‘Saving Place, Saving Grace’ Trappists, Sustainability, and Place

Ecology meets theology. “Saving Place, Saving Grace” is the story of a Trappist monastery’s struggle for reformation of their home by embracing an intense sustainability initiative. Witness the monks’ land stewardship, contemplative prayer, and work ethic that shapes the core of their community, Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia.

An old definition of a monk is “Amato loci,” lover of a place. In 2009, the University of Michigan did a yearlong sustainability study of Holy Cross’ 1,200 acres on the banks of the Shenandoah River and embraced a land management plan. Now most of the 1,200 acres have been put into a conservation trust. Can faith communities and agricultural interests find common ground? Is there a balance between working the land and consecrating it?

Dispatch from Prison: How Strong Is Hope?

In my daily prayer book, the morning antiphon for today said: “The Lord chose these holy men for their unfeigned love …” The men referred to are Saints Phillip and James, whose feast day it is today. But as I return from a writing workshop at one of Maryland’s federal men’s prisons, the phrase takes on a fresher meaning.

This week I’m the visiting humanities scholar inside the “big house.” There were about 20 men in class today. I think they are all from Washington, D.C. When the federal prison at Lorton, VA, closed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, D.C. federal prisoners were shipped all over the U.S.– sometimes very far from their families.

Hope House DC was established by Carol Fennelly in 1998 to help keep those D.C. families with someone in prison together and keep incarcerated fathers active in the lives of their kids. Hope House also works to reduce the isolation, stigma, and risk families experience when fathers and husbands are imprisoned and raises public awareness about prison issues and this at-risk population.

Carol Fennelly invited me to participate in this program – funded by the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. – and made it possible for me to come teach these classes as part of the National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read” program. The book that D.C. has chosen to read and that we are discussing in these workshops is Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, which takes on the question: Knowing we are going to day, how should we live?

The guys are discussing the book and writing about their own experiences. I was impressed that every single man had read the book in advance. From the depth of our discussion I think some had read it multiple times. One man quoted sections from memory and cited the page numbers.

We talked about the characters, their motivations, the setting in rural Louisiana in the 1940s. We talked about what makes a character — and whether a character always has to be a person or can it be the landscape or even an experience that looms large in the story line. The men struggled with each other over whether the main character “Jefferson” was a “victim of circumstance” or “did he make a bad choice” that ended with him on death row.

We talked about the preacher that peddles hope on Sunday mornings, but the hope fades by sunset and never leads to changing the systems of oppressions. Just how strong is hope? And how weak is optimism? We discussed how very small acts or things can be used to dismantle an overarching system — the weapons of the weak can take apart dehumanizing systems. But they only work if they force the oppressors and the oppressed to recognize their shared humanity.

At one point our conversation shifted. One man said, “We keep saying that Jefferson was simple or retarded or slow or stupid and that’s why he did those things that ended him up in jail. But WE did the same things! We made the same choices. And WE aren’t stupid or simple or slow.” Then each one began to wrestle with who he was in the story and the choices that he had made and how hard it is to build up enough strength to make new choices when the same old situations arise on the outside.

I won’t say that anyone in the workshop – myself included – is “holy” in a morally righteous sense. But instead “the Lord called these holy men” in the sense that holiness also means moving toward becoming a whole and healed human being. And even in this first day, I can stand as a witness to their “unfeigned love” – especially when they talk about their kids or show pictures of their families. Tomorrow we’ll work on a number of writing exercises and end with a reading from their work and a graduation certificate.

On another note, it turns out that “Casino Jack” Abramoff was also at this facility, on the minimum security side. He’s getting released to a half-way house this month just in time to see Alex Gibney’s newly released documentary about his life called Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Suffice it to say, the range of “bad choices” made by men in Washington, D.C., is wide-ranging.

Catholic Speakers: ‘In the Company of the Banned’?

BannedI got a note today from Pat Mahon over at Pax Christi South saying he’d been banned from speaking in the Diocese of Venice, Florida. He was scheduled to lead a retreat on Thomas Merton but the retreat was canceled by the chancellor. Pat speculates that this was because of his support for Catholic women’s ordination to the priesthood. Here’s an excerpt from Pat’s reflections:

I immediately began finalizing arrangements and the materials for a retreat on Merton I was giving to a parish peace and justice group on Florida’s west coast this Friday and Saturday. Then, out of the blue, I was notified Wednesday evening that the retreat was canceled because I was no longer approved to speak in the Diocese of Venice. I had been approved last March to speak on Merton in San Marco and understood that once approved, further approval was not necessary. The retreat coordinator in October was told that I was approved when he inquired to make sure. What?

I arose early after a restless night and called the contact person. The chancellor had had the person in charge of the deacons call the deacon who was coordinating the retreat to deliver the message. Speaking of dialogue, openness and transparency! The only reason I have been able to find so far is that I support the ordination of women as priests. I now join a select group of people who I been told are banned in Venice–Joan Chittister, Charlie Curran, Anthony Padovano. I also suspect that Roy Bourgeoise and John Dear are on the list.

Read Pat’s whole post here and send him a suportive note.

This tactic of “banning” speakers that someone in Catholic hierarchy doesn’t approve of is becoming more popular. In October, the diocese of Richmond refused to allow Pax Christi to meet in Holy Family Church — even though a bishop was one of the keynote speakers! Pax Christi had to hold its meeting at the local Methodist college.

It’s important to note that technically the diocese can only “ban” speakers who are holding events on diocesan-owned property. So if you hold your events elsewhere, the hierarchy can “ban” all they want but to no effect.

I find it ironic that when judges were deciding on financial settlements for priest sex abuse cases in the dioceses of Portland and Seattle, the dioceses made it clear to the judges that the churches were the property of the parishioners. This was a strategy to reduce the diocesan “assets” and therefore limit the financial exposure of the diocese. The courts saw through this and determined that the churches were part of church property. But if the diocese can make that determination once, maybe parishioners should join together into an ownership model for their parishes.

I’d love to hear other people’s experiences with diocesan approval for speakers and events.

Joan Baez Serenades O-Talkers in VA

Joan Baez was in D.C. last week promoting “Day After Tomorrow,” her new CD. (Check it out! It’s produced by Steve Earle and Stevie-boy wrote one of the tracks, “God is God.”)

Joan Baez with Obama crew in VA.
Joan Baez with Obama crew in VA.

But, guess what? She also took time to stop by the Obama campaign office in Alexandria, Virginia, and sing a few lines. My friend Nate Solloway was there volunteering and got a great picture with Sweet Joanie.

With her political spirit fully intact, the 67-year-old pacifist endorsed a candidate for the first time. “I haven’t heard an orator like [Obama] since King,” she said. Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” in 1963 to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.

As a point of interest, Baez committed her first act of civil disobedience when she was 16 years old. She refused to leave her high school classroom in Palo Alto, Calif., during “practice atomic bomb” evacuations. Instead, she sat at her desk and read her book. I wonder what she was reading?.