Green Mountain: First monastery devoted to care of the Earth

by Sharon Abercrombie

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In 1982, the sociology department of a Catholic university invited Passionist priest Fr. Thomas Berry, to reflect upon the future of the Catholic church in the United States. Fr. Berry, a cultural historian, author and geologian who had served as president of the American Teilhard Association for a decade, did not waste words.

“In my view (the church’s future)will depend above all on its capacity to assume its religious responsibility for the fate of the earth. … so far, church authorities, religious orders, the Catholic universities, and seminaries, priests and people have shown an amazing insensitivity to this most urgent of all issues confronting the human … My question is, after we burn our lifeboat (the Earth) how will we stay afloat?”

So was anyone listening to the priest’s anguished words? They were. Brian Swimme, a young Catholic mathematical cosmologist from California was captivated with Fr. Berry’s writings. Swimme regularly had coffee with the priest at his Riverdale Institute in New York. Together they would later co-author the now famous book, “The Universe Story.”

Sr. Gail Worcelo was another example of an engaged listener. Two years after Fr. Berry’s reply to the university, St. Gabriel’s Monastery in Clark’s Summit, Penn. invited him to conduct an educational experience on the universe story and the role of humans in that story. The classes were for all men and women Passionist novices.

Sr. Gail was there. A Brooklyn, New Yorker, with a master’s degree in Christian spirituality from Fordham University, Sr. Gail had studied liturgical dance with Carla DeSola and knew just how well that movement as prayer “can become a powerful embodiment of praise and adoration of the Divine. “

Fr. Berry’s classes flung open a vast new door of awakening for this dancer/novice. As Sr. Gail was to write later in her life, the unfolding of stars and galaxies in the creation story was a wondrous dance in itself and it was continuing to happen. The chief choreographer and lead dancer? The Divine.

Needless to say, after experiencing some of the wonder of the universe and our connection with it during these classes, “Thomas became my mentor,” said Sr. Gail, on her website. “I began to study with him at his Riverdale Institute.”

Result: Sr. Gail Worcelo and Sr. Bernadette Bostwick, an associate of St. Gabriel Monastery, today are the co-founders of Green Mountain Monastery in Greensboro, Vermont. It is the first ecozoic monastery in the world devoted to care for the Earth. Its dual mission is to serve as a conduit for reintroducing humans to their connectedness to everything in the sacred universe. In 2005 on the day of its dedication, Thomas Berry, called the founding “a special moment of Divine approval at a time when we have lost our sense of the sacredness of the Earth.”

Green Mountain’s Greensboro, Vermont, location is a synchronistic choice if ever there was one. Thomas Berry was born and raised in another Greensboro – North Carolina. “Thomas called them “Greensboro North and Greensboro South,” and dubbed the new one “ a little bit of heaven.’” said Sr. Bernadette, who made simple vows as a sister during the monastery’s dedication service in 2005.

The concept and location of this ecozoic monastery unfolded over a number of years. Sr. Gail continued her novitiate, taking final vows in 1992 at St. Gabriel’s. She then founded and directed Homecomings: A Center for Ecology and Contemplation. It flourished from 1990-99. After earning another master’s degree in clinical psychology Sr. Gail began travelling around the world presenting retreats at religious communities on Thomas Berry’s work. In 1993, Bernadette Bostwick, a Passionist lay associate at the time, became Homecomings’ co-director.

Fr. Berry would meet with the two of them frequently, between his own writing and lecturing, to help craft a mission statement for this new kind of religious community. Finally in 1999 Sr. Gail’s community gave its blessing for them to go ahead with the founding.

For Bernadette, the timing was perfect. Previously immersed in the world of advertising, Bernadette realized she no longer wanted “to try to get people to buy things they don’t need.” Also an art enthusiast and artist herself, the Toms River, New Jersey native had worked for a time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Later, she had owned her own house painting business, specializing in historical restoration.

Like Sr. Gail, Bernadette was deeply influenced by Thomas Berry. His universe story vision brought her back to a childhood home of ocean, pine barrens and cedar swamps. “It was there in these three sacred places that the natural world revealed itself to me as a single sacred community of life.” The more she studied, the more Bernadette realized that she needed to be actively engaged in restoring the Earth. “I didn’t want my future great great grandchildren keeping me awake at night in dreams asking me what I had done to save the planet,” she said, quoting from a Drew Dellinger poem.

On June 1, 1999, Sr. Gail and Bernadette arrived in Weston, Vermont to begin their new adventure.

After much investigating for possible places, they and Fr. Berry had decided that Vermont would be the perfect location for an ecozoic monastery. Explained Sr. Bernadette, “It’s the most environmentally conscious state. It leads in the number of organic small farms, promotes a farm to school lunch program, supports farmer’s markets and has a strong ‘Slow Food’ movement in restaurants.” At the time of NCR’s phone interview in late May, Vermont’s governor, Peter Shumlin, had just announced he was setting up a state Climate Cabinet, comprised of a group of senior officials charged with leading reducing greenhouse emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

With this kind of track record, Vermonters also would likely be most hospitable to the two women from St. Gabriel’s Monastery. And they were. The Sisters found welcoming neighbors soon after arriving in Weston, their temporary headquarters. They rented a small house near Weston Priory while looking for monastery land.

Thanks to all those “Homecoming” workshops they’d given on Thomas Berry’s work, there were universe story supporters in the area. The sisters likewise had a growing nest egg for their land purchase from those retreats and from donations. During the drawing board phases of the monastery, Sr. Gail had sent out donation appeal letters to the religious communities where she had presented her seminars and retreats.

Shortly after their arrival, they met Betsy Ungvarski, the owner of a large lodge. It could accommodate 26 people. Betsy offered them the space for free, so they could continue their retreat work. The grateful sisters reimbursed Betsy for the electricity and water after every event.

By 2005, Sr. Gail and Sr. Bernadette had located a site – 160 acres in Greensboro with one building. The owner, a Catholic, lowered the price for them. All those previous donations from Thomas Berry supporters enabled them to pay cash.

The day they arrived at their new digs, the two women were met by a crowd of well wishers brandishing “welcome” signs. One of the welcomers was the then diocesan Bishop Kenneth Angell.

Six years and nearly 100 volunteer-companions later, Green Mountain boasts a yurt, a straw bale hermitage and a new greenhouse. The monastery building has four guest rooms and the hermitage can sleep two.

Much of the construction work came from sweat equity, said Sr. Bernadette. One building school called Yestermorrow built the timber frame for the straw bale hermitage as part of a teaching class. They donated the structure and put it up with the students at the end of class. A contractor finished the straw bale section

Life at Green Mountain is busy. It is summer and the tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and other veggies are flourishing. Sr. Bernadette and the faithful volunteers do the tending. So does Sr. Gail when she is home, but currently she is in demand for retreats all over the country. Two weeks ago Sr. Gail teamed up at in Chicago with environmentalist Sr. Illia Delio and futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard for a week-long session on “Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in the Universe Story.”

Green Mountain hosts concerts and retreats as well. Last month, Shaikh Abdull Haqq and the Sufi community of Montreal made a presentation. On July 30, the Aurora Sacred Singers will give a concert and Mary Coelho will open her art exhibit.

The monastery is always open to people for private retreats, said Sr. Bernadette. Billed as “Monastic Wisdom, Sharing the Gift,” Green Mountain offers people the opportunity to join in contemplative prayer, silence, study, yoga, manual work, and the arts.

If they choose to do so, they can go into the chapel and put on one of the brightly colored shawls which hang on the walls and meditate on Creation. The cloaks represent the colors of the universe as it was flaring forth 13.7 billion years ago.

During a personal retreat, Sr. Gail chose the red one. Reflecting upon her choice in an essay entitled “Holy Ground: Where the Catholic Tradition and the Universe Story Meet,” she said: “I drape myself with the cosmic red shawl and feel the stupendous activity of the fireball alive within me. I am moved to write a prayer of intention for my re-entry into the world to recite each day in our new religious community.

"O Divine Wisdom, you who were present in the Holy Fire at the beginning of time, give us light and Guidance. You who introduced the first partnership of hydrogen and helium, teach us how to combined our energies to give birth to the Ecozoic Era. You who seeded the dark of space with galaxies and stars, gift us with abundance. In a moment of grace, Earth learned to capture sunlight. Help us to photosynthesize the Light of Christ to become food for the future.”

Retreatants can hang up their cloaks to then reflect on contemporary issues in the areas of theology and science, evolutionary spirituality and the works of Thomas Berry. Integral to these retreats is the chance for people to consider how to be of service to the Earth community when they return home.

They receive plenty of additional inspiration at Green Mountain, as well. They can commune with the spirit of Thomas Berry, as Srs. Bernadette and Gail often do. Thomas Berry was buried there in 2009 a week after his June 1 death. His resting place is located in a beautiful meadow, much like the one he describes in his writings. It is that meadow which reflects an Earth in proper ecological balance without human interference.

Can they feel his presence? “Oh, yes, it’s palpable,” replies Sr. Bernadette. “I have his voice inside me, his pearls of wisdom.”

Lest anyone doubt what Green Mountain Monastery is about, its mission statement, in the form of a metal symbol created by both sisters, says it all. It is a multilayered image giving expression to the mystery of Trinitarian Love at the Heart of the Universe.

A trio of fish laid in a triangular shape calls upon an ancient Christian image of the Trinity: a community of mutual self giving and intimate self sharing.

The trio of Fish embrace by the circle, is symbolic of the circulation of Divine Love which penetrates and saturates the entire cosmic process.

The patterns of the Trinity, woven into the very structure of the Universe are: Differentiation, Interiority and Communion. These principles reveal the Universe as a multiplicity of different beings interpenetrating with one another in a bonded unity.

The cross reveals the Christ, whose love and self-giving permeates the cosmos. The inner dynamism of the cross is expressed as the continual outpouring and intimate self giving for the sake of the whole.

The blue stone in the center represents Earth, our home. “

What is next for Green Mountain Monastery? Perhaps a few new sisters. Three women currently are exploring the possibility. Last month, a young woman from Jakarta, Indonesia arrived for a six month monastic experience. Amie Hendani found out about Green Mountain through a group of Indonesian Good Shepherd Sisters who had attended one of Sr. Gail’s workshops in Quito, Ecuador. The sisters had recorded the retreat and brought it back with them.

Also In the future, is the possibility of some nonhuman members of the Earth community taking up residence at the monastery. A Vermonter has offered the sisters a gift of some alpacas, those furry animals for South America. They can be shorn, and their fur made into fiber.

But practicalities are presently missing, such as a barn and a person with a fondness for herding the critters, and a leaning towards the monastic life. The position is open, says Green Mountain’s web site.

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