By Freddie Helmiere
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be posting one story each day of March written by local citizen journalists about a revolutionary woman from history or today who has inspired them as women.
Tiny and grey haired, Sister Margarita greets me just after sunrise in the sanctuary’s stone courtyard. The air is thick; the scent of damp soil and pine needles mingles with downshifting trucks and muffled horns from the distant Marcos Highway. “Are you ready for The Journey?” she asks.
I am visiting Sister Margarita and the other nuns of the Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary at the tail end of a research trip to Northern Luzon in the Philippines. The Sanctuary operates on seven hilly acres of old growth pine just outside smog-enveloped Baguio City. Leveled by the 1990 earthquake – the fault line ran through the convent’s kitchen – the nuns rebuilt with an entirely new objective: to reconnect humans with nature and the Eternal Spirit.
Sister Margarita and I follow a narrow path toward a small garden clearing where The Journey begins. A large boulder displays in painted cursive the “Earth Pledge” created by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization. It is an alternative to the nationalistic Pledge of Allegiance intoned in classrooms across America. We recite in unison, “I pledge allegiance to the Earth, and to the flora, fauna and human life that it supports, one planet, indivisible, with safe air, water and soil, economic justice, equal rights and peace for all”.
With her pleated trousers and flowered cardigan, Sister Margarita does not seem like a nun, but she has been with the Maryknoll sisters for almost fifty years. In the 1990s, she and the other sisters were captivated by the “new cosmology” vision of Thomas Berry, a self-described “geologian” and leader in the field of eco-theology. In quiet departure from the conventional expectations of religious sisters, this community transformed their convent into a center for radical environmental education. Their interpretation of Catholicism began to depart from the Vatican’s official doctrines; they emphasized a profound respect for the earth and non-discriminatory practices. “We follow Christ, who is the leader of openness,” I was told. In a country where Catholic clergy holds a lot of power, and is almost entirely male, this was a bold move.
One example of the sisters’ unorthodox practice is their “Journey of the Universe” walk. Many churches feature Stations of the Cross, a series of depictions that trace the final hours of Christ’s life from the last supper to the empty tomb. The sisters here decided to honor another religiously relevant story, the “Great Story”: our Universe’s unfolding from Big Bang to the present day. They call this the Stations of the Cosmos. Every day, visitors navigate the fourteen stations along an eco-trail, challenging the Genesis creation story that culminates with the creation of humans as the dominant beings in the created order.
Station One lies before us: a stone slab with black shards of charcoal on it where Sister Margarita lights a small flame. “This represents for us the primal fireball that brought the Universe into being 13.7 billion years ago. Imagine: one hundred billion galaxies, with one hundred billion stars in each!” Her delight is palpable. Ahead lie twelve more Cosmic stations on our path, each one representing a moment in the evolution of our Universe. Oceans form, dinosaurs appear and disappear, birds take to the skies, primates emerge, and humans gather and hunt. Finally, the major world religions emerge. A small shrine honors each one in chronological order, beginning with goddess worship in the Paleolithic era, moving through Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and ending with Islam.
We thread our way along the path, pausing to stroke the trunks of large pines and to bury our noses in chrysanthemum blossoms. “Humans need creation,” Sister Margarita tells me, gazing past the pine trunks to the hazy concrete sprawl below, and the distant Lingayen Gulf. “Humans are part of creation. We want people to feel that, to care for self and land.” The sisters live out these convictions each day, quietly, out of the spotlight, occasionally receiving reprimands from the Catholic hierarchy, but continuing with their work nonetheless. My research stint is long over but I think about these sisters and their Stations of the Cosmos often. From across the Pacific Ocean they inspire me to recognize the mystical, spiritual elements of our scientific creation story, and they encourage me to seek out the sometimes-hidden ecological wisdom within Christianity.
Frederica (Freddie) Helmiere served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines from 2005-2006 and returned there in grad school to study the impact of GMO rice seeds on small-scale farmers. She currently teaches classes on religion, ecology and social justice at UW.
Feature image by Freddie Helmiere