Green Asceticism

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From the earliest days of religious communities, monks and nuns have practiced sustainable living. Environmental awareness is nothing new among religious, since many congregations ran farms, raised chickens, tended kitchen gardens, and carefully stored winter supplies of potatoes, apples, squash, and the like. Moreover, religious are known to use their resources wisely and modestly, all the while respecting the creation from which it came. In a sense, it could be argued that religious can boast themselves as the first to be environmentally aware.

Today, these traditional ties to the land account for why many religious communities have become increasingly involved with eco-focused projects. Furthermore, the historical foundation for the Church’s concern for social issues in general had been established in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum. Fast-forward to 2004, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church draws further attention to the idea of alternative energy sources. Article 470 states:

From a moral perspective based on equity and inter-generational solidarity, it will also be necessary to continue, through the contribution of the scientific community, to identify new sources of energy, develop alternative sources and increase the security levels of nuclear energy. The use of energy, in the context of its relationship to development and the environment, calls for the political responsibility of States, the international community and economic actors. Such responsibility must be illuminated and guided by continual reference to the universal common good.
Although today’s religious communities are confronted with a multitude of new challenges, the religious and the Church are actively responding to the Compendium. Potential global climate change and its consequences of rising oceans, devastating storms, heat waves, severe water shortages, famine, and massive population displacement are some of the serious possibilities that may result from excessive greenhouse gas emissions. Though scientific debate still rages on the subject, some religious communities are resorting to innovative ways to embrace environmentally friendly programs not only to help to stop the advancement of climate change, but also as a testament to the Church’s continued call to steward creation responsibly. The initiatives of these religious communities show the important leadership role the Church can play in facing possible environmental problems in the future.
In an effort to protect God’s creation and ensure a healthy and sustainable future, the Benedictine nuns of Regina Laudis in Connecticut have embraced new environmental initiatives. In 1993, the abbey joined in alliance with local, state, and federal agencies to preserve the wetland and aquatic environments on the property of the monastery. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection awarded the abbey a River Restoration Grant in 2000 that protects the headwater streams on the abbey land.
Certain areas of the abbey property are especially designated as part of the Environmental-Historical Preserve. These parts of land are protected as part of the monastic enclosure, but also as wetlands or wildlife habitats.
The Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, have also embarked on their own innovative green project. They created a cooperative strategy with St. John’s University in designating their 2,700 acres of forests, prairies, and lakes as a natural arboretum. Now called St. John’s Arboretum, the grounds offer unique opportunities for preservation, education, and research.
A number of Catholic schools are also becoming engaged in ecological education and outreach programs. Beginning in 2004, the St. Anthony School in Des Moines, Iowa, developed an innovative project called the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden project has since grown into a coalition effort made up of other participating churches and supporting agencies. Last season it produced nearly three tons of fruits and vegetables for local individuals who are struggling with poverty, and it is projected to produce nearly ten tons in this current season. Currently, students, staff, and volunteers help to maintain approximately ten acres of land. All the fresh produce that they grow is donated to food pantries, charities, and shelters. The school also runs and houses the Eden Education Center, which instructs over 20 hours of ecology curriculum to more than 100 students at a time.
Another important group, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, has for decades kept track of such innovations by religious communities in the magazine Catholic Rural Life. They have also recently developed a Web-based searchable database: Religious Communities on the Land. Their informative Web site states, “Catholic religious communities of men and women have historically been leaders in constructing new forms of community to lead a moral and sustainable life. Today as in the past, many religious communities are developing new ways of living and forming innovative relationships with creation to establish increasingly sustainable communities.”
Even the Vatican recently announced that it is considering the construction of a 100-megawatt solar-power plant. If constructed, this facility will be the largest solar-power producing plant in Europe. The proposed facility would service the Vatican and sell any remaining power to the outside world.
Tracing back to the origins of religious life, it is remarkable to note how religious congregations’ tie to the land and community forever altered society and culture. The transformation from an individualistic-oriented view to a community-oriented structure brought about radical change. With the community spirit in place, these new religious organizations brought into existence not only schools and hospitals, but established innovative farming that laid the foundations for sustainable development.
Although it was the Benedictine order that is best known as the caretakers of culture and was respected for their organized and efficient farms in Europe, almost all other religious communities had some involvement with farm life. Some examples of how religious ingenuity overflowed from the monastery kitchens and cellars are found in the products they produced — the numerous cheeses, breads, cured meats, beer, wine, and fancy spirits like Dom PĂ©rignon champagne and Charterhouse chartreuse. Their loving preparation of their farm products yielded some of the most delightful culinary treasures known to man.
A green mission is natural to the overall apostolate of the Church, since it acknowledges the wonders of Creation and calls us to be faithful stewards of the environment. To respect the web of life that surrounds us is, in many respects, our Catholic heritage. Religious communities offered local solutions to global problems since their inception. The monastic tradition of working the land in a community spirit prefigures the green movement of today by centuries.
Although the primary goals for religious remain the sanctification of its members through strict adherence to the evangelical counsels, involvement in today’s ecological solutions may present a positive force to the outside world. Coincidentally, the religious’ constant return to the sources, such as the counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, represents a sort of “recycling” of the tried and true spiritual practices for the soul. As religious life continues this spiritual recycling, there is also a call to adapt their core mission to the environmental realities of today. With this in mind, we might just see a solar-powered Vatican some day.

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