MONCKS CORNER—During his 50 years in the priesthood, Father Guerric Heckel has served a variety of roles in the Church. He’s worn the vestments of a parish priest, a hospital chaplain, and a monk, and it all started with one question from a nun.
When he was in the fifth grade, a religious sister was cleaning out her desk and had a stack of holy cards to give out. She called young Guerric to the front and said, ‘you want to be a priest, don’t you?’” Father Guerric chuckles at the memory, recalling that he’d never thought about it before, but he really wanted a holy card, so he said yes. From then on, he thought of nothing else except being a priest.
For ninth grade, he left his small hometown of Elkins, W. Va., and went to high school seminary at St. Charles College in Baltimore, Md. Looking back, he said those years were great preparation for life as a Trappist, adding that high school seminary was even more strict than the monastery. For a 15-year-old, getting up at 5:30 a.m., meditating, strict silence and a 7:30 bedtime with 70 other boys was tough, he said.
He stuck with it, though, and moved on to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, where he met James Carter, now a monsignor and longtime pastor of Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant. Both men were ordained in May 1966.
Father Guerric said his five decades in the priesthood have been extremely fulfilling and just keep getting better.
He served 28 years as a parish priest before feeling called to something different. Then he attended Duke University to study pastoral counseling and ended up ministering as a hospital chaplain.
“That was a tremendous opportunity for me to exercise my priesthood in a different way,” Father Guerric said. It was the height of the AIDS crisis, and as a chaplain, he learned to minister to all faiths. “I enjoyed the effort to find a common voice among all of our different religious traditions.”
In each of his roles, Father Guerric said he found fulfillment and knowledge that helped him add pieces to his life puzzle, but still felt called to something more. He was contemplating monastic life because he was drawn to help people grow spiritually and provide an emphasis on contemplative prayer. One idea he wanted to implement was showing people how to merge their faith life and professions; how to use their profession to grow spiritually, not just “church on Sunday and work on Monday”, but living spiritually each day.
During this discernment time, the son of one of his patients came to visit — Father Aelred Hagen, a Trappist monk from Mepkin Abbey. It was divine providence. Father Guerric said he was drawn to the vision of Abbot Francis Kline, who became a mentor, and decided to visit as part of their monastic guest program.
At first, he thought one month of silence would be too much, but by the end of the 30 days he knew it would never be enough.
“I found the missing piece,” he said, adding that he knew it was what God wanted, or was at least the path to take him there. It took a year to work out the details, but he kept faith in Abbot Kline’s words, who told him if it was God’s plan it would unfold step by step, and it did. Father Guerric was ordained into the Trappist Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance in 1994.
Now he serves as director of the Abbey’s retreat center, where he’s finally able to take people past that first step of spiritual awakening to a deeper level of contemplative prayer as part of a truly spiritual life.
He said work is one of three pillars of the Trappists, along with prayer and community, which have brought completeness to his life. The deeper spirituality he was searching for is a part of everything now, from the time he and his brother monks wake up — at 3 a.m. — through the work day, until final prayers and bed at 8 p.m.
Father Guerric said contributing to the work and broader community fulfills him. His work covered a lot of territory, including his early days of gathering eggs and gardening, and working as assistant to the business manager. He also served as infirmarian, and said he learned that being a chaplain isn’t the same as taking care of someone, calling it a blessing to care for the old monks in their final days.
It was his role as store manager, however, that ended up creating what has become the annual Crèche festival.
Father Guerric smiles, saying he went a little overboard the first year he decided to sell Nativity scenes at the store and ordered $5,000 worth. In order to promote them, the monks held a viewing of the ones for sale, plus others donated for the event. They had 1,500 people come to that first exhibit, and the Crèche festival — now entering its 14th year — was born.
Now Father Guerric concentrates his energies on retreats, reaching out to the elderly, Wounded Warriors, and anyone searching for spiritual renewal.
He said he never expected his 70s to be so exciting.
“It’s a very exciting time to be alive and to change the way we look at aging,” he said. “To experience it as something we look forward to instead of dread, to see it as a period of growth rather than decline.”
He personally is looking forward to what the next decade brings.