The conference was held at the historic St. Mary of the Woods campus, site of the very first Women’s Catholic College in the United States, home of the Sisters of Providence, and a campus which used to be entirely self-sufficient, including plant and animal food, energy, and even their own canning operation. So what could be more fitting than this location, just west of Terre Haute and within the severe drought zone of the current midwest,
for a Sisters of Earth Conference!
And WOW! These are some radical nuns, totally devoted to earth-based spirituality, viewing the creation as divine, and utter masters of tone and rhythm while weaving together in one magnificent web, high seriousness, singing, dancing, laughter, ritual, and silence.
From my initial impressions, it appears that these nuns have joined and amplified a river of understanding humanity’s relation to the cosmos that sprung up in the 20th century with Teilhard de Chardin, then flowed through Thomas Berry, and on to Brian Swimme. Not sure how Mathew Fox’s “creation spirituality” fits in here historically, but I’m sure it does.
Teilhard was perhaps my greatest hero back in my early 20s. And I’ve always loved Thomas Berry’s quote: “The universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.” But I’ve never read any of Swimme’s work. Here’s the trailer to a movie that you might want to watch.
Meanwhile, a year and a half ago, I began this blog, to bridge the two worlds of Earth and Cosmos, Below and Above, within myself, having no idea that actually, this exopermaculture blog runs in the same current as the radical nuns and their earth-based spirituality! The only subject they don’t mention is ETs, but I doubt they’d be against the idea, given their open-minded, open-hearted focus on the multidimensional cosmos.
130 women attended this bi-annual Sisters of Earth Conference, most of them with initials after their names, signifying the sisterhood they belong to: Franciscans, Sisters of Charity, Immaculate Conception, Providence, etc. Many other attendees identify as formal “associates” of their own local nuns’ community. Only a few of us present were not from either of those worlds, my friend Rhonda and I among them.
Rhonda, as a young permaculture teacher, was instantly embraced by these women, many of whom have taken the permaculture course, and/or run earth-based projects large and small, ranches and urban or rural farms, community gardens — where they are learning how to convert to sustainable methods.
Each time I identified myself as a “recovering Catholic” who, obviously, can’t stay away, since look at me, I’m hanging with the nuns, they would laugh, delighted. So much joy in these women, so much fun, so much singing
and dancing, despite their one-would-think-crippling realization that they are participants in the collapse of industrial civilization.
Yes, some of us squirmed in our seats to hear what she had to say, but not many. After all, why were we there? Why did we gather? Why do we do the work we do, both learning from nature and educating people about nature and nature’s ways, the divinity of creation, and how Earth has been trashed by humans who either “know not what they do” or who live in deep, distracted, denial.
The subtheme of each bi-yearly gathering is “Sharing the Wisdom, Shaping the Dream.” The wisdom comes from experience, the dream is that of the future we intend to help bring into manifestation.
The overall theme of this particular gathering was Deep Transition. The first day, Netti Wiebe, a Canadian farmer and international activist with Via Campesina spoke about the Outer Transition we must go through as we recognize the pernicious industrialization of food into “efficient systems” AND how it is inspiring more and more people all over the world to reclaim the power to feed ourselves locally and regionally in the web of life.
Here’s a little clip of Netti:
The second day, Carolyn Baker talked about the Inner Transition that each of us as individuals and collectively as a species are already beginning to go through. Carolyn is also a wonderful West African storyteller/drummer. Here’s a clip where she refers to 2009’s version of the financial crisis.
At the gathering, always, in harmony with the spiraling decor,
we engaged in a spiraling, dialectical flow between outer and inner, until, finally we were all swimming in the universe as shimmering nodes in the brilliant, vibrant, endarkened web of life, creation’s story, creation’s song.
These nuns are natural mystics, and natural inheritors of Hildegaard von Bingen whose music and whose eloquence first came to my attention as female progenitor of de Chardin.
Interesting that these male and female progenitors are both Catholics. When I get into a group like this, I don’t have to leave Catholicism behind. It reminds me of my work with Neal Douglas Klotz, the teacher, theologian and translator whose version of the “Our Father Who Art in Heaven,” into the original Aramaic as “Oh Birther, Mother Father of the Cosmos” first sent me over the edge of my disaffection with the church of my upbringing that I had experienced in childhood as only, merely, dogmatic, judgmental, biblical, guilt-ridden, and riddled with original sin.
Speaking of original sin, as one of the sisters said today after our closing ceremony that including eating sliced apples and grapes and blueberries from a common bowl as communion, “We have redeemed the apple.” This remark of course, erupted our hearts into pealing laughter.
Despite their nerve, verve, and incredible spiritual fire, most of these sisters are at least as old as I am, with many in their 70s and 80s. Their hips are bad, their knees are bad, but nothing stops them from the work of riding the wave of creation as it trashes our industrial civilization to smithereens while subtly, nearly invisibly, and very very powerfully regenerating a new story.
And of course, as we all know, their communities are shrinking yearly, with the numbers of deaths vastly outnumbering the number of recruits. One sister told me that in her community, somewhere between eleven and thirteen die each year, with one or two young ones entering the order. And yet, she said, those orders that are still “habited,” (i.e., wear habits) are getting lots of recruits! Go figure. I guess it reflects the oh-so-human need for certainty and return to the nostalgic safety of the past.
Meanwhile, these radical nuns are right here, present among us, and doing extraordinary work. They did not participate in the predatory sexual and financial corruption of the male priesthood, but held true to their integrity and their mission as mandated by Pope John the 23rd to focus work in their local communities on the many varieties of social justice.
And now, as one sister pointed out, a Jesuit priest friend of hers said, “The guys in skirts are scared of the gals in slacks.”
All weekend, much talk of the “LCWR” (Leadership Conference of Women Religious), which has been so stupidly reprimanded by the Vatican. The LCWR meets in late August, and you can be damn sure they are NOT going to obey any order “from on high” to return to their formerly submissive status.
You might want to join me in ordering a We Are All Nuns tee-shirt. I’m going to get them for my five biological sisters, too. Wish they had been there with us. What a ball they would have had.
Here’s the bas-relief of, I presume, the Virgin Mary, that graces the front wall of the library.
Notice the tree roots!