People of different faiths recently came together to forge a stronger bond with the earth in a pilot program at Holy Wisdom Monastery called “Caring for Common Ground.”
“We wanted to take ecological restoration education and infuse it with spirituality, which is the essence of this place,” said Holy Wisdom Monastery Director of Land Management Greg Armstrong.
The three-day event took place June 22-24, as 17 participants gathered together to look at how faith, ethics and concern for the environment are intertwined. It was part of the 65th anniversary of the Benedictine sisters arriving in Madison and founding Holy Wisdom Monastery.
“Caring for Common Ground” was a way to honor the sisters’ dedication to their mission of prayer, justice, hospitality and caring for the earth.
“I can’t tell you how wonderful it was,” said Armstrong. “We didn’t know going into it how it would go.”
Armstrong said the organizers were a little nervous about the spiritual and religious aspects of the project. That ended up being rewarding for all.
“We had times of sharing, where people talked about their innermost thoughts and feelings about their spiritual life,” said Armstrong. “In most conversations and settings, people don’t feel comfortable talking about such things. We must have established a good atmosphere for sharing.”
The program was a collaborative effort between the monastery and the Earth Partnership Program. A grant from the High Winds Association Foundation provided the funding, as participants studied ecological restoration concepts and how they related to spirituality.
Hands-on training in ecological restoration was just part of the program, which also offered strategies for teaching it to others. Armstrong said that practices such as plant identification, collecting seeds and weeding were taught.
There was also time for reflection and dialog, as participants shared how their faith traditions motivated their interest in the environment.
Going off by themselves, they recorded poems, did drawings or wrote down observations which they shared with the group, according to Armstrong.
They finished up the weekend by planning their own restoration projects for their own local places of worship, as well as their own shared community sites.
The program has been a long time coming. Armstrong was formerly the director at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. While there, he helped start the Earth Partnership Program. His wife, Cheryl Bauer Armstrong, is now the director.
Greg Armstrong retired in 2004 and got involved in the Benedictine Life Foundation, the fundraising arm of Holy Wisdom. While leading volunteer activities at Holy Wisdom, he said, “I got engaged with the place.”
Armstrong said he was impressed with the sisters’ “courage and faithfulness in living out their religious convictions.” Part of their mission involves caring for the earth, which dovetailed with Armstrong’s interests.
Holy Wisdom purchased a parcel of 53 acres. Then, the Friends of Holy Wisdom organization to develop environmental education programs and look after ecological restoration projects.
For 65 years, the sisters, staff, volunteers and environmental professionals have taken care of the 130 acres of monastery land and an adjacent 60 acres of county land, restoring it to native prairie and oak savanna. They also dredged a glacial lake to remove silt from runoff and built a platinum LEED building, installed solar panels that generate 60 percent of the monastery’s energy needs and have grown fruits and vegetables to feed guests, all while using sustainable practices in operating the property.
In 2013, Armstrong drafted a list of ways to enhance environmental education at Holy Wisdom. Friends of Holy Wisdom conducted lectures related to environmental concerns and ecological spirituality outings to visit natural areas.
The last item on that list was the idea of a collaboration with the Earth Partnership Program that grew into “Caring for Common Ground.”
“It languished on the list, until last month, when I finally pulled it together,” said Armstrong.
Another organizer of the project is Claire Bjork, who is working on a Ph.D. in planning and landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin. Armstrong said he proposed a theme for her Ph.D. project that involved developing spirituality infused ecological restoration with an inter-faith focus.
Armstrong, his wife Cheryl and Bjork then devised a plan for ecological restoration workshops with the Earth Partnership Program, which received a $1.2 million grant for such projects, according to Armstrong.
“Interestingly, we were trying to listen carefully [to Holy Wisdom sisters] to see how to make it work for their spiritual life,” said Armstrong. “We wanted an enlightened way to think about human relationships to the rest of nature.”
Organizers wanted a group of people from diverse religious backgrounds to participate. They are hoping that future programs will include those from Jewish and Muslim backgrounds.
Armstrong is looking forward to holding more of these training workshops in the future. Those interested in being involved should contact Armstrong or visit the Holy Wisdom website.
“One of the things I love about it is that it reflects the many unique qualities of the monastery,” said Armstrong.