PEOSTA, Iowa - A cold southwest wind blew over the rolling Iowa countryside Thursday morning as about 20 people stood under a gray sky solemnly listening as Cistercian Trappist monk Alberic Farbolin blessed a red oak sapling planted in memory of Christina-Taylor Green - the youngest victim of the Jan. 8 assassination attempt on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Christina-Taylor, 9, was buried in Tucson Jan. 13 in a handcrafted red oak casket made here and donated by the monks at New Melleray Abbey. Wood for her casket came from a tree in the monastery's 1,300-acre forest.
Though this monastery supports itself through its casket business, the monks donate coffins for children.
Most of the monks and laypeople in the monastery's casket-production area had their hands on various stages of construction of Christina-Taylor's casket.
"It was an honor," said Gary Wernimont, who also dug the hole for Christina-Taylor's tree.
It was at vespers, the evening prayer, on Jan. 8 that the brothers first learned of the shooting rampage in Tucson and were asked to pray for the victims.
"My heart sank. We had no details," Farbolin said.
Walking to supper that evening, he saw a photo of Christina-Taylor posted on the bulletin board.
"Oh my God, no, don't tell me that beautiful child is dead, I thought to myself," Farbolin recalled. "Something about our cloistered life makes the heart more vulnerable to deeply painful tragedies. We live with silence and solitude and we spend our evenings not talking but alone with our thoughts ... and with that picture of a spirited child full of life."
He said deep contemplation adds to a sense of solidarity with all people.
It was not until he blessed her casket that Farbolin realized Christina-Taylor was born on Sept. 11, 2001.
"She was born on a day of terror and died on a day of terror," he said. "I pray for her and believe she is now a powerful interceder for the entire human race."
Despite the violence in Tucson and around the world, Farbolin said good and evil are not in a precarious balance.
"Goodness and love triumph," he said. "Our tree planting and our donations are a little tiny affirmation that will grow and spread."
from sacred ground
Some wood for adult caskets is purchased, but all wood for children's caskets comes from the monks' forest, said Sam Mulgrew, manager of Trappist Caskets at the monastery.
"We feel, in a sense, that wood for children is from sacred ground," he said, noting that most of the harvested red oaks are between 110 and 125 years old. Monks have been planting trees here since the monastery was founded in 1849.
Mulgrew said the monastery once had about 150 members but is now down to about 34. As the remaining brothers have gotten older, they were forced to give up farming, their traditional means of support. They auctioned off all their farm equipment last fall and now focus on their casket-making business first started in 1999 for income to support the monastery.
"Casket making is a perfect fit for the monastery. They plant trees, manage the forest and participate in the spiritual nature of shepherding people from this life to the next," Mulgrew said. "For monks who are contemplative, this is an edifying product."
Giving away caskets for children is in keeping with the monks' belief that "goodness is diffusive of itself," explained Rev. Stephen Verbest, who joined the monastery in 1957 at the age of 19.
The Gothic stone monastery and separate stone building for casket production are southwest of Dubuque in Iowa countryside made famous by artist Grant Wood.
Surrounded by forests, expansive farm fields and prairie grasses, Farbolin concluded his blessing for Christina-Taylor's tree saying, "As one who has preceded us in eternity, may she intercede for us and for a world that is deeply wounded by senseless violence."
Clare Howard is a freelance journalist based in Illinois. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org