Event Evokes Powerful Dialogue & Thoughtful Coverage by the Winchester Star

Our program on Saturday brought together a great group of people who learned about our film, Saving Place, Saving Grace, and enjoyed stimulating conversation about the intimate connection between the sacredness of nature and responsibilities of stewardship that Holy Cross Abbey is modeling. 

Posted: November 9, 2015

By ONOFRIO CASTIGLIA

The Winchester Star

BERRYVILLE — Theology and ecology intersect at Holy Cross Abbey.

And the mission of the 11 Trappist monks who live there is the subject of a documentary film being made by George Patterson and Deidra Dain of locally-based Picture Farmer Films.

“Saving Place, Saving Grace” focuses on the endeavors of the monks to live in harmony with the 1,200 acres of farmland they tend on the banks of the Shenandoah River in eastern Clarke County at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The documentary is slated to air on PBS when it’s completed.

At the abbey on Saturday following a prayer service, a trailer of the film was shown to potential investors in the project.

“God is present in nature,” Abbot Robert Barnes said. “Our whole life is focused on living in God’s presence.”

Around the world, the number of people called to religious life is declining, and the abbey is no different. The monks hope that their return to old world farming practices will help attract new attention and youthful involvement.

The monks hold immersion weekends and invite people to experience agricultural life at the abbey. “We get to collaborate with God’s creativity,” the Rev. James Orthmann said about life at the abbey, where he has lived for 38 years. He said that in an effort to use the land without disturbing its natural processes, the monks have been asking themselves, “How do [we] discern what God is trying to do in this picture?”

Trappist monks have a 1,000-year history of settling in valleys to live off the land. Holy Cross Abbey was founded in 1950, but as the monks there grew older, they leased the land to local farmers and shifted their labors to making creamed honey and fruitcakes.

Five years ago, the monks embarked on a new mission to find their place in the modern world in an effort to keep their order from dying out.

So they turned to the “Judeo-Christian tradition” of “taking the land around us as sacred,” Barnes said. The monks enlisted the help of a group of graduate students from the University of Michigan, who made the project their master’s thesis.

The result was a 400-page study called “Reinhabiting Place,” with recommendations for the monks on how to remediate the land and return it to its natural state and by doing that achieve a state of economic independence and environmental sustainability.

The report prompted the monks to ask the cattle farmer who leases 600 acres of their land to keep his cows out of the river and thereby keep out contaminants.

They planted native hardwoods and bushes on the riverbanks as shelter for migratory animals and to attract insects and pollinators to restore biodiversity to the area.

They leased 180 acres of land to an organic vegetable farmer.

They put their land into conservation easement, protecting it from future development.

They installed a solar-powered lighting system in two of the guest retreat dorms at the abbey, and they started offering “green burials” at Cool Spring Cemetery on the property.

Barnes called the changes “a spiritual awakening to values that have gotten lost” — a sentiment echoed by Orthmann, who said that mankind has, in its recent history, made mistakes concerning land use and development.

“What we see around us is God’s creation,” Orthmann said. “We must experience it on its own terms, and not just on what we can get out of it.”

All of this is material for the documentary, which is scheduled for release in about a year. It will air on PBS station WVPT in Harrisonburg and other PBS affiliates nationwide.

Patterson, who moved to Clarke County in 1991 while working as a network news cameraman for NBC, said he has long been infatuated with the abbey for its pristine beauty and for the work ethic of the monks, who manage about 120 acres each.

“Anyway I can help keep this place as it is,” Patterson said, explaining why he is producing the documentary. “Whatever can be done to preserve this place as a monastery, I will do.”

After a 10-minute preview of the film, Dain, who first visited the abbey 13 years ago, said the fundraising goal to complete the project is $300,000.

“This has got nothing to do with religion for us at all,” Dain said. “There’s a lifestyle here that needs to continue.

“It’s simple and yet it’s quite profound at the same time. Everyone who drives through those gates can feel it.”

Barnes said he hopes the documentary will help make people realize that doing their small part is significant. “We are just a small group in one place,” he said, but told the biblical story of the poor widow who put her only two coppers into the temple treasury.

“And that was worth more than any other offer,” Barnes said. “If people could just know that their little bit means everything.”

Anyone who would like to learn more about the documentary or to make a donation should visit picturefarmerfilms.com Those would would like to learn more about the abbey should go to virginiatrappists.org

— Contact Onofrio Castiglia at ocastiglia@winchesterstar.com