Annabelle Whitestone meets the animal-loving, environmentally-friendly nun who is fighting for a greener Britain
Few comparisons could be more stark. Leaving the rush hour madness of Victoria station behind, I arrived in the sleepy rural delights of Minster Abbey stressed and harrassed. But upon meeting Sr Ancilla Dent, I was instantly soothed. Sr Ancilla Dent is part of the community of Benedictine nuns living in Minster Abbey, near Ramsgate in Kent.
Their monastic life is simple, they have few possessions and instead prefer to focus on `worship', 'community' and `hospitality'.
Their time is shared between contemplation and farming their smallholding of twenty acres. They produce enough on the farm to be self-sufficient.
Recently they have become interested in environmental ethics which they have sought to apply on the farm and this has led to a deepening in the relationship between prayer and work.
Sr Ancilla explains that the involvement in green issues has been a growing awareness which was, "fostered by our life of prayer through wonder at the integrity of creation and awareness of the presence within which left us uncomfortable with some aspects of our farming practice.
"This was supported by reading environmental studies which revealed the incredible interconnectedness of the natural world and its value and importance in the Christian Biblical tradition."
She went on warmly, "We started with chemical farming, producing as much as we could to support our community. However, we were beginning to feel that this was really not the way to live with nature.
"And then gradually we began to see that there were different ways that you could farm and raise crops which were probably a lot better for you if they were not chemically applied."
Sr Ancilla became involved with the Christian Ecology Link, the only group in Britain to officially give the Christian voice to the environmental debate. And now they don't use any chemicals on their smallholding except the occasional spot treatment for thistles.
Sr Ancilla believes that if you feed a plant well with animal manure (which has all the good in it), "it feeds the plant that feeds the person. If they are strong they can draw up all the minerals from the earth. We are very much what we eat. Psychologically as well as spiritually as well as physically."
They produce all their own eggs, milk, vegetables, fruit and meat for the community and guests so there is very little surplus.
They have a guest house for about 18 guests, open throughout the year. People come for private retreats or in groups with their own leader. They also get people who come for holidays in July, August and September. There is a lot of historical interest in this area, particularly with Canterbury and the sea nearby.
The guests are introduced to the swing of the seasons: sowing, lambing, haymaking and harvesting. Many come to see the animals on the farm which include Angora goats, horses, sheep, a number of exotic birds and even a polecat!
Among the frequent guests are groups from the Kent probation community service scheme. One of the Benedictine Oblates associated with the nuns is a magistrate, so when they felt the lack of someone young and strong to help work on the farm she suggested that they take on these young offenders.
In October 1990 the first group came. Sr Ancilla remembers, "On the first day we sent them to dig up the thistles and we thought that that was the last we'd see of them, but actually we've become great friends and it's just gone on. You hear some very sad stories, some of them come from very deprived homes and there is very little employment in this area.
"We are always happy to see them when they arrive. They are like little thunderclouds but when they leave they sometimes ask if they can come back and help us. It is as if they have found something here which perhaps they were looking for.
"Basically everybody's roots are in the natural world, biologically, so there must be some roots that have been cut off by this urban existence. This is something that these boys benefit from: getting their fingers into the earth, touching creation gives a healing benefit."
Sr Ancilla has just finished editing a collection of Pope John Paul II's pronouncements on the environment. And she hopes that his increasing interest in the subject will galvanise the Church into action. In an address (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis) given by the Pope in 1988 he states: "The dominion granted to man by the Creator is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of a freedom to use and misuse or to dispose of things as one pleases. The limitations imposed from the beginning by the creator and expressed symbolically by the prohibition to 'eat the fruit of the Tree' show clearly enough that when it comes to the natural world we are subject, not only to biological laws, but also to moral ones, which cannot be violated with impunity."
Sr Ancilla explains that "any moral law implies a relationship and as we are people made in the image of God we have to relate to each other, to God and to nature in the loving way that Scripture reveals God has done with us because we are his image and I find that this is the essence of morality and when this is broken in one sphere it has repercussions in every other. Pope John Paul II is insistent on the oneness of these relationships (if nature is treated with violence it will effect our other moral relationships) as we can see in the increasing violence of our own world. We have been given a moral duty to care for and respect the law of the universe and that of every individual plant and animal within it."
The Pope has also highlighted the fact that people who live in an urban envi
ronment are becoming more removed from nature and less able to identify themselves with its plight. Sr Ancilla reminds us that "just because the birds are singing and the sun is shining we think that everything is all right. Until we look at the rape of the earth we forget that the tropical forests of the Amazon (the lungs of the earth) are being cut down by thousands of acres a year.
Perhaps the whole problem is education. That is what we are trying to do, to make the Catholic community aware of what is happening. In the Third World, where land is everything, they don:t have the industrial safeguards tha we have.
They cut down thes forests and put them to gras but the whole climate i wrong for this and so th grass that feeds the beef tha feeds the beefburgers wil deteriorate, and the area will soon become a desert.
Unfortunately mankind is not able to look at the whole, we are only concerned with the short term profit, money."
Many people who hav listened to the environmenta debate are daunted by th task of reforming thei lifestyle. Will the equivalent o what feels like a drop of wateti in the ocean really make difference?
Sr Ancilla is sure tha "spiritually people cannot liv on recycling forever and that is where I think the Churc should come into it. Th bishops should be providing lead."
She suggests that since we are a nation of gardeners, that might be a way in. "It is al problem", she says, "we hav To feel that the Spirit is greening the Church somehow andl that we are just the instru. ments."
So how can people chang their lifestyles from conve nience foods to more organi produce?
"If we know that our heal is being harmed and th statistics show that many chil dren in Britain are suffering from asthma from the pollution, we should look for other ways to live more healthily,J sustainably, not taking more than we need."
She believes that "one can just go on doing a little bit in the little corner where on is." However, there is a lot a concern outside the Church and what we really need is a good theological leading in the Church to bring the two together.
For as she says, "there is a tremendous awareness to stop this economic monster bu people don't really know how In a democratic society th public's voice can make difference so an ethical stanc — no matter how small — c make a change."
POPE JOHN PAUL and Ecology, edited by Sr Ancilla Dent. published by R Van de Weyer, available from Minster Abbey, Minster, nr. Ramsgate, Kent! CT 12 4HF .04.99 (inc.p&p)