Years before Pope Francis’ recent ecology encyclical was published, a Trappist monastery in Virginia went back to its spiritual roots by embracing environmental stewardship.
“This really is a re-founding," Fr. James Orthmann of Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Va. told CNA, a “real renewal and a re-founding, and in a real sense getting back to our traditional roots."
Since 2007, the community has taken concrete steps be better stewards of the earth in the tradition of the Cistercian Order, while also reaching into the outside world to draw more Catholic men to their monastic life.
The abbey was founded in 1950 after a planned Trappist abbey in Massachusetts burned down. The Diocese of Richmond offered to accept the monks and they procured 1200 acres of pasture on the Shenandoah River in Northwest Virginia, just in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east.
However the community has shrunk along with the overall number of religious priests and brothers in the U.S., which has fallen by more than 50 percent since 1965. The community’s Father Immediate – the abbot of their mother house – suggested in 2007 they start planning how to sustain the abbey for the long-term.
The monks discussed their most important resources and “literally everybody talked about our location, our land," Fr. James recalled. “As monks who follow the Rule of St. Benedict, we have a vow of stability. So we bind ourselves to the community and to the place that we enter."
The Trappists have a long history of settling in valleys and caring for the land, dating back to their roots in the Cistercian Order and their mother abbey in Citeaux, France, founded in 1098. Monks at Holy Cross Abbey began farming the land in 1950 but as the community grew older, they leased out the land to local farmers and made creamed honey and fruitcake for their labor.
“We live a way of life that’s literally rooted in the land," Fr. James explained. “The liturgical life reflects the succession of the seasons, and the more you become sensitized to that, the symbolism of the liturgy becomes so much more compelling."
So what specifically have the monks done to become better environmental stewards? First, they reached out to the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment to author a study on how the abbey could be more environmentally sustainable in the Cistercian tradition.
A group of graduate students made the project their master’s thesis. The result was a massive 400-page study, “Reinhabiting Place," with all sorts of recommendations for the monks. With these suggestions as a starting place, the monks took action.
First, they turned to the river. They asked the cattle farmer to whom they lease 600 acres of their land to stop his cattle from grazing in the river. This would protect the riverbanks from eroding and keep the cows from polluting the water, which flows into the Potomac River, past Washington, D.C., and eventually feeds the massive Chesapeake Bay.
They fenced off tributaries of the river and planted native hardwoods and bushes on the banks as shelter for migratory animals and to attract insects and pollinators to “restore the proper biodiversity to the area," Fr. James explained. They also leased 180 acres of land to a farmer for natural vegetable farming.
Most of the abbey’s property was put into “conservation easement" with the county and the state. By doing this, the monks promise that the land will forever remain “fallow," or agricultural and undeveloped, and they receive a tax benefit in return. The county provides this policy to check suburban sprawl and retain a rural and agricultural nature.
The community also switched their heating and fueling sources from fossil fuels to propane gas. They had a solar-fed lighting system installed in two of the guest retreat dorms, and they pay for the recycling of their disposable waste. The monks stopped making fruitcake for a year to install a new more energy-efficient oven and make building repairs.
The have even started offering “green burials" at Cool Spring Cemetery in the Trappist style.
Normal burials can cost well over $7,000 with embalming fluids and lead coffins that can be detrimental to the soil. A Trappist burial, by contrast, is “rather sparse" and “rather unadorned," Fr. James explained. A monk is wrapped in a shroud and placed directly on a wooden bier in the ground.
The Trappist burials, while quite different from a typical modern burial, actually have an earthy character to them that’s attractive, Fr. James maintained.
After the “initial shock" at seeing such a sparse burial for the first time, “oddly enough, it’s very cathartic and you have a real sense of hope," he said. The burials are “a lot less formal" and “people [in attendance] are more spontaneous," he noted, and there’s “even a certain joyfulness to it."
With their “green burials," the body is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable container like a wooden coffin, and buried in the first four feet of the soil. By one year, just the skeleton may be left, but it’s a harkening back to the Ash Wednesday admonition, “Remember man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return."
And this contrasts with the complicated embalming process of normal funerals where chemicals like formaldehyde can seep into the ground.
The monks have already touched lives with their example of stewardship.
Local residents George Patterson and Deidra Dain are producing a film “Saving Place, Saving Grace" about the monastery’s efforts to remain sustainable. Once they fundraise the film’s budget of $300,000, it will air next year on a local PBS affiliate station. The affiliate’s general manager had looked at the story and thought everyone needed to hear it.
The monastery has been an “example" to the county’s leadership with its care for the land, Patterson said. Dain, a retreatant at the monastery 15 years ago, is not Catholic but found her time at the abbey “inspiring" and as a lover of nature praises their sustainability initiative.
All in all, the communal effort for stewardship is “helping to renew our life," Fr. James said of the community.
Papal statements on the environment have given a boost to their efforts. “There was a lot of supportive stuff from the time of Pope Benedict about the environment," Fr. James recalled, particularly in his 2008 encyclical Caritas in Veritate which upheld the responsibility of man to care for the environment.
This “helped bridge" any gulfs that kept certain members of the community from fully embracing the sustainability initiative, Fr. James said.
Parts of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment Laudato Si are “so sophisticated in (their) grasp of environmental teaching," he continued, and it’s quite a support to have popes promoting environmental stewardship amidst the bureaucratic tediousness of upgrading the abbey’s land and facilities.
“At the end of the day, I can open up Laudato Si and say to myself ‘Ah, this is worth it. We should keep doing this. I’m going to keep putting up with the nonsense to get this done’," he said.
The community hopes too that it can be a sustainability model for developing countries that might not be able to afford high-tech and expensive solutions to environmental problems. Their facilities are simple by nature and not sophisticated, and the monks’ consumption is already low because they take a vow of poverty.
Plus, retreatants at the monastery can observe first-hand the changes made and consider what they can do in their own lives to be more caring for the environment.
However, in its “re-founding" efforts, the community has also explored ways to attract more vocations to the abbey.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve lost most of our seniors first to illness, aging, and then death. So in a sense, the community has a whole new profile right now," Fr. James said. The abbey was founded to be “separate" from the cosmopolitan world, but young men are not actively seeking out the monastic life like they did in the 1950s and 60s.
So the community created a new website and continuously update it with new posts. They started hosting “immersion weekends" where men come and live with the monks for a weekend, praying with them. They expanded their local profile in the community by hosting teenagers to earn their school community service hours. “Only two students had realized we existed here," Fr. James recalled in a telling moment.
“We’re reaching out to men of all ages, and it’s probably even more likely, given the limits of our way of life, that nowadays it’s going to be older men who are coming to this vocation," Fr. James admitted. “This way of life and its limits make much more sense to people who have tried their quote-unquote dream, have been disillusioned by the result, and they’re yearning for something more."
What distinguishes Holy Cross Abbey and the Trappist way of life? Their vocation to community life, Fr. James answered, “the silence, the discipline of silence, and daily familiarity with the Scriptures."
The monks follow an intense daily schedule of prayer, contemplation, and work that includes 3:30 a.m. prayer and a “Great Silence" beginning at 8:15 p.m. They don’t leave the abbey grounds and don’t own private property.
“It’s a lifestyle that very much will develop one’s interiority, spirituality, relationship with God," he said. “It’s a vocation of adoration, done in community, and offered to the world around us through hospitality here in this place."
And the modern world offers special challenges to a man discerning this vocation, he admitted.
“There’s not much in the pop culture to invite a person to even think about interiority. And in fact it can be rather threatening to people," he said. “Initially," when one begins to seriously cultivate an interior life, “it’s the negative stuff that comes up."
However, “with guidance you realize that’s the negative face of very important, unrecognized resources. And our vulnerability is perhaps the greatest resource we have in life. (Even if) that’s not the message you’d get from watching Oprah."