Replies to the questionnaire on the environment

Marie-Pascale Dran ocso


To speak of the beauty of nature is already to speak of God's gift. To speak of Creation, of which we are the stewards, brings us one step closer to a realisation of our communion with God. The theme of the questionnaire which was offered to the communities in AIM Bulletin, no. 76, was Ecology and Spirituality. The hymn of Patrice de la Tour du Pin from which a line is quoted at the outset of these few pages serves as a key, a direction or orientation, a sort of Jacob's Ladder uniting earth to heaven.

All of Nature is there, the whole creation, at our disposal, for our life, our growth, our food, and our happiness - in a word, for the Glory of God. Except that...! Just like in the Genesis account, which the Church places before us in the solemn hour of the Paschal Vigil, something has happened to Creation, and our task now is to reach out towards a better world, or at least, towards one which is not even worse! During the last century so much has been laid waste and ransacked. We must take a better road, even with our poor resources, trying to rediscover a sense of how to use well the riches that God puts at our disposal, and which we are meant to bequeath to those who come after us. This is a vast undertaking, as the answers to the questionnaire will show. But just as they indicate how weak is our commitment in this matter, irrespective of which continent we inhabit, they also show the conviction of those who have replied about the urgency of becoming aware and of translating that awareness into action at the level of communities and collectivities.

There are replies in English from 15 communities, representing a vast geographical and cultural variety: Germany, England, Austria, U.S.A., Ghana, India, Ireland, Netherlands, Poland, and Tanzania. Answers in French came from Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Burkina-Faso, Canada, France, Israel, Switzerland and Togo: 28 replies in all.

We have not yet received replies in Spanish from Europe, but a few have come from Latin America: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Peru and, all the same, 2 from Spain.

These echo the replies of 19 communities of the Benedictine or Cistercian families.

Having established the geographical situation of a monastery, the questionnaire takes up two major aspects of action for the protection of the environment:

1. Initiatives for the preservation of natural spaces.

2. Initiatives for the reduction of pollution in these spaces.

Being a Yes or No questionnaire, the answers give us the major trends but do leave us wanting to know more. This leads us to envisage a further reflection on the basis of some more detailed answers, which we can already explore now.

What is the trend of the unanimous answers from communities?

They are unanimous for the re-use of paper, an effort to sort waste, a move towards installations to save energy. At that point, the unanimous Yes comes to an end. The unanimous or near-unanimous No says much, in the areas of recycled paper, the use of renewable sources of energy, such as wind-power, and, to the great disadvantage of those recording the replies, in the area of education and awareness of the importance of these ecological initiatives.


1. Initiatives for the preservation of natural spaces.

Do monasteries farm in an environment-friendly way (organic farming)?

Quilvo, Chile, does not engage in organic farming, strictly speaking, but they are signed up to a programme of good-practice farming (BPA), with certification of the quality of products. Ganagobie, France, grows olives, and Lérins grows vines. Especially in the area of parasite control they opt for plant-friendly solutions: the aim is not total elimination of parasites in orchards and vineyards but reasonable control: not too much grass so as to avoid the use of herbicides, no insecticides but the use of synthetic hormones against butterflies preying on the vines, and controls on the different orchard parasites, so as to keep their numbers at an acceptable level. Thu-Duc, Vietnam: they plant hedges of bamboo, hibiscus, and citronella, and also eucalyptus which purifies the air and absorbs humidity. Peramiho, Tanzania, Puno in Peru, Rafaela in Argentina, Caldey in Wales, Dourgne and St Benoit sur Loire in France: none of these uses chemical fertilisers. St Benoit sur Loire uses only compost made of leaves and mown grass, to which is added plant manure of nettles, ryegrass, rhubarb, ferns, wormwood. Paraná in Argentina uses almost exclusively a completely natural fertiliser, chicken, cow and horse manure. The farm at La Pierre-qui-Vire, France has been engaged in organic farming since 1969, the first such enterprise in Burgundy, affiliated to the Bio-Bourgogne Association and endowed with a quality label. Randol, France, devotes twenty hectares of pasture to its herd of milk cows and about 100 hectares to sheep grazing. The milking herd supplies the milk for the Saint-Nectaire cheese produced and perfected on the Abbey farm. The pastures are fertilised by compost manure and by natural mineral fertilisers, thus avoiding the risk of polluting the stream flowing past the pastures. The Guadalupe retreat centre at Cuernavaca, Mexico uses natural fertilisers bought from an ecological co-op, thus helping that co-op to develop whilst waiting to learn how to use compost and how to make natural fertiliser themselves. Annunciation monastery at Nazareth uses only biological products for their garden which for the moment has only fruit trees and flowers, so that this little corner of the Holy Land reminds us of Paradise! Koubri in Burkina-Faso had to prevent the villagers from coming to cut down their trees for firewood. Many medicinal plants were saved in this way, and the local people are now very grateful. But the desert is encroaching rapidly. The future will call for more watering and more ingenious ways of 'trapping' water.

Does the monastery preserve and protect the natural spaces in its vicinity?

Many monasteries go in for cleaning up their surroundings and parkland, as at Transfiguración and Epifania in Argentina, moor and heath at Campénéac in France or, again, at Saint Hildegard in Germany, vines and fruit trees. The natural space protected by Lérins is the entire island: dwellings, vine growing, forest, paths and creeks open to numerous visitors. The little archipelago is included in the European Natura 2000 programme essentially because of its marine life. Quilvo in Chile takes care of the bank of the great Río Teno which skirts one side of the monastery, planting lawns and trees to beautify the surroundings. Rautén in Chile has the help of professional agronomists in finding the best site for a plantation of fruit trees. St Cecilia's in England is situated in the midst of a protected area where there are nesting sites for birds. Soleilmont in Belgium also welcomes ornithologists who are monitoring 40 nesting boxes, and Bolton in Ireland has artificial lakes for the conservation of natural species. Queen of Angels Monastery in Oregon is very attentive to the quality of its environment, the surrounding prairie, wild fruits, organic fertilisers, the preservation of fauna and flora, including insects, and the rotation of vegetables planted each year so as to preserve the quality of the soil. Nostra Senora de Los Angeles at Constantina near Seville in Spain, which is situated in the natural park of the North Sierra of Seville, practises the ecological cultivation of olives and respects the prevailing norms for the park. Koubri has been congratulated by the National Centre for Forestry Plantation (CNSF) for having saved the one forest still standing within a 60 km radius of Ouagadougou and having created a micro-climate in the vicinity of the monastery.

Does the monastery take part in a programme of sustainable forestry by planting trees?

Santa Mariá of Guadalupe, Mexico, is obliged to follow the norms and to request government permission before felling a single tree. But as urbanisation is advancing all the time towards the monastery, many trees have been planted over the last fifteen years to save the environment. Dzogbégan in Togo has planted more than 30 hectares of forestry, some of which is already mature for felling. Brou sur Chantereine in France has had to replant woods after the devastation caused by storms in December 1999, just like the monastery of Transfiguración in Argentina, after the floods of 2000, which has more trouble finding suitable planting sites in the flooded areas. La Maigrauge in Switzerland is situated near a protected site, a stream flows along one side, the other three sides are surrounded by wooded cliffs, an artificial lake, and forests which have been declared a nature reserve and protected by a State scheme of administration. Wavreumont in Belgium gets experts to supervise its programmes of pruning, planting, and felling across the 30 hectares of forestry belonging to the monastery. La Pierre-qui-Vire, Ganagobie, Saint Benoit sur Loire and Lérins cooperate with the various French government agencies when deciding on their action plans, audit, planting, thinning. Córdoba plants one tree for each dead or damaged tree or for any tree used for building. In 2002, Las Condes in Chile planted 5,000 trees, shrubs, and other plants, to protect the natural surrounds of the monastery, but also so as to create in the centre of Santiago a nature sanctuary for plant species and for the local fauna. Randol uses the 85 hectares of forest around the monastery sparingly: rare fellings, but harvesting of mature trees to economise on upkeep and so as to preserve the variety of the landscape at this classified site.

Two other properties belonging to the monastery are exploited in a more financially profitable way, but still following a plan for felling and replanting. Many communities point out that they have only small properties, which do not allow of participation in such large schemes.


2) Initiatives aiming at reducing pollution.

Do you use recycled paper?

As we have already pointed out, this is not yet standard practice. Far from it! No doubt the purchase price is still prohibitive in many countries. Randol, however, makes an interesting observation about the use of recycled paper. On the one hand, the processing of paper (de-inking) causes more pollution than the manufacture of paper from fresh wood; on the other hand, recycling paper reduces the exploitation of forests. This in turn leads to the increased density of forests and the risk of fires.

Do you collect used paper?

This question must have brought a smile to many a reader's face. Who has never seen a biblical, patristic, or liturgical card-index on a scriptorium desk in the monastery, written entirely on the back of envelopes and care-fully lined up in an old shoe-box? Economy or ecology? Initiatives on a wider scale are beginning. In Brazil, an NGO comes around regularly to collect paper, cartons, and other materials for recycling, and Na. Sa. das Graças participates, as does Córdoba in Argentina.

Do you sort your waste?

This is fairly general practice, though differing in rigour from place to place. Separating organic and non-organic waste allows Luján in Argentina to recycle organic material as worm-compost.

Do you use renewable sources of energy: solar, wind?

Lerins and Ganagobie make the most of their Mediterranean location, using a series of solar panels to top up their water heating. La Pierre-qui-Vire is considering the following areas: replacing oil-heating with bulk wood heating, using strips of wood from the Morvan wood mill; the installation of one or several windmills for the production of clean electricity on the wind-swept slopes surrounding the farm; and the installation of solar panels for the production of domestic hot water. Thu-Duc employs wind-produced energy for its orchid plantation and to play bamboo instruments suspended where air currents are produced. Techiman in Ghana, uses solar energy, not for heating, as you would suppose, but for emergency lighting.

Are you taking steps to save water?

Several replies suggest that, little by little, as equipment is renewed, this practice is becoming more widespread. Certain communities are already committed to this by the installation of measuring devices, such as Córdoba, Na. Sra. Das Graças, and Santiago de Compostela, or by the installation of a system of micro-sprinklers for the apple orchards and cherry trees at Quilvo. As well as technical installations, there are practical steps taken collectively to spare water, such as at Thu-Duc: rinsing water and the water used to wash vegetables is retained to water the garden, thus avoiding using water from the town supply of Ho Chi Minh City. A different climate allows Rixensart in Belgium to use rainwater for the newly installed sanitary facilities. A few monasteries are conscious of their good fortune in having all their needs catered for by a single well: Notre Dame d'Orient and la Pierre- qui-Vire. So much for the steps taken for conservation and preservation. As to attitudes, a few comments give a glimpse of the enormous task ahead to make communities more aware, even though these are people who, we hope, are already particularly open to attitudes of respect towards both persons and the property of the monastery, which St Benedict recommends so eloquently: 'All these objects shall be looked upon as upon the sacred vessels of the altar.' The Council of European Episcopal Conferences, in its meeting at Wroclaw in May 2003 stressed the urgency of finding solutions to environmental problems by changing our attitudes, by an ecological conversion which would be expressed in concrete action. By her proposals for the preservation of the environment, the Church can gain in credibility whilst expressing her faith in Creation. The issues at stake are, at the same time, economic, social, and ethical. There cannot be peace between peoples if we are not at peace with nature. Wars always lead to ecological disasters, and the decrease in natural resources, water for instance, can be the cause of fresh armed conflicts.

The Fifth Symposium on the Environment, organised by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the context of the Religion, Science, and Environment project, was held in June 2003 in the form of a Baltic cruise. A message from John-Paul II was sent to Patriarch Bartholomaios I, with whom he had signed, on June 10th 2002 in Venice, a joint declaration on Ethics and the Environment. John-Paul II recalls his convictions about ecology: ecological irresponsibility, which has international repercussions, is, in the last analysis, a moral problem, based on an erroneous anthropology which reveals itself every time man forgets that his power to change the world must respect God's plan for Creation. As communities of believers, our communities have a vital contribution to make. They can do this, above all, at local level wherever they are, but also through the network of communities which is world-wide. Everything remains to be done... and everything is possible, even if monasteries do not often engage in educational activities in this area in the strict sense. St Ottilien in Germany gives a biology course to its pupils, an apt forum for making students more aware. Several replies stress that, though the task is urgent, very little is available to the communities at the present time by way of documentation or teaching aids. Another area for new initiatives!