18 July, 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Cool Spring; and, as most of our readers realize that battle was fought on the property on which Holy Cross Abbey now stands. Every year we remember those who died in that battle in the course of our communal prayers. Approaching this anniversary, we had as one of our refectory books Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals which considered President’s Lincoln’s innate sense of statecraft and his extraordinary ability to hold together disparate, talented and feuding politicians as his Cabinet. He needed their abilities to guide the nation through its tragic civil war and towards union. Simultaneously, I was making my way (and am still trekking through) Amanda Foreman’s enormous A World on Fire, a study of Great Britain’s ambiguous involvement in the American Civil War. One could equally describe the book as a study of the complex and conflicting attitudes of the American people, whether of Northern States, the Confederacy or the frontier territories towards Great Britain. I certainly never learned in High School American history that Secretary of State Seward had designs on Canada or that England’s minister seriously entertained the possibility that the United States would declare War Great Britain.
Both books drive home the complexity, the contradictory attitudes and values, the cultural contrasts and the and the conflicted ideologies and practices that fed the War between the States. And here we are, living on property haunted by the Civil War. Is that a strange place to found a monastic community or is it yet another attempt, in monastic tradition, to hold together conflicting opposites? As visitors to our Retreat House often experience, this is a “safe space” to look at uncomfortable realities, to harmonize conflicts, to connect with creative tensions. We can only hope and pray that what we try to live here might be used by God to heal wounds and reconfigure conflicting opposites into some sort of accord.
Many visitors to the Abbey not only remember Br. James Sommers himself but also recall his engagement in unearthing our past. He used to comb the fields when they were harrowed or plowed with his metal detector and uncovered a significant collection of Civil War relics. That collection is now on permanent loan to our Clarke County Historical Society which has organized a special exhibit, Relics of Cool Spring, for Shenandoah University’s Cool Spring site across the River from us. The exhibit, marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Cool Spring, opens 18 July from 6:30 to 8:00 PM and on 19 July from 11:00 AM through 4:00 PM. Thereafter it will be open by appointment until 30 September, 2014.