It may be no surprise to our regular readers that our commitment as a monastic community to ecological sustainability has a spiritual motivation and a history. Cistercians have a long association with the rivers and streams that run through valleys. There’s a cliche about medieval monastic sites: Benedictines inhabited the heights and Cistercians inhabited the valleys. Listen to a few of the names with your imagination and hear this illustrated. Two famous Benedictine sites are Monte Cassino and Montserrat; in the United States, there is the Abbey of Mount Angel. Of Cistercian abbeys, the valley is evoked by the names Clairvaux, Rievaulx, Valle Crucis and our own ancestor, Our Lady of the Valley in Valley Falls, Rhode Island. The precious water sources offered by valleys are honored in the names of our other monasteries: Fontfroide, Belle Fontaine or Tre Fontane. The early Cistercians would divert the waters of a river through channels to bring water to the Abbey for rituals, drinking, washing, irrigation, sanitation, power to run mills–all the utilities needed for a healthy life. But what happened to the water after it was used, contaminated? Well, it wasn’t dumped back into the river but channelled through a series of fish ponds; the fish–then as now–would process the waste that sank to the bottom, clearer water flowing to each successive pond. By the time the run-off was returned to the river or stream by other channels, it had been purified and the circuit was complete. It was all very low tech but it worked and manifests a level of awareness many of our contemporaries do not associate with the people of the Middle Ages. Had that awareness and know-how not been there, we might not be here today. Our ancestors were not stupid and perhaps a little more connected with the earth and its balance than we are. Today we would call such water management “renewable”; the original resource–water–was renewed to its original state and not just consumed. For all of our data and sophistication, aren’t we more often than not consumers rather than renewers? When I fly in a plane, what does that renew? When I drive a car, what does that return to the environment? In my lifetime could I possibly replenish crude oil or coal that took millions of years to form? What does the consumption of such fuel return to the atmosphere? Do I consume or replenish?
My intent is not to evoke guilt; I realize that change cannot be effected over night, that we struggle to fit into a system bigger than ourselves, while we attempt to have some impact on that system. I often wonder, is it a system or just an accumulation of happenstance? Have we just let things happen to us and our resources as technology developed faster than our awareness or conscience? And so we just try to begin somewhere and do something possible and important to contribute more to the solution than to the problem. When you live on a 1200 acre tract of land, as we do here, and that land borders a river, as our land does, there’s an imperative to become intentional stewards of that land and its waterways, while considering the ramifications down that river all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Something that emerged from the strategic planning we began as a community in 2007 was that this land is valued by all of us. It’s beauty is evident; it’s rich array of local flora and animal life emerges with a closer look. I grew up in New York City and could recognize an oak, a maple, a magnolia or dogwood (usually of the nursery variety); but when I arrived here the rest were generic trees. Now they are willows, Siberian elms, Chinese elms, red oaks, majestic sycamores, locust trees, intrusive Osage orange and Russian olive…Living on this land is an education, a silent, wordless but eloquent open book and, as for my medieval forebears, I find it is the book of God’s creation. It is sacred land; it’s my Holy Land. Here nature re-enacts the liturgical seasons as the Lenten austerity of the winter landscape, in its beautiful silvers, muted golds and browns, yields to the luxuriant vesture of Paschal spring, a brocade of fresh green, lavender, purple, yellows, brilliant white and the flashes of goldfinch or bluebird wings. If I ever doubt the sanctity of this earth, I see it reflected in the faces of the retreatants who visit here and find peace and communion with God in this setting. Even inside our small church, the altar is adorned with candles made from beeswax, the sacramental Body of Christ is made from that organism we call bread, a body of material grown from the earth and mixed with life-sustaining water. It is in the elements of the earth that we, the monastic community, the broader faith community, find our communion with God.
To be concerned about the environment is not a fad or an attempt to raise our profile by jumping on a band-wagon. It is deeply rooted in our monastic, contemplative spirituality, our mission to find God in the mundane and to serve Whom we find by our communal efforts. Our strategic planning led us to a sustainability study conducted by six graduate students from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. Early on in that project, the students’ mentor, Dr. Andy Hoffman wrote in an email:
One element of this project that I have been thinking about is the actual definition of sustainability that will guide the action within the borders of Holy Cross Abbey…the ultimate definition must come from the community’s reflection and prayer. Here are a few lines by [Fr.] Thomas Berry that may serve as an aid in the process. I find them powerful and cause for reflection on my own perspective on the issue.
Today, in the opening years of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves at a critical moment when the religious traditions need to awaken again to the natural world as the primary manifestation of the divine to human intelligence. The very nature and purpose of the human is to experience this intimate presence that comes to us through natural phenomena. Such is the purpose of having eyes and ears and feeling sensitivity, and all our other senses. We have no inner spiritual development without outer experience. Immediately when we see or experience any natural phenomena, when we see a flower, a butterfly, a tree, when we feel the evening breeze flow over us or wade in a stream of clear water, our natural response is immediate, intuitive, transforming, ecstatic. Everywhere we find ourselves invaded by the world of the sacred…And absence of the sense of the sacred is the basic flaw of many efforts at ecologically or environmentally adjusting our human presence in the natural world. It has been said, “We will not save what we do not love.” It is also true that we neither save nor love what we do not experience as sacred…There is a certain futility in the efforts being made–truly sincere, dedicated and intelligent efforts–to remedy our environmental devastation simply by activating renewable sources of energy, by reducing the deleterious impact of the industrial world. The difficulty is that the natural world is seen primarily for human use, not as a mode of sacred presence primarily to be communed with in wonder and beauty and intimacy. In our present attitude the natural world remains a commodity to be sought and sold, not a sacred reality to be venerated. The deep psychic change needed to withdraw us from the fascination of the industrial world, and the deceptive gifts that it gives us, is too difficult for simply the avoidance of its difficulties or the attractions of its benefits. Eventually, only our sense of the sacred will save us.
To be continued