A group of nuns have found that getting closer to mother nature can mean getting closer to God
Words: Mathilde Morin
Photography: Kateryna Lebreton
Nestled in Anjou in western France, the Benedictine nunnery of Martigné-Briand is a lush haven amid a landscape of rural and farmed land dotted with picturesque castles. Looking for a place of retreat far from Paris – somewhere peaceful to pray, rest and garden – I found myself here for one long and blissful summer. Popular imagination might see the convent’s guardians as austere, conservative, moralising old women, but instead I found the nuns to have an infectious spirit of joy, and alongside their Benedictine vows – ‘stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience’ – they loved to sing gentle songs, eat hearty meals and work in their thriving permaculture garden.
The sisters’ garden is only a small part of their monastic life, and may even seem rather mundane compared to their more spiritual activities, but being a nun – as I came to understand through long conversations with the sisters – is about finding God everywhere and anywhere, simply by cultivating humility. The word humility stems from the Latin word humus which means earth and soil – in other words, to be spiritually uplifted, one must also be profoundly grounded and ‘down to earth’. This is why gardening is a genuine spiritual practice for the nuns, in the same way as chanting or praying is. With or without a belief in God, tending a garden can be an act of gratitude and devotion.
Bountiful and uncontrived in its beauty, the Martigné-Briand garden is managed according to the principles of permaculture. Six years ago, Sister Claire, the youngest nun of the community (now in her forties), suggested the idea of converting to permaculture after their gardener retired. Rather than just hiring a new one, Sister Claire convinced her sisters to experiment with techniques that she had taught herself, mostly by watching YouTube videos. Permaculture – a contraction of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘culture’ – was invented in 1987 by Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, and in simple terms can be described as a holistic way of understanding agriculture. It aims to recreate the rich biodiversity of untamed nature, and to grow a variety of crops on relatively small areas of land as miniature ecosystems. There’s no use of chemical fertilisers or mechanical help, and the farmer relies only on the vitality of their soil, and nature, to grow food.
Over the past few years, Sister Claire has transformed the once neatly weeded, square-shaped vegetable garden into a joyfully messy and colourful star shaped one, where tomato and courgette plants share space with borage, sunflowers, snapdragons and hollyhocks. She was inspired by the so-called ‘mandala gardens’ of the Bec Hellouin farm in Normandy, famous in France for its pioneering permaculture gardens. After visiting to learn more about the practice, Sister Claire was charmed by the round gardens she saw there, which recall Indian mandalas as well as the rosacea stained glass windows that adorn cathedrals.
The form she created is like a flower opening up symmetrically around a central point, which she believes has the benefit of connecting everything to the centre, bringing a feeling of peace and solace. It also makes it easier to move around, to cast a glance at the garden and to water it with a hose from the middle. She told me: ‘Being at the centre feels like being at the heart of a garden universe. It is a lovely feeling.’
For Sister Claire, theory is important, but she sees permaculture as a craft that can be interpreted depending on your context and resources. She first became interested in this method of growing food as a way to rekindle the monastic tradition of striving for self-sufficiency at a time when this feels more necessary than ever. She describes her permaculture gardening endeavours as purely exploratory: schooled by nature, she thinks of herself as an apprentice constantly adapting and adjusting her methods, rather than a permaculture ‘expert’ who applies a set of gardening techniques on nature. More than that, the garden is a fertile way to express her creativity, more art than science.
While the sisters are not totally self-sufficient, spending time at the nunnery does offer a wonderful opportunity to eat all the colours of the rainbow: salad leaves, kiwis, squash, Jerusalem artichokes, cabbages, artichokes, berries, figs, pears, peaches, apricots, apples… all make it into the kitchen and on to the table. The sisters are also famous in the region for their delicious jams, made with fruits that grow in their garden.
Inspired by the garden’s success, and in a somewhat a pioneering manner, the nunnery became one of the first in France to look for ways to realise Pope Francis’s second encyclical, Laudato si’ (Praise Be to You), in which the head of the Catholic church made a call to Catholics to ‘care for our common home’. The sisters started to think about other ways in which they could live according to the Pope’s calling, and began recycling more earnestly, eating less meat and using spent water in the garden. The garden also became the catalyst for deep reflection on ‘integral ecology’, a concept which appears in Laudato si’ as an invitation to think of the current environmental crisis in an encompassing manner. If everything is connected, we can find ways to shift from vicious circles to virtuous ones, and this is what integral ecology aims for. The term ‘ecology’ therefore goes beyond just nature’s ecology to incorporate the ideas of human and social ecology, too.
These reflections, and the garden, let to new ways for the sisters to interact with the outside world. The curious mix of permaculture and nuns came to attract visitors to the convent, creating unexpected social-ecological bonds. This summer, the nuns even chose to welcome volunteers from the WWOOF network (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and they were surprised by the diversity of people (all ages and of all social and religious backgrounds) who applied to come and work in the garden. Even people of faith come to the nunnery with a broader perspective, such as the local villagers who volunteer in the garden as well as coming to pray, or the families who visit with their children for a week or so to introduce them to the beauty of a monastic environment and to the power of nature. In this corner of France, it seems that starting a garden can be even more fruitful than we think.