide Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance popularly known as Trappist. Following The Rule of St. Benedict, the monks at Mepkin Abbey devote their lives to prayer, spiritual study, work and hospitality. Living by the work of their hands, the monks provide a livelihood for themselves and the poor.

THE SELF KNOWLEDGE SYMPOSIUM FOUNDATION is a spiritual and educational nonprofit founded by August Turak in 1999. Turak established the Self Knowledge Symposium (SKS) in 1989 to help people "live a life of higher meaning and purpose." In 1999, the SKS incorporated as the Self Knowledge Symposium Foundation (SKSF) a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization which helps individuals, communities, and organizations find higher purpose by introducing the explosive power of service and selflessness.

The SKSF executes this mission through books and articles, seminars, lectures, workshops, retreats, online courses, and one on one coaching.  August Turak continues to fund the SKSF through personal donations, and any remuneration he receives from his writing and speaking is donated back to the SKSF to underwrite our mission.

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