Beginning

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. 

First Steps

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). 

Future Chapel

Future Chapel

All beginnings are hard...You cannot swallow all the world at one time.
— Chaim Potak, (In the Beginning)

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.

If you are inclined to help support us financially. You can learn more by clicking the button below. 

 






Why Are We Starting a Farm? (part 1) #theorderSF

Knowing the Value of Having a Little Land

They never attempted to drain their estates of all that they could produce, for they thought of the future, and would neither exhaust the soil nor the men who lived on it. As soon as they were in possession of a new estate, and before deriving the lease profit from it, they always gave up to the poor, who gathered round them everywhere…[land] which was intended for them.
— Charles Forbes Montalembert from The Monks of the West from St. Benedict to St. Bernard, Volume 6
The Cistercian Abbey of Llantarnam, or Caerleon as it was originally known, was founded in 1179 in mid Wales

The Cistercian Abbey of Llantarnam, or Caerleon as it was originally known, was founded in 1179 in mid Wales

Some time ago, in the country-side of Europe, thirteen men began to work the soil on a barren piece of land that was given to them to make the best of. They were poor, and thin, and not of any noble upbringing. This was virgin soil, but not rich. It was the cast-away plot of a wealthy landowner who hadn't even dreamed of cultivating this part of his vast estate.

    These men drained the marshes, improved the streams, and planted wheat and vegetables where the thistle had grown up unchecked. They bartered for a few cattle, which now spotted the back meadow, and within a few seasons, sheep would occupy the upland hills. The wool would be used to make clothing, the cows would be breed each year for more, and now with some hired help, land was expanded, trees were planted, and their methods honed for the climate and the place. 

    In the years to come, and in the aftermath of war and poverty, these men would add to their number others who were drawn to a place which was once filled with disease and rot and uninhabitable, but that now produced a surplus of food and goods which were sold in the towns. Peasants and kings alike came to learn a lifetime of devotion to prayer, which, according to their rule of life, also meant work. Work and pray, said St. Benedict. ora et labora. Each man (and later women) would find a role---the orchard, the apiary, the hay-fields---and in each decade the project was expanded and more land reclaimed until a system of agricultural advancement occupied over one-fifth of England's parcel. 

    At a time when the work of raising crops and tending the land was spurned as degrading by men who should have had their hand on the plow, monks emerged from their place of solitude to plow fields and dig ditches, providing a model of living that eventually helped peasants re-imagine the noble work of tending the land, and caring for livestock. 

    Though it was not inspired by an ecological crisis or a particular eschatological vision, beginning in the 12th century, the people who seemed to pray the most, and whose life was most centered around the work of God, were also the ones who grew the most food, tended the most land, and taught others how to do the same.

Saving Agriculture 

    In a 1901 address to the Massachusets State Board of Agriculture, the then President of the Massachussets Agricultural College, Henry Goodell, said that these men (and later women) "saved agriculture when nobody else could save it. They practiced it under a new life and new conditions when no one else dared undertake it."

During the emergence of monasticism, food was scarce, and land lay fallow. With the fall of the Roman empire, barbaric tribes swept across Europe, and civilization as it had once been known, ceased to exist. Lands that had once been filled with food to feed families and villagers, through neglect, reverted to forests and swamps; towns lay in ruins, and most common people became beggars and slaves. 

    Emerging from this state of affairs, many who professed faith in God, at God’s invitation, sought out the land as refuge and solitude, only to much later find that their presence was so great, and so great was God’s presence within them, that multitudes were drawn toward them. What began as beds of herbs and small plots of gardens, stretched out eventually to fields of waving grain, hills clothed in vines, and valleys covered in fruit trees. They went out to pray and to embrace a life that they imagined would be quiet and inconsequential to anyone else. And while their life was quiet, it was far from inconsequential. 

The monastic institution unconsciously became an instrument of helping people move from a place of disease, to a place of health. Its rise was also the rise of free agriculture for the world. This was the people of God, exchanging worthless parcels of barren marshland and thorny forests, for beautiful estates. 

These men would eventually make known to the world the wisest and most productive methods of agriculture. Agriculture and the art of living well came first, by necessity, and what followed was civilization, and eventually conversion of countless men and women who would come to work alongside these monks who opened their doors to all. Shelter and protection were given to the sick and oppressed and then the skills of production and good work, and indeed, peasants began to know well, as Wendell Berry has said it, the value of having a little land

 

Perhaps it is time to do it again.