Revue d’Histoire cistercienne:
A Journal of Historical Studies
1995, T. 46
Cistercian Monastic Life
A review by E. Rozanne Elder,
Institute of Cistercian Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan
When the Cistercian monks of Holy Cross Abbey pondered the awesome task of soliciting funds to support new buildings at their abbey near Berryville, Virginia, they chose a novel approach. As a gift to benefactors, they produced a beautiful, limited-edition portfolio of photographs of their community and its natural setting, the lovely, gentle Blue Ridge Mountains along the banks of the Shenandoah River. A portfolio of twelve reflective photographs, four of them in color, offers readers a visual entry into the Shenandoah Valley, less than two hours from Washington, D.C. and into the heart of the monastic community. Brief essays by three Cistercians and comments excerpted from interviews with members of the Holy Cross community together constitute “The Experience,” a forty-page meditative text which encourages by the medium of words the opportunity for reflection offered visually by the photographs.
“Holy Cross Abbey is a place I know in my heart,” writes interviewer Carolyn Coman, “a place that abides with me, full of offering. Within its deeply quiet and beautiful setting, everything is dedicated to seeking God.” In answer to the oft-asked question, why monks separate themselves from ordinary life in society and why visitors seek them out in their solitude, she cites a “chorus of voices:” the abbot and a former abbot, two middle-aged solemnly professed monks, a young monk in simple vows, and a novice. Their comments, not identified by person, cast light on the first stirrings of a sense of vocation and on the difficulties of obedience, celibacy, and life in community. They touch on the goal of monastic vocation, union with God, and on the often discouraging yet deeply joyful path towards that goal. Their insights are woven into four sections: “Beginnings,” “The Vowed Life,” “Struggle,” and “Union.”
Striking photographs by Lance Hidy give a sense of the “deeply quiet and beautiful setting” in which these men live out their response to God’s call from the time they enter monastic life until they die. “And if you decide to stay here,” one monk tells newcomers as they pass the graveyard, photographed against a stark autumnal sky, “that’s where you’ll be buried.” The monastery church, a meditation chapel, and a rustic hermitage chapel leave the viewer in no doubt that Cistercian conversatio is centered in prayer—liturgical and personal, vocal and silent. Scenes from the sacristy, the garden house, and the laundry remind us of the importance Saint Benedict and the Cistercian tradition have attached to manual labor. Portraits of members of the community quietly make the point that Christ is present in each person and is to be loved and served. Landscapes remind us that natural beauty expresses God’s presence as surely as the crucifix which brings to mind God’s all-enveloping, self-giving and forgiving love. The timelessness of the photographs supports the motif that runs throughout the interviews: conversatio is measured, not in months and years, but in the lifelong deepening of the monks’ response to God. They bring a sense that these men, in training their attention wholly on God, can become more and more the human persons God created and calls each to be. As one of them remarks, “I’m not being asked to be anything except what I am.” To those outside the monastery who sense, however faintly, the thirst for the living God, they convey something of the experience of those living a life wholly centered on God, those who can say, in pondering the solitude, the silence, and the asceticism of the cloister, “I try to see my life as a simple thank you.”
The photographer, Lance Hidy, is well known both in the United States and abroad. Conversatio was included in a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1994, and he has won awards for his work with Ansel Adams and Arnold Newman. Trained in art at Yale University, he has worked with Leonard Baskin and was co-founder of David R. Godine, Publisher, in Boston, Massachusetts. An internationally recognized poster artist, he is also a designer of computer art and type. His eight black and white and four color Cibachrome photographs, 8 x 10 inches, are signed on the verso and mounted in 12 x 14 inch overmats.
Carolyn Coman, author of “The Experience,” has provided verbal insights into monastic conversion by her sensitive editing of interviews with six monks in the community. She is the author of Many Stones, Bee & Jacky, What Jamie Saw, and Tell Me Everything, all novels for young readers. She has twice been a National Book Award Finalist. She is a member of the faculty at Vermont College’s MFA Program in Writing for Children.
Three Cistercian monks contribute their “Experience” of the life by writing on conversatio, “the essential monastic vow…a formal commitment to live until death as a fervent monk.” This ascetic metanoia they point to as the underlying sub-text of Saint Bernard’s theology of the monastic life, illustrated in his profound treatment of the three steps of truth in The Steps of Humility. A brief history of the Holy Cross community, its property, and its life, “the ordinary in search of and hoping to serve the ultimate,” introduces the text. The authors are the late Thomas Merton of Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky; Flavian Burns, once Merton’s abbot and abbot of Holy Cross Abbey; and Benedict Simmonds, a monk of Holy Cross Abbey and the editor of the portfolio.
Brother Benedict Simmonds, the editor, entered monastic life at Holy Cross Abbey in 1983, after long experience in the world of fine books. He was a member of the staffs of the Manuscript Division, Berg Collection, and the Editor’s Office of the New York Public Library, was Librarian of the Grolier Club, and a Director of The Eakins Press Foundation.
The portfolio was designed by Howard Gralla, who served on the design staffs of Macmillan, Doubleday, and the Yale Printing Office before becoming an independent designer. The text was set in Bembo and Albertus types and printed letterpress on Zerkall-Bütten paper by Michael and Winifred Bixler, experienced typesetters and printers who have worked for numerous major American museums. Portfolio boxes were hand made for Conversatio by Andrew and Ellen Eddy of Élan Bindery.
Only two hundred numbered and fifty lettered copies of Conversatio have been printed. They are presented to donors making contributions of $1,500 or more to Holy Cross Abbey. It is hoped that benefactors will be as generous in sharing the portfolio with their friends as they are in giving of their substance to the abbey.
The pages of Conversatio: Cistercian Monastic Life offer a moment of stillness and silence that our twentieth-century selves—harried and bombarded by the media—desperately long for. It is an occasion for eyes, hands, and soul to pause and contemplate. Readers are led to meditate upon the meaning of monastic life through Carolyn Coman’s interviews with six monks from Holy Cross Abbey, Lance Hidy’s remarkable photographs of the life and setting of the community, and the beautifully designed and letterpress-printed pages of Michael and Winifred Bixler. Even more, Conversatio is a rare occasion for personal reflection.
formerly Philip Hofer Curator of Printing and Graphic Arts
The Houghton Library, Harvard University