By DANA GREENE, Special To The Bulletin | Published November 10, 2011
If you have barreled along Interstate 20 East, you may have been unaware that a serpentine route through what was once rural Rockdale County will bring you to a place of beauty and tranquility, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, home to Cistercian monks who live a rule of life crafted some 1,500 years ago by St. Benedict. It is the history and contemporary life of this local monastic community which Dewey Weiss Kramer captures so beautifully in word and photography in “Open to the Spirit.”
As the author points out, since the book was first published in 1986 much has occurred in the life of this monastic community and there is currently greater appreciation for and understanding of Benedictine spirituality among believers. This book allows the reader both to enter into the life of this particular community and to appreciate its legacy in fostering the contemporary “call to universal monasticism.” Hence the need for this greatly expanded and revised edition.
In 1944 a group of 21 monks set out from the then-burgeoning Our Lady of Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky (most well-known as the home of Thomas Merton) to establish a new community on some 1,400 acres of the Honey Creek Plantation outside of Conyers. At the time only a lone Catholic family lived in Rockdale County. Initially these intrepid monks lived in an unheated barn, sharing space with cows and chickens. Within several months, however, a “pineboard monastery” was erected and gradually the community grew. By the time the monastery, including the Abbey church, was completed in 1960 almost 100 men lived in this monastic enclosure.
“Open to the Spirit” traces the community’s life from its difficult beginnings to today, emphasizing the continuity provided by the Rule of St. Benedict with its commitments to work, study and prayer. The author explores how the “Cistercian way of sanctity” permeates this community. The love engendered by living and working together for God and one’s brothers is evocatively portrayed in a photograph of the abbot welcoming a newly professed monk into the community. But in monastic life, continuity is juxtaposed with change brought about by almost 70 years of Holy Spirit’s history. No longer agriculturalists, the monks continue to support themselves today through producing crafts, arts, gardening and food products. Although men set apart and dedicated to the contemplative life, these Cistercian monks increasingly share their lives with those beyond their gates. Today visitors are welcomed every day. (See www.trappist.net.)
Following in the tradition of the earliest Benedictine communities, these Cistercian monks (Cistercians are an eleventh-century reform of Benedictine monasticism) take vows of obedience, conversion and stability, this last meaning they remain in one place. The monastery is for them a “school of love,” where their lives are dedicated to God. Their daily schedule illustrates this priority. They rise for prayer beginning at 4 a.m., and five other communal prayer services follow throughout the day.
But what is most evident to anyone entering their world is their ability to “listen with the heart,” born of silence and solitude, and their hospitality, a distinguishing characteristic of Benedictine life. For the monks of Holy Spirit to receive the stranger is to receive Christ himself. This commitment to hospitality expresses itself in their offerings of spiritual nurture, especially through retreats, the sustaining of those in need through a food bank, and even welcoming the dead in a “green” burial in their woodland cemetery. “Open to the Spirit,” the monastic commitment to hospitality, means openness to all seekers, to those who believe and those who do not.
Written in a clear, accessible style and using limpid photography, “Open to the Spirit” captures monastic life in all its fullness, including chapters on place, history, monastic leadership, connections to the worldwide Cistercian community, and the daily routine of work and prayer, all illustrated by skillfully chosen photographs. The diversity of monastic life is captured in a telling juxtaposition of a 1950s photograph of a young smiling monk driving a massive earth-moving machine with another photograph of a mature monk attentively at work creating stained glass, one of the monastery’s primary crafts.
While the book engages the reader, it is anchored in recent scholarship on the Cistercian tradition and in the extensive oral histories, including most of Holy Spirit’s founding members, conducted by Dewey, professor emerita at DeKalb College, and Victor Kramer, professor emeritus at Georgia State University. This pictorial history celebrates and preserves the contribution of this remarkable community, announces to a broad audience this spiritual resource available in their midst, and introduces them to the rich heritage of Cistercian spirituality, which increasingly is adopted by those living beyond the gates of the monastery.
In a chapter on “Monastic Prayer” Kramer explains the essential goal of monastic life, namely, “to live constantly in the awareness of God’s presence.” Although available everywhere, it was Benedict who believed that God’s presence was cultivated through participation in the Divine Office (an antiphonal chanting of an arrangement of hymns, Scripture and psalmody) and sharing in the Eucharist. It is through this particular communal prayer that the monk, and those who follow this discipline, are transformed and live continually with a consciousness of God.
“Open to the Spirit” is obviously a labor of love, a testimony in itself, but one which might also prompt a visit to the monastery with its inspirational Abbey church and its newly opened Heritage Center. Such a journey would be no ordinary road trip. Rather it would be to enter into a place of solitude and renewal for all people. A pilgrimage can be made by barreling along the highway until you enter its serene enclosure or by journeying vicariously by means of this book. In either case, you will be on pilgrimage. In either case you will be opened to the spirit.