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Friday, January 11, 2013

Twelfth-century Cistercian "grateful cooperation"

Clairvaux. Based on photo from Flicker/by Aube Champagne
The voice of a twelfth-century Catholic ecologist comes to us thanks to Dr. Jame Schaefer of Marquette University.

While exchanging emails recently, Dr. Schaefer shared her 2002 paper “Grateful Cooperation: Cistercian Inspiration for Ecosystem Ethics,” from Cistercian Studies Quarterly.

Her paper places into dialogue with the modern world a twelfth-century text that describes the surroundings of the Clairvaux abbey and the activities of the Cistercian monks that inhabited it. This text, written by an unknown author, is titled Descriptio Positionis Seu Situationis Monasterii Claraevallensis.

Dr. Schaefer writes that
[t]he text exudes the unnamed author’s deep appreciation and gratitude for the cooperative interactivity of human beings, other species, the land, water, and air that assured their mutual sustainability and maintained the site’s integrity. This view predates by centuries the efforts of contemporary philosophers to reflect on the human relation to other biota and abiota that constitute ecological systems, to develop ethical principles that can guide human functioning as integral parts of these systems, and to facilitate systematic thinking about sustainable development strategies ...
Dr. Schaefer provides selections of the author’s words as they walk the reader through both the valley and the Clairvaux abbey.
The river ... passes nowhere without rending some service, or leaving some of its water behind. It divides the valley into two by a sinuous bed, which the labor of the brethren, and not Nature, has made, and goes on to throw half of its waters into the abbey, as if to salute the brethren.
Indeed, the author takes pains to stress the important to man of the beauty of nature:
See how, in order to cure one sickness, the goodness of God multiplies remedies, causes the clear air to shine in serenity, the earth  to breath forth fruitfulness, and the sick man himself to inhale through eyes, and ears, and nostrils the delights of colors, of songs, and of odors.
Dr. Schaefer provides a wonderful service in bringing to light and deconstructing this text. She is correct to note that its twelfth-century author is not a distant voice but a reminder of what the Catholic perspective of ecology offered then and offers now and for the future. Dr. Schaefer calls particular attention to the author’s “ethics of grateful cooperation,” noting that
[f]or moral theologians who have struggled with the dualistic perception of the physical universe as merely the object of human study and exploitation, the human-in-ecosystem approach provides a scientifically informed paradigm for thinking about how humans should function as integral parts of God’s creation. Ironically, a basic model existed centuries before, as exemplified by the monks’ grateful cooperation with other forms of biological life and the abiota that constituted the Clairvaux site.
As posted earlier about work done by Monica Ehrlich on the seventh-century monk St. Giles, it is important to reflect on the inherent Catholic appreciation of ecology and its existence even before the contemporary concept of ecology came into being. Leaning about figures like St. Giles and these Cistercian monks adds to our ability to teach and defend not just the Catholic engagement of ecology, but also Catholicism in general. After all, for many today the Catholic faith has no relevance to modern life. In showing how Catholics were ahead of their time in the realm of ecology, we can then have other conversations about the foundations of Catholic moral thought in other areas as well.

Let us give our thanks to Dr. Schaefer, to those Cistercian monks of the Clairvaux abbey, and to the unknown author who has left for us a record of what it meant to be a Catholic ecologist in the twelfth century—a record that offers us much today.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Bill. I haven't read it yet. Marquette University has it online at

    1. Thank you, Bill! I have revised the post with the link added.

  2. Thanks Bill and Bill. I've read other works by Dr. Schaefer and am really impressed. I've saved the article, hoping they may start up a Religion & Environment course at my state university.

    You both are taking the right and Christian approach to environmental problems in being bridge-builders, rather than dividers.

    I tend to get frustrated by what Catholic anti-environmentalists (esp the ones who claim to be environmentalists) have to say that seems to me to provide justification for Catholics and others not to take positive environmental actions to reduce harms to other people, the unborn, and others of God's creation. And I'm all for "the Little Way of Environmental Healing" of taking whatever baby steps one can take, with the hopes they will add up and/or lead to bigger steps and greater healing.

    As an OCDS Carmelite I understand your way is ultimately the most effective. I pray that I can become softer in my approach and draw people to me rather than contribute to divisions. Reaching a balance that is effective is difficult, and requires prayer and God's help.


    1. Lynn: I've been meaning to reply. Thank you for your input. And I understand your frustration. But I am also amazed at how easily the topic of ecology can bring communities together.

      May God bless you in your work! And keep contributing.

      In Christ,
      Bill P.


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