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7/11/12 | 1 comment |
BERRYVILLE HOLY CROSS ABBEY
In search of God, monks
Trappists expand initiatives to sustain monastic lifestyle, encourage vocations
For cloistered, contemplative monks who rarely go “out,” engaging in “outreach” can be a tricky business. But outreach has become essential for the Trappists at Our Lady of the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville as they face declining numbers and limited growth.
In order to sustain their way of life — which focuses on seeking unity with God — the men, officially part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, desperately need two things: more money and more monks.
With just 14 monks left at the monastery (down from a peak of around 60 just before the Second Vatican Council), the Trappists — who average 75 years in age — have had to look for creative new ways to sustain their livelihoods and, most importantly, to recruit new men interested in, what they call, their “radical” way of life.
“The real focus here now is vocations,” said Kurt Aschermann, companion — a lay spokesman for the community — to Holy Cross Abbey. “This is a great place to come if you have a contemplative nature or have any ideas of monastic life.”
For 62 years, the Trappists have lived, worked and prayed on 1,200 acres of land adjacent to the Shenandoah River in Clarke County. Part of a Catholic contemplative religious order, the monks follow the Rule of St. Benedict and dedicate their lives to seeking union with God. They keep to their monastery, only leaving for doctors’ appointments or other necessities.
As most Catholics are aware, the vocations crisis is not limited to Berryville. But because Trappist monasteries offer a way of life that is so different from the norm, Aschermann said, it’s only appealing to a small number of people to begin with. As a result, their strategy for encouraging more vocations is not to dilute the radical nature of the community, but rather to tout it.
“If you want to make a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week commitment to the search for God, which is what monastic life is all about, you’d have to be crazy to go anyplace else,” Aschermann said. “This is the place to come.”
The small, rural community of Holy Cross began Nov. 18, 1950, when 30 monks arrived via bus from Our Lady of the Valley Monastery in Valley Falls, R.I., to settle a new abbey. Under the guidance of Father Owen Hoey, founding superior, the monks got down to work running a cattle farm, operating a bakery and, of course, praying. Prior to Vatican II, the monks, whose Rule encourages “restraint of speech,” spoke using only sign language. To this day they speak very little, with the monks taking turns reading spiritual works aloud during mealtimes.
For several years, Holy Cross Abbey had the luxury of overwhelming numbers of vocations.
“It was just incredible the attraction of our life,” said Abbot Robert Barnes, who has lived at Holy Cross for 51 years. “But then after Vatican II, other options came up, other possibilities and things became valuable, and gradually, (there) was a very slow tapering down.”
The lack of vocations in recent years has “changed the way you do business,” Aschermann said.
Because the monks focus on prayer, prayer and more prayer, they hired Aschermann and others — like Ed Leonard, chief sustainability officer at the abbey — to come up with creative ways to raise money and encourage more young men to experience their monastic way of life.
“Over the years, as with many religious communities, (the Trappists) have gotten very comfortable with a certain way of life, and it’s difficult to change,” Leonard said. “In a way, my job is to come here and help them confront change.”
To do that, Leonard is helping convert 54 acres of woods, open meadow and flood plain on the monastery’s property into a natural, environmentally friendly cemetery. An open-air chapel is available for funeral services. River stones serve as natural tombstones, and no metal caskets or embalming are allowed.
Christened Cool Spring Cemetery, the site offers those with financial or environmental concerns, or simply those who have an affinity for the monks, the option of being buried on monastery property, Leonard said. Burial plots, of which there will be about 5,000, are open to people of “any faith or no faith.”
“This is the way our ancestors have buried each other for thousands of years,” Leonard said. It’s a “very dignified and beautiful” way to care for the dead.
The money earned from selling plots goes straight to sustaining the monastery and the monks.
“In a cold sense, this is a new business,” Leonard said. “But you can see how it’s so consistent with the idea of the monks being stewards of the land.”
Another portion of the property is being used as an organic farm, with one mile along the Shenandoah River being farmed this year and a second mile scheduled to be added next year. This total of 250 acres is comprised of “the most fertile soil we have in Virginia,” Leonard said. “This area’s exploding with agriculture.”
The resulting produce — which includes onions, squash, potatoes, arugula and 2,000 apple trees — is sold through Great Country Farms, a community-supported farm based in Bluemont, Va. The farm, which supplies its own workforce, splits the profits with the monks.
Of course, the Trappists maintain their traditional forms of fundraising: the bakery where they make fruitcake and creamed honey; and the bookstore, where they sell books, religious items and an assortment of jams, chocolates and other goodies. And a 15-room retreat house is available (book early) for small groups seeking peace and quiet.
The reason why
All of these endeavors go to support the monks in their business of “watching for the Lord.”
“We live the Gospel in a fundamental way,” Abbot Barnes said. “We’re Christians following Christ according to the Gospel — no fringes. That sounds to some people extreme, but basically it’s just like the community of Jerusalem in the Acts (of the Apostles). It’s that radical. It’s that original. It’s that fundamental.”
That means the monks share everything in common and own nothing (even their habits belong to the community). And, most of all, it means they pray.
The 14 men rise at 3 a.m. and come together in prayer for the first time at 3:30. Then quiet follows until dawn, during which the monks spread out around the monastery, sitting in the church, reading in their rooms or walking around the grounds.
“It’s a well-kept secret that the most beautiful part of the day is that early morning,” Abbot Barnes said. “It is quiet, it is restful. It is still and it’s just ready. The new day is coming, and it’s a delicious time.”
Their early hours illustrate that monkhood is truly a throwback life. With no cellphones or laptops, the monks rely on bells to indicate mealtime and the five Divine Offices they pray together daily. Mailboxes and a bulletin board are “the lifeblood” of the monastery, Aschermann said, where the monks can leave handwritten notes for each other. A limited number of vehicles are shared for those who need them.
Four central places make up Holy Cross Abbey, Aschermann said: the church, the cloister, the dormitories and the refectory (the cafeteria). A small cemetery sits next to the monastery, where the Trappists are buried. With gravestones marked only with the monks’ religious names, when they entered and when they died, the men are a community even in death.
Three libraries are scattered through the monastery (if monks have any vice, it’s books, Abbot Barnes said), and the main, cozy library is used as a “chapter room,” where portions of the Rule of St. Benedict are read and discussed.
“It’s also where all the business of the monastery takes place,” Abbot Barnes said. “In the church we pray, but in the chapter room we live.”
In search of monks
In his role as companion, Aschermann hopes the combination of the monks’ traditional habits with their new projects will attract fresh interest in the monastic life.
“The object is to get men here, get them to experience the house, get them to meet some of the monks, (and) get a feel for the place,” Aschermann said. For “someone looking for a beautiful place to live the rest of his life, a small monastic community where he can have impact right away, know everybody right away, get into the rhythm of the community right away, this is a good monastery to come to.”
Much of the appeal of Holy Cross is its rural location, Abbot Barnes said.
“Being in touch with nature forces you to be aware of God’s presence,” he said. “In the city it’s asphalt and concrete and automobiles. But out in the country, it’s alive. God is there.”
This love for God’s creation is a “magnet” for people today, Abbot Barnes said, and Leonard, who spends a good portion of his days outdoors, agreed.
“Monastic life is not just about getting up and praying five times a day and wearing a robe,” Leonard said. “Monastic life is about this beautiful rhythm of being in touch with God, and prayer, and the environment, and living and dying.”
That’s why Leonard is in full support of the monastery’s recent expansion and growth.
“To me,” he said, “we’re taking the monastic life to a new level that hasn’t been here in a long time.”