Four nuns, a budding journalist, and a confused bird recently met for lunch. Unfortunately for the bird, a glass window stood between it and the lunch table, and no matter how much it pecked at the window, the glass would not break and allow it through to join the meal.
This bird is a member of a menagerie of creatures that live on or frequent Holy Wisdom Monastery, located just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. Fox, deer, pheasants, wild turkey, and even a once-seen wolf wander the monastery's 138 acres. The monastery grounds provide these creatures an oasis of restored prairie and woodlands within a landscape otherwise dominated by farmland and suburban development.
I recently journeyed to the monastery for research for an article for my long form journalism course. I left my visit surprisingly inspired and rejuvenated. And I don't even consider myself religious.
Holy Wisdom is also home to three Sisters, who have established an ecumenical spiritual community called the Benedictine Women of Madison. At the core of the Sisters' mission lies care for the earth.
When the founding Sisters arrived in 1953 to establish Holy Wisdom, the tired pasture land on which the monastery was built had but two trees. Now, it is home to a beautifully restored prairie, a restored glacial lake, and America's "greenest" building.
Sister Lynne Smith explained that their commitment to caring for the land partly comes from their recognition of their integral role in protecting the local ecosystem. Located just across the highway from Lake Mendota, their land is a sensitive area for the Yahara Lakes watershed. Whatever they do to their land affects the lake's water quality. The restored prairie helps to minimize their impact by controlling erosion and runoff.
First and foremost, however, the Sisters' commitment stems from their spiritual tradition. "It's been the practice of Benedictine monasteries to care for the place where they are," she said. According to the rule of Benedictine, written in the sixth century, monasteries must establish roots in their community, which entails caring for their place.
"I’ve come to think about this place as a part of our community. I go on a walk and I meet God there. It feels like a part of us," said Sister Lynne.
The Benedictine Women of Madison are part of a larger and growing movement within faith communities around the United States to become engaged in the care of "creation." This grassroots movement connects faith with a moral responsibility to care for the earth, or “creation.”
This forging of religious beliefs and environmental protection has strong potential for activating positive change. Research has shown that belief systems inform our understanding of how we fit into the world, and strongly held existing beliefs, such as religious beliefs, are powerful determinants of our behavior.
The strength of beliefs can work either in favor of or against the environment.
According to Sharon Dunwoody, professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, our belief systems can be the strongest roadblocks to change. "Once our beliefs are set, we are pretty resistant to change," she said.
This concept sits at the heart of why environmentalism has become such a polarized movement over the past few decades. The folding of the environmental movement into "left-wing" politics has caused political conservatives to dismiss environmental issues and reject regulation. Even controversial issues backed by credible science and scientists, such as climate change, can thus fall victim to skepticism by conservatives.
"Culturally, environmentalism is not seen as a pure arena like science is, but as one contaminated by politics and ideology. That invites people to align their views ideologically," said Dunwoody.
On the other hand, aligning the environment with existing beliefs, such as religion, can also motivate its protection. For example, a 2008 Sierra Club report claimed 67% of Americans care about the environment because it’s God’s creation.
Another report, conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change and George Mason University, revealed that 48 percent of Americans believe protecting God’s creation is an important reason for taking action to reduce climate change—the fifth highest ranked reason among 16 choices. The report also claimed that, among respondents, protecting God’s creation is the second most important reason to combat climate change, behind providing a better life for future generations.
The Benedictine Sisters' motivation to care for the earth is directly tied to the tenets of their faith. "We see everything as sacred...we are taught to see Christ in everyone," said Sister Lynne.
An environmental ethic can be accessible to even those who do not already possess strong environmental beliefs. According to Dunwoody, direct experiences with nature can be formative, especially if one's existing value system lends itself accordingly. "Encountering an opportunity to learn about environmental principles [can] be an effective tool to making an [environmental] ethic relevant," she said.
The Benedictine Sisters provide ample opportunity for people to experience nature at the monastery and, thus, nurture their environmental ethic. Throughout the year, they host volunteers to help them maintain and continue the restoration of their prairie. Their land also includes trails for people to explore and connect with nature.
"Whether religious or not, when [visitors] walk out into the prairies, there is an opportunity for them to get reconnected with a deep part of themselves and something larger than them," said Sister Lynne.
Other than restoring their local landscape, the sisters have taken on a number of habits that contribute to their efforts to care for the earth. They maintain a large vegetable garden that feeds them and their guests. They also carpool and recycle.
Furthermore, in March of 2010, their newly built monastery was awarded a LEED Platinum rating by the United States Green Building Council, receiving 63 points out of a possible 69--the highest scoring building to date. Features such as high performance windows; solar panels; FSC certified wood; and low VOC paints, carpets and other materials helped them achieve their high marks. They even reused or recycled 99.75 percent of their old building.
"We would ultimately like to buy more solar panels for the building, so the building can generate all the electricity it uses," said Sister Lynne. Their solar panel system currently generates 13 percent of the building's electricity.
Even so, the Sisters' environmental footprint is observably light. For example, as I walked about the monastery on my visit, I noticed most of the lights were turned off and each room relied on the generous amount of daylight shining through the windows.
And at lunch the Sisters told me stories that exemplified the respect and care they have for their place and the creatures they share it with. For example, they regaled stories of one bird that was fortunate to share a meal with them--a male wild turkey that used to hang around the monastery. The Sisters occasionally fed him, and they joked about how he never brought his lady turkey friends with him to share the treats.
This active relationship with nature is clearly integral to the Sisters' way of life. "When people are involved with nature, you get up close to it, touch it, smell it, see it and come to appreciate it. Then you want to save it,” said Sister Lynne.