This past Sunday afternoon, nine of the monks of Holy Cross Abbey drove over to the Pastoral or Retreat Center at Priestfield, West Virginia. One member of this group, Fr. Joseph Whitstock, joined us from Our Lady of the Angels in Crozet, Virginia, where he’s been serving as a chaplain to our nuns. Also with us were members of the Committee of Aid for the Future: Abbot Damian Carr, Mother Marion Risetto, Abbot John Denburger and Sr. Cecilia Dwyer; and the key figure who facilitated the retreat, Dr. Patricia Kelly. All of this is no news if you’ve read the earlier post.
But this was no ordinary retreat: it’s purpose is to “refound” our community right were we live at this crucial time in our history. Pat Kelly began to work with us that very evening introducing us to the theme of Mary’s growth in grace through the challenges of her unique vocation. Or was it unique? Is the call to incarnate the Son of God here on earth, in everyday life solely Mary’s responsibility or only in the past. Or does her response and life-experience speak to every Christian?
Pat began with St. Luke’s Gospel, describing the annunciation of the Incarnation to Mary. If any of you fear that this might have been an exercise in mariolatry, relax! This reading of the well-known narrative was fresh and attentive to the details that piety often overlooks. Mary is definitely one of us and her unexpected pregnancy even speaks to the eleven men present. Pat, a mother and grandmother, described the body stretching, almost becoming a stranger as the unborn child develops, a part of Mary’s body and yet a totally new life, if not yet independent. Surely this speaks to the changing profile of our community. The challenge for us is to recognize the potential and hope in our present state which may not–does not–resemble what we’ve been used to; we are definitely shifting gears, imaginative, as well as practical. The status quo will be neither our hope nor our future. We need to learn to stretch; not to stretch “beyond” the monastic tradition but to tap the vitality of that tradition which has made many new discoveries and taken many alternate forms, both valid and unforeseen, over the centuries.
Early on, Fr. Vincent had mentioned that it struck him that for the first time in 63 years, Mass and the Office “would not be celebrated at Berryville, At Holy Cross. Then I realized, it’s not the location at all: we are Holy Cross and every day we would continue to celebrate the Eucharist together and pray together. The important point is not that we wouldn’t be doing that for a few days in the Abbey church.” We are being called to be stretched beyond our usual presuppositions and routine to invite new life and possibilities into our monastic vocation. In the same vein, to discover the continuity of our monastic tradition, capable of responding to new challenges. We are stretched to identify and actualize the real gifts of each member that could enliven our Abbey, rather than force those abilities into institutional pigeon-holes. We are invited to stretch beyond insulated preserves of individual activity.
I think you get the picture. However, I’m fully aware that this could seem abstract and theoretical, even if I add that each day we began with another down-to-earth example from Mary’s story as found in the Gospels. But there was nothing abstract about our “spiritual exercises”. Through that optic we tackled coming to know each other better, expressing concrete appreciation of one another, discovering ease in communicating more deeply with one another, in ways both challenging and supportive; acceptance, forgiveness, communication.
Very concretely, Abbot Robert, with the support of the community, is invited to take a much needed and well deserved sabbatical–as most of our superiors now do. Similarly, our Prior, Br. Joseph Vantu, asked to step down as he faces the challenges of ageing and fragile health. Fr. Joseph has most generously agreed to return to Berryville from Crozet during Fr. Robert’s sabbatical, to serve as Prior. That’s quite a sacrifice from someone happily situated in a fruitful ministry. But he is not asked back to bear all the burdens Fr. Robert leaves behind but as one who convenes the community to engage in our shared responsibilities until the Abbot returns.
This certainly involves sacrifice from all but it’s also a sacrifice for each of us and for our future. It is nothing less than refounding monastic life at Berryville and re-inhabiting our monastic calling.
This post represents just a few aspects of our retreat from the optic of one member. In future posts, you’ll be reading other points of view and other insights.