A Sense of Place

by Kurt Aschermann, Associate of Holy Cross Monastery

My first visit to West Park, around 1983 (84?) was a revelation in more ways than one. First the beauty of the location, the buildings and most importantly the Divine Office startled me. I had heard about places like this, but had never been to one. During the weekend, I found myself having trouble staying in the room for the Vestry Retreat, which was the purpose of my visit. I wanted to explore every inch of the monastery and especially make my way to the river, my river, having been born quite near its banks a few miles south, in Ossining. I felt at home at Holy Cross Monastery immediately.

It also had significant impact on my future in the church because from that first visit came an intense interest in and desire to be close to Benedictine monasticism and contemplative life. That first weekend, I not only bought a copy of the Monastic Breviary, but also several books on monastic life. One of the books was a copy of the Order’s Rule (Father Huntington’s Rule) and with these books my love for monastic balance, rhythm and a sense of place began to influence every aspect of my life. This combination of the beauty of the place and the beauty of the office took hold of me and has held me fast ever since.

My visits to other monasteries through the years, especially since I became an Associate in 1985, were (and continue to be) always a contest of comparison: how did the monastery I was visiting stack up to West Park, was always the question. I know, each monastery has its own charm, its own ‘feel,’ but still I compare.

Invariably, the other monasteries lose. I am spoiled; West Park is ‘my’ monastery and nothing can compare.

In my current capacity as Companion at Our Lady of the Holy Cross Cistercian Abbey in Berryville, VA (don’t bother looking up the title in Trappist history; it doesn’t exist.It’s a title the Abbot gave me when, as he said, ‘he just showed up and never left; we have to call him something. ’In the old days of Trappist life, I would have been called a Family Brother), I provide fund raising, communications and retreat support to this cloistered community. Blessed to sit in choir with the monks, have a room in the monastic dormitory and a seat in refectory, I have taken my love of Benedictine monasticism to a place I never thought possible. I am given the freedom to be with the monks in almost every capacity without taking vows.

This was all born at West Park, my monastery, and because of the importance of the Order of Holy Cross to me and my life I made sure the Abbot would not require me to give up my Associate relationship to do this work and to have these privileges. I remember Dom Robert saying, “they are our monastic brothers; why would I ask you to do that?”

One part of my work at Our Lady of the Holy Cross has been to raise money and campaign for beautifying of the monastery buildings, church and living quarters of the monks. Attracting men to monastic life is hard enough, I have said, (and harder to cloistered monastic life) but if they come to us and then visit Gethsemani or Genesee, they see a physical plant more beautiful than ours and though we might want to believe entering the life of a monastery should be all prayer and call, truth is these men have to live here for the rest of their life-the physical plant matters. Holes in the wall and a church that hasn’t changed in almost 70 years will attract no one.

Luckily, we have raised the money and have made vast improvements including the current ongoing renovation of the abbey church. With these improvements, have come new men interested in the life and new people to our retreat house and to mass and the office in the church. Improving our physical plant has made a difference and given this aging community hope that there will be a future.

Which brings me to West Park. The new campaign for infrastructure improvements, and deferred maintenance, is essential to maintaining the ‘sense of place’ for the monks and the rest of us who so depend on West Park to be there for us, to be the beautiful monastic institution we all love. All of us, thinking of the buildings at West Park and the beauty of the chant coming from the chapel, can sit with eyes closed and see it, feel it and pray through it, as if we are there, even when we aren’t. That to me is what a sense of place means: the very structures and people are so important that we can conjure them up in a moment’s notice and every time we do the warmth we feel in our heart is palpable.It’s really like how we feel about home.

I know you know what I’m talking about. West Park gets us all.

Which is why this campaign the monks are talking about is so important. Each of us needs to play our role in guaranteeing that West Park and the entire Order of Holy Cross will always be there, will always provide our ‘monastic home’ even though we aren’t monks and never will be. The physical plant matters.

When I preach on stewardship in my parish or talk to donors and prospective donors to the monastery in Berryville, I always start by saying ‘we take care of the things we cherish, the things we love, the things that have helped form us and supported us. ’We take care of our family and our home and maybe the college we attended — and we take care of the houses of worship and spiritual support that have formed us through the years because they are a place whose very buildings and liturgy we can imagine being present in our lives all the time and for the rest of our lives. They must be protected.

And so, we must take care of this place, West Park. I pray the campaign goes forward and will do what I can to find a way to support it though, frankly, at this stage in my life it won’t be much. Because West Park means that much to me and I cherish it.

It’s the sense of place that makes this so.