The Rule of Benedict and Environmental Stewardship

Abbot John Klassen, OSB

I should acknowledge at the outset the difficulty with the word "stewardship" in the title of this presentation. Many people feel a certain unease with the use of the word "stewardship" because of its association with the biblical creation story in which Adam and Eve are given "dominion" over all animals and plants. Genesis 1:28 reads God blessed them, saying: "Be fertile and multiple; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth." But if this text is put in the context of the entire first and second testament, human beings have an enormous accountability for use of the earth's resources and the trust of caring for the earth and all that it holds. Like all stewards, we must give an account of our stewardship.

A poem entitled "Tragic Error" by Denise Levertov captures these concerns:

The earth is the Lord's, we gabbled,

and the fullness thereof

while we looted and pillaged, claiming indemnity:

while we preened ourselves, sure of our power,

willful or ignorant, through the centuries.

Miswritten, misread, that charge:

Surely we were to have been

earth's mind, mirror, reflective source.

Surely our task

was to have been

to love the earth,

to dress it and keep it like Eden's garden.

That would have been our dominion:

to be those cells of earth's body that could

perceive and imagine, could bring the planet

into the haven it is to be known,

(as the eye blesses the hand, perceiving

its form and the work it can do).

Denise Levertov, The Evening Train

As RB scholar Terrence Kardong has noted, "a casual reading of the Rule of Benedict indicates little or nothing of ecological interest. But an in-depth reading reveals three themes that can provide an ethical foundation for thinking about environmental stewardship. I will treat the themes of humility, stability, and frugality as they emerge in the Rule of Benedict and then try to extend these themes into the manner in which we try to live them out today, noting both what I consider to be successes and failures.


Humility is probably the central virtue promoted by the Rule of Benedict. Chapter seven on humility is all of seventy verses long and comes as the conclusion of his spiritual teaching. If there is a ratio that exists between the amount of space given to something and its importance, Benedict is certainly of that mind here.

Humility for Benedict is grounded in the "fear of the Lord" tradition that emerges in the Wisdom tradition of Israel. RB 7:10-11 is tough: "The first step of humility, then, is that a man keeps the fear of God always before his eyes and never forgets it. He must constantly remember everything God has commanded, keeping in mind that all who despise God will burn in hell for their sins and all who fear God have everlasting life awaiting them." No doubt a modern theologian would put this in different terms, but "fear of the Lord" will always be a daunting idea. The God-fearing person finds the holiness of God so awe-inspiring that it produces a strange mixture of simultaneous attraction and terror. Someone who has experienced the living God knows first hand that God is God and that he or she, a human being is not. I think of the call of Moses in the book of Exodus, the call vision of Isaiah, or any number of other texts that describe this experience.

The Christian name for this new awareness, that God is God, and I am not, is humility. It shares deep roots with the word humus, or soil, and humor. It is humility which allows us to acknowledge that we are not the creators of the universe, but creatures. It is humility which allows us to recognize that all life, human, botanical and zoological, comes ha adamah, "out of the ground." We are one with the soil, with the plants and animals, all of whom "fear God" by their very existence. The human choice is to live within the constraints of creaturehood. It is precisely humility which is a necessary corrective to the arrogance and acquisitiveness that has led to our increasing alienation from nature. Our anthropocentric posture toward the rest of the created world has motivated some theologians, such as James Nash, to introduce the idea of "ecological sin," defined in part as, "the arrogant denial of the creaturely limitations imposed on human ingenuity and technology, a defiant disrespect or a deficient respect for the interdependent relationships of all creatures and their environments established in the covenant of creation, and an anthropocentric abuse of what God has made for frugal use."

If you ask me for one word equivalent to humility, it is the word truth: the truth of our human situation, the truth of our strengths and weaknesses, the truth of our multiple motivations for any action, the truth of our relationships, to each other and to the earth.

Benedict's teaching on humility is oriented at individual monastics. This is primarily because of the literary history of the text, but we can extrapolate the deeper meaning to community life. It is easy for governments and multinational corporations to increase their power and control in anyway possible. Analogously, it is possible to have a community that is fairly humble as individuals, but as a group can be arrogant as the day is long. And this arrogance can lead to all kinds of distortions and harm to others, especially a kind of corporate deafness and blindness towards the consequences that corporate actions have on the environment and other people.  


A few years ago Douglas Burton-Christie presented a paper at Saint John's in which he used poetry and literature to talk about an environmental ethic based on a deep and abiding knowledge of the local environment. He argued that individuals and communities become aware of the need for environmental sensitivity when they consciously choose to learn from and fall in love with a place. Though he never once mentioned the word stability, Burton-Christie provided me the missing link in my reflections on stability.

I want to argue that Benedictine stability has to include both a commitment to a specific place and a commitment to a specific group of people. If you go to a place and there is no there, there, it's not a Benedictine place. I don't know what it is, but it is not Benedictine.

Secondly, I want to suggest that the vow of stability is an excellent foundation for environmental stewardship. In Benedict's Rule it is not the hermits who are contrasted to the cenobites. It is the gyrovagues and sarabaites who are drawn in sharp relief. "There are the monks called gyrovagues who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries. Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites (RB 1:10-11)." We smile when we read this or hear the description, because of the kidding that the identified travel-prone individuals in our communities constantly receive or because of the euphonious character of the word. The tendency of the gyrovague is to be always on the go, if not outside of the monastery, then in the monastery. Or more precisely, within themselves. "Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites." Stability is Benedict's antidote to this tendency.

By analogy, exploring, studying, seeing the place where one lives as a monastic will lead to a deep knowledge and love for the local environment and will ground one in a place. Kardong has suggested the following axiom: "Those who live in a place have the biggest stake in it." Of course, there are examples of communities who have destroyed their own local habitat. In the first ten thousand years of agriculture, over-grazing was one of the single most damaging practices that caused large tracts of land to be badly eroded or converted into desert. Human ignorance can wreak havoc in any situation, and local greed is as bad as any other greed.

The earth teaches us about the whole transition from birth to death. As Ernest Becker and a host of other writers have noted, to acknowledge the reality of death re-orients the meaning of human life. Benedict's Rule is very specific about death. He urges the monastic to keep death daily before one's eyes. These words of his merely serve to reinforce the message of psalms such as 39:

Lord, what will become of me

How long will I live?

Let me see how short my life is!

You give me a brief span of time;

Before you, my days are nothing.

People are but a breath:

They walk like shadows.

Or Psalm 90: 

You return us to dust,

children of earth back to earth.

For in your eyes a thousand years

are like a single day:

they pass with the swiftness of sleep.

These and other psalms are embedded with a haunting sense of the fragility and finitude of human living and striving. Life is a gift, a given span of days, seventy years or eighty for those who are strong. Analogously, monastic places are also gift, to be received with joy and care, to be a part of for a while, but then to be handed on to the next generation.

The earth can also teach us about our lives. All too often we think of other humans as our primary teachers. But earth can teach us about change in a unique way because it has a four billion year resume in the field. The earth can teach us about loss and grief, about death and transformation. Gary Snyder has been writing poetry for almost forty years. He became a nationally known poet in the mid-1970's with the publication of the Pulitzer-prize winning "Turtle Island." Over the years he has articulated the need for bioregional approach to environmental stewardship. In a collection of essays in The Practice of the Wild, he records the words of a Crow elder: "You know I think if people stay somewhere long enough the spirits will begin to speak to them."

As Benedictine monastics we want to be people who "stay in a place long enough that the spirits can influence us." By coming to know a place deeply, the set of overlapping ecosystems, the delicate balance which exists between the number of creatures and available nourishment, the patterns that play themselves out year after year, monastic communities will make decisions with an understanding of their consequences. In the event of a serious mistake the community will be around long enough to recognize it as such.

This is not an argument against change but an argument for environmental knowledge. It is a knowledge that will lead us to recognize the habitats that are necessary for different kinds of wildlife. It will draw us to learn something about the forest that was originally in a place, to review topography and soil and climate conditions, and reforest if necessary. It is an argument for "wildness," for resisting the temptation to create places where there is not tall grass, fallen trees, and piles of leaves for animals to dwell. This knowledge will change us and the kind of education we give to our students. As described above, nature itself has much to teach about human limits, the seasons of a person's life, the cycle of death and renewal and will be part of the educational process. Finally, we will pray differently. The psalms and the scriptures are loaded with imagery from the natural world, which is activated in a fresh and powerful way by first-hand knowledge of the environment in which we live. We will come to know ourselves as part of the created world, and not in opposition to it.

Frugality: The Consumption Ethic

Early in the age of affluence that followed World War I, an American retailing analyst named Victor Lebow proclaimed, "Our enormously productive economy ...demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption... We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate." Americans have responded to Mr. Lebow's call and much of the world has followed. The United States is the largest consuming nation in the world. Our consumer culture has developed in lockstep with our consumer economy. Products that didn't exist so many years ago have become necessities in some households, inspiring workers to take on more hours to pay for them.

The ads from Best Buy, Audio King, Target and other retailers come weekly with the Sunday newspaper, offering high-tech goods (VCRs, TVS, stereos, computers, CDS, etc) at bargain prices. How do we negotiate our way through all of this, differentiating between needs and wants? What are the long-term environmental consequences of this ethos of consumption?

In the face of this stark reality, the Benedictine virtue of frugality offers us an alternative vision of sustainable consumption--based not on want but on essential need. Grounded in the ascetical tradition of the monastic tradition, RB is permeated with direct and indirect references to frugality. This is particularly true of the section governing the administration of the monastery and includes Benedict’s teaching on private property, the distribution of goods according to need and the appropriate use of food and drink wherein Benedict writes, "Frugality should be the rule on all occasions. For example, the fundamental principal of the community of goods is positively stated in chapter 34: "As it was written, "It was distributed to each one according to need." Benedict continues further, "So the one who needs less should thank God and not be sad. And whoever needs more should be humble about his weaknesses and not gloat over the mercy shown him." (34:1, 3) This system of making a request for special needs generates some amusing situations. There is an apocryphal story told in our community of a monk who went in to the abbot to ask permission to have heart surgery. But the abbot responded, "If I let you do this, everyone will want to do it!" Benedict reluctantly suggests that one-half bottle of wine a day should be sufficient for each monastic, but would rather have complete abstinence from wine. However, "since the monks of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us agree to drink moderately and not the point of excess, for wine makes even wise people go astray." (RB 40:6-7) Why does Benedict establish this system? First he wants to combat avarice, that desire which can never get enough of the world’s goods. When avarice is operating it is very difficult to distinguish "needs" and "wants." Our age has probably demonstrated the meaning of greed at new levels, with the bull market, the leveraged buyouts, the outrageous loans which catalyzed the savings and loans fiasco, and the most recent crisis in the orient. Has any vice flourished more spectacularly in the late 20th century?

The second reason is more positive -- he wants peace among the members. This is not merely a psychological phenomenon but a genuine peace because each person has what he or she needs to live, the satisfaction of legitimate needs. To a lay person, this may sound like a system wide open to abuse -- after all, how sensitive and open can any one person be? It is most likely analogous to the kind of negotiation which goes on in a family, between spouses, or trying the differing needs of children. But as any parent knows, or anyone in a spousal or partner relationship, it can sometimes be a painful and distressing discernment. Your "want" may be my "need."

Unique to Benedict is a chapter on a special official in the monastery, the cellarer. According to Benedict, this person should be wise, mature in conduct, temperate, not an excessive eater, not proud, excitable, offensive or wasteful (v.1) He should not annoy the brothers. If any brother happens to make an unreasonable demand of him, he should not reject him with disdain and cause him distress, but reasonably and humbly deny the improper request. He must show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests, and the poor, knowing for certain that he will be held accountable for all of them on the day of judgment. He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected. He should not be prone to greed, nor be wasteful and extravagant with the goods of the monastery, but should do everything with moderation.

When we hear the Rule read as monastics every night at supper, we don’t do a division of labor on various chapters. For example, when we hear chapter two, on what kind of man the abbot ought to be, we hear that as a call to ourselves, to what we should aspire to. The same thing holds for the above passage from chapter 31. Twice Benedict tells him not to be wasteful. furthermore he is to treat the ordinary things of the monastery with the same reverence as the extraordinary things. In chapter 32 Benedict requires the abbot himself to maintain a list of tools and other goods in the monastery, so that he knows what is going out and what is coming in. I think the chemistry department should do this with Crescent wrenches.

In recent years frugality has received renewed attention by a number of theologians and ethicists concerned with our environmental condition. James Nash, for example, names frugality as one of the nine "ecological virtues" of which sustainability is the first. On frugality Nash writes: "Frugality connotes thrift, moderation, efficiency, simplicity of life-style, and stringent conservation... It thrives on the control of consumption, the reduction of waste, and comprehensive recycling. It is the key to sustainability." Frugality is an excellent contribution we can make to our wasteful, over-consuming society.

Do not be wasteful!! Coming out of the Depression, American culture was frugal. Waste not, want not! The larger culture didn’t throw anything away and neither did the monastery. But as Victor Lebow suggested above, "Our enormously productive economy ...demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption... We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate." It is an ongoing struggle to stay free of the consumption economy. We have probably been most successful at recycling buildings: the quadrangle, Engel, Joe, Frances, Greg, Emmaus, SBH, etc. Breuer originally intended that the entire quadrangle be torn down and replaced by concrete and steel structures. It is after all, a big brick barn, which is wonderfully flexible and responsible to new demands. Our recycling program goes on, though less successful than I would like it to be. There is an enormous educational challenge here, because of the continuous turnover in students. We avoid wasting community resources when we purchase carefully, when we buy things that will last a long time. God doesn’t make junk and neither should monastic communities made in God’s image. That is why our carpenter shop makes furniture which could be guaranteed for 100 years. Neither should we buy junk, but rather goods which are durable, simple with a sense of design.

As Benedictine institutions, where are the challenges to frugality? We are probably most vulnerable to waste in the area of computer technology, where obsolescence is such a fact of life. Computers, printers, and other instruments driven by computers are outdated as soon as they are purchased. How can we get out of this vicious cycle and remain close to the frontier of that technology?