Seventy years ago this month, the monks of the newly formed Monastery of the Holy Spirit moved into their temporary chapel. It was December 7th, 1944, and twenty-one monks from the Abbey of Gethsemani celebrated the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception.
The previous March, these twenty-one monks–ranging from an old German priest who was just about to celebrate his 40th year as a Trappist, to a new novitiate who had made his simple profession just a month or so prior– said goodbye to their brothers in Nelson Country, Kentucky. They made their way to Honey Creek Plantation, which was about 30 miles south of Atlanta, Georgia. They left the hills of Kentucky on the day that marks the Feast of St. Benedict. They celebrated on that day the anniversary of the Abbey at Cîteaux, which had been founded nearly 850 years before. Gethsemani was then almost a hundred years old, and they were taking their first steps south toward establishing a new foundation, as Thomas Merton called it in The Waters of Siloe, that would one day be The Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
The monks at Gethsemani sent out these 21 brothers along with a builder from New Haven, KY. The instructions for the builder were “to clear out the hayloft of a big brick barn and try to make it habitable for some twenty Trappist monks and brothers.” These brothers made their life in the loft of a barn and began construction on a chapel, using wood that they timbered and cut with a newly purchased sawmill. On December 7th, 1944, after 9 months of hard labor, they moved into that chapel to pray the hours of Vigils. “That morning the water had frozen in the cruets while the priests were saying mass for the last time in the hayloft.” (Thomas Merton, Waters of Siloe). Their new chapel was ready just in time for the onset of winter.
This past weekend we visited the land where we will be building a monastery for the 21st century. We brought along with us an architect, a civil engineer, and a structural engineer to look at the existing structures, which includes a barn built nearly fifty years after the founding of the Abbey of Gethsemani (1848). It is in this barn where our daily life of The Order of Sustainable Faith will begin. I snapped a picture of the straw-shed, which, as it seems, will one day be a chapel. (I’ll post more about our visit later this week).
It’s true, all beginnings are hard. Look at the history of anything and you’ll see hardship. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, to be sure.
The work of God is almost always slow. This is why the kingdom of God is likened to the growing of a mustard seed (which goes deep first), and the work yeast does on a lump of dough. It’s slow. It takes some time, but eventually it works its way through.
We have a lot of work ahead of us. Some say, “It’s too much work. The vision is too big.” But it strikes me, today at least, that it shouldn’t be any other way. We are doing our best to embody the work that has gone before us. Planting monasteries has always been slow. The brothers at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit lived in that barn, and worshiped in the hay-loft, for almost all of the nearly 15 years it took them to complete their main building projects. They had a forest, a sawmill, and were guided by faith, laboring with love.
They had help and support too: volunteers, financial resources, and a rich history of others having gone before them. We need those things too. We’re not ready for volunteers quite yet. Regarding a rich history–we’re standing on the back of the religious orders that have gone before us, and within a stream of renewal for the church.
As for resources, we do and will need some help along the way.
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