The recent passing of the feast of St. Benedict on July 11 has brought up the contributions of Benedictine monks to agriculture. Considering St. Benedict of Nursia was born in the fifth century of the Common Era, and was dead by the middle of the sixth, you might think his work to restore the land is well chronicled, but such is not the case. This is more stunning when you consider he is also called “the father of modern monasticism“. His “Rule of St. Benedict” is a thorough guide for monastic life that is followed to this day. I’m working from limited sources today, so please forgive any inaccuracy.
Benedictine monasteries both contained and surrounded gardens. Cloister gardens were areas where monks could read, meditate, and pray. The sacristan’s garden provided flowers for the alter. In some cases the sacristan’s garden doubled as the paradise, at the altar end of the sanctuary, though in larger abbeys this could have been separate. The paradise was established to remind viewers of the lost Garden of Eden. Vegetables were grown in another area, and sometimes, medicinal herbs.
The Benedictine relationship to the land was one of restoration and nurture, something we could learn from in modern times. One source speaks of friars restoring estates where soil had been depleted by Roman practices which sought maximum economic gain. Others say Benedictines established themselves in swamps and marshes, draining and reclaiming land which was formerly considered useless. Given the prevalence of superstition in early times, I suspect these areas were also dark, scary sources of evil. Benedictines accepted them as equal in God’s creation, thus making a contribution not only to agriculture, but to sociological culture as well.
Another order came along that sought to follow the rule of St. Benedict, the Cistercians. Perhaps the Cistercians were more like farmers than gardeners, however, their contribution to this legacy can not be ignored. One early twentieth century observer, Henry Goodell, president of the then Massachusetts Agricultural College, was impressed by “the work of these grand old monks during a period of fifteen hundred years. They saved agriculture when nobody else could save it. They practiced it under a new life and new conditions when no one else dared undertake it.”
We still need to work to restore land that has been exploited. We still need to expand our definition of arable land. We still need to remember the entirety of God’s creation. Locally, a religious community called Grailville does this work. Located in Loveland, Grailville is the headquarters of The Grail in the USA. The Grail is an international movement of women of faith working for peace, justice, and renewal of the earth.
The Grail is seeking new partnerships to make use of Grailville’s facilities. Although Grailville’s retreat center recently closed, they are pledged to continue Grailville’s mission to support sustainable agriculture and local food. 79 of Grailville’s 315 acres are certified organic. Six acres are leased to the Earth-Shares CSA, and 75 acres are pasture leased to other local farmers. These arrangements are expected to continue through the end of 2015. An announcement about the future of Grailville is also expected by the end of 2015.