Last Friday evening I was on my way to the retreat house, aware that there would be visitors on the property to see the Civil War battlefield–from a distance. They were not to intrude upon the farming operations that have transformed the battlefield from a place of violence and death to new growth that nourishes. And hadn’t the battlefield once been farm land? The depression across the field, roughly parallel to the Shenandoah River was a tow path. The Federal forces, charging up from the River, used it for protection, like a dug-out, against Confederate fire.
The visitors last Friday–and Saturday–were very respectful of us and our life. There was no disturbing noise, they stayed within agreed boundaries and paid their respects to what had happened here. I’m interested in history and was trained as an historian; since living in Virginia I’ve come to appreciate the necessity of growing familiar with the Civil War. I’m just not a Civil War buff. I don’t know how far afield our visitors came from–I saw mostly Virginia license plates–but I noticed Mississippi and Louisiana license plates on two cars. In my hey day I was an opera buff but not the sort who’d sleep on the street to buy standing room for a favored diva’s performance. I guess I’m a lazy buff so I was impressed and more than a little baffled that anyone would travel so far for a one hundred fiftieth anniversary. Then again, I left New York City to travel quite a distance to join a rather hidden monastic community in the County of Clarke of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Talk about culture shock! I literally didn’t speak the same language as the locals and my accent was, at first, incomprehensible. So I suppose even I travel the distance when properly motivated.
We’re told that the Battle of Cool Spring occurred on one of those dry, hot July days we all know so well. You couldn’t prove it by this year’s rainy summer but this must be an anomaly of El Nino in the Pacific and global climate change in general. We have no idea if, in the heat of battle, any combatant was referencing the ideals that put him into uniform. Or had necessity driven him into the army? In the Federal troops, how many of them had been paid to replace someone else? How many were Irish immigrants right off the boat with no other prospect of employment? And even the most idealistic, or the Virginia native firing at the Federal “invader”, were any of them thinking of state’s rights versus the Union? In the monastery, when we lose sight of why we are here, we call it distraction. The antidote is mindfulness. In the heat of battle, it’s called survival while musing on politics or philosophies is simply fatal. Yet this is all the same property.
Was anyone there aware or even interested in the upheavals convulsing Europe? The unification of three separate sovereign States into the republican Kingdom of Italy was a done deal. Bismark’s ambitions for a united Germany under the King–soon to be Kaiser–of Prussia were already simmering. The Second Empire of France was beginning to show strain at the seams; the British Empire was waxing. In another decade Pope Pius IX, losing Papal territory rapidly and retreating to the Vatican, would call Vatican Council I. Who, in 1864, would ever imagine a monastery of Roman Catholic monks settled on the Cool Spring property, an unlikely bridge between pre-revolutionary France and post Civil War United States? The Catholic Church was hardly a dynamic presence in Virginia of 1864. Weren’t Catholics suspicious representatives of a foreign State? Certainly, the inhabitants of Clarke County in 1864–not unlike the first monks here in 1950–could not have imagined that the monks who would inhabit the Cool Spring property would be hosting monthly “Ecumenical Days”, the amicable meeting of various Christian clergy, exploring our common Gospel heritage. But that is what happened through the 1970’s and ’80’s until Shenandoah University became the host.
Just sixty years ago, the monks of Holy Cross Abbey would never have imagined the community collaborating with lay people as employees to achieve major goals to sustain the monastic vocation here. Who would have suspected that most of this land would end up in easement with the Civil War Trust since 2013? Or that there would be a green cemetery at the gate to the Abbey? It was, in fact, the Civil War that introduced embalming to the American way of doing things. Bodies of soldiers shipped by rail across the country to their families for burial necessitated embalming, a procedure once reserved to anointed kings or popes. No one pictured the toxic effects the practice would have on our land. The easement with the Civil War Trust, the Green Cemetery, the tree-planting, the connection with Synevista and this website–among others–were all the work of one man, Ed Leonard, who recently resigned from our employ. As the Abbot said of him in chapter: “I thank Ed for the important achievements he accomplished for us, in implementing the University of Michigan Sustainability Study (2010) and the positive situation we find ourselves in now. We have benefitted by his achievements, which we could not have accomplished by ourselves alone.”
Certainly, no monk in 1950 would ever have entertained the notion of “refounding” this community here in the same place in 1963. That was not how things were done or perceived back then; “founding” was defined legalistically and once done, it was accomplished. But they would not have anticipated the changes in society or the possibility of a “post Christian” world or United States. They would not have imagined our Trappist silence broken by our monthly dialogues for strategic planning since 2008–or perhaps that the Spirit would work in our times so intimately and challengingly!
I find it appropriate that this property is named by the Cool Spring that flows from it to the Shenandoah. It’s not named for an individual–a celebrity or rich land owner–or an event. It’s a good name for nature’s land, a generous, hospitable land hosting war and peace, migrant peoples and monks professing stability. It’s willing to co-operate and support the best we can give.