The Egg and I: Dominican community celebrates Mother Earth

This Lace Wyandott hen is as beautiful as her name implies. (Dominican Sr. Sharon Zayac)

This morning, I had a rare opportunity. As I cracked two eggs for an omelet, delighting in the golden orange yolk, I was grateful they came from heritage chickens. Because of factory farming, the Heritage lines are in danger of dying out. Tyson and Cargill want only white Leghorns, which they breed to produce more eggs and fuller breasts. This loss of organic ecosystems in which chickens are free to live also means a loss of nutrition for those of us who enjoy eggs.

After a delicious breakfast, I walked over to thank my feathered friends for their gift.

The heritage chickens' colorful plumage drew my attention. I was struck by their beauty. Not wanting to go unnoticed, a rooster's commanding "cock-a-doodle-do" punctuated the silence, to which the hens paid no attention! This made me smile wondering about the hierarchical dynamics among them.

Sharing 164 acres of Jubilee Farm with heritage chickens is one of several examples of the philosophy of sustainability that is foundational to this ministry of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois. The farm was purchased in 1999 to "honor the Year of Jubilee and its biblical injunction to let the land lie fallow, to honor Earth and support the delicate bioregion."

As I smell the freshness of native prairie grasses and listen to a gurgling creek's musical cadences, I am enlivened and filled with hope.

Spending a few quiet days here gives me time to reflect on the role of the Dominican Community in my life. As I walk the labyrinth and remember a few of my teachers, I can't thank them enough. They were my first teachers at St. Bernard's School in Peoria, Illinois, where I was given a life-long love of learning by the Sinsinawa Dominicans.

As a 4-year-old, I was so eager to go to school that my parents and teachers agreed that I could begin kindergarten. At the end of that special year, Sister Callista told me she would need help with the new class. I still have the sense of being enfolded in her lovely Dominican habit as she asked: "Would you be my little angel and stay behind to help me with the new class?" I said "yes" without any hesitation. However, when I received a blank diploma at our graduation, I wasn't sure what it all meant!

No doubt about it, Sister Callista and Sister Lea gave me a solid primary education that is still foundational, and Sister Raissa challenged me to trust my inner Truth. And our seventh-grade teacher who was so frustrated when we answered, "I don't know," that made us respond with the following instead: "I hesitate to articulate on a matter of such grave importance without due consideration." Unfortunately, that's the only thing I remember from seventh grade!

Dominican Sr. Sharon Zayac coaxes heritage chickens to gather for a photo. (Dominican Sr. Anita Cleary)

And here I am, 70 years after that remarkable two-year kindergarten, grateful to the Dominicans, who are celebrating their 800th anniversary. I learned that Dominic first founded a community of women in 1206 and established the men's community in 1216. So the women have been faithful to his charism for 810 years!

The leadership of Dominican women continues today in many areas of education, including that of Earth Literacy, integral ecology coming from a sacred sense of an evolutionary perspective. Sr. Miriam MacGillis co-founded Genesis Farm, which offered some of the first Earth Literacy classes in the United States, educating many who became leaders in their respective communities. Sr. Patricia Siemen, formerly from Barry University, focused on legal implications of recognizing that water has rights, forests have rights, ecosystems have rights. As a leader in Earth Jurisprudence, she is recognized for looking at legal approaches to difficult foundational questions arising from destruction of the environment under unbridled capitalism, military destructiveness, and increasing poverty.

Sr. Sharon Zayac, who initiated Jubilee Farm 16 years ago, sees her primary focus as educating her sisters and others regarding a new story of creation, one that is based on the scientific understanding of the past 100 years. This new story, sometimes referred to as the Universe Story, gives a different context for life and responsibility: beginning with our common origins, evolving from millions of years of energy moving toward life.

This love for Mother Earth is what guides the decisions at Jubilee Farm, honoring ecosystems that have taken millions of years to develop. Those who learn from Indigenous Peoples and educators such as Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, Rachel Carson, Brian Swimme, and Maria Montesorri have developed a new story of creation.

Pope Francis has highlighted this need to focus on Mother Earth in the broader context of the three foundational relationships necessary if the human community is to survive. In Laudato Sí he wrote, "Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself." These have been ruptured over time and need our healing actions. It is this third relationship with Earth that is often forgotten in modern business practices, factory farming, mountain-top removal, and so much more. Jubilee Farm is an example of healing this third fundamental relationship to which Pope Francis speaks.

The Dominican community is acting on this desire to honor ecosystems that have taken millennia to develop. They are serious about living with less and creating ways of interacting that can be sustainable for years to come. As Sister Sharon showed me around, she described a new multipurpose building opening in October 2017 that will be LEED certified with geothermal heating and cooling and solar panels. It will not include carpeting, smart boards, or audiovisual connections, urging participants to limit use of electricity as well as focus on direct interaction with Earth.

As we walked along, I felt Sister Sharon's energy, rooted in her Dominican community, continuing to nurture lifelong learning as I had experienced many years ago.

In the 800-plus years of Dominican life, I recognize a resiliency for carrying Truth into challenging times. May their educational leadership continue to nurture insight, much as their protection of heritage chickens continues to give life.

[Judith Best is a School Sister of Notre Dame and coordinator of SturdyRoots.org. She gives presentations on the heritage of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and is also exploring evolution as the bridge between science and religion.]

Read the latest from our new monthly feature, "The Life." Get email alerts so you never miss it!