An Abbess Who Said No

An interview with Mother Maria of Asten

A convent, chickens, inspectors, arrests, interrogations, lawyers, and the mass media: these were elements of a recent drama in the hamlet of Asten, an otherwise quiet farming district in the southern Netherlands. The unrest was over a small number of chickens kept by the nuns at the Nativity of the Mother of God Orthodox Convent in the days leading up to and following Pentecost Sunday in 2003. The abbess, Mother Maria, spent Pentecost in jail for violating Dutch agriculture laws. A nun in jail in tolerant Holland? How could it happen?

Mother Maria was born in The Hague in 1944 and was raised in an atheistic household. She came of age in a climate of doubt and searching in a nation recovering from years of German occupation. She attended university and became a linguist fluent in seven languages. A strong spiritual yearning at last drew her to Christianity.

She was received into the Orthodox Church in 1963. Two years later, age 21, she joined a convent in The Hague where she remained until 1973, when she went to Serbia to join the Zica convent near Kraljevo. Here she immersed herself in its tradition and came under the influence of St. Justin Popovich, then an abbot at a nearby monastery. He believed she was being formed for a special purpose in Holland. Her next step was to join a monastery in Greece in 1975 where she remained for seven years. During this time, people in Holland were petitioning for a new convent. She visited in 1982, after which it was decided that she would return.

In 1986, with the requisite blessings, she headed home and took up residence in a garden cottage and waited. Thus far, a series of hidden graces had occurred, but her move from a thriving monastery to isolation and uncertainty looked at first less than promising. She put out the word: Looking to buy a house with land, in a quiet place, with a garden, must be big enough for more sisters, and by the way, I have no money! But wonders happen. A wealthy man looking to endow a religious order heard of her need and offered his support.

The donor bought her a farm house on an acre of land in Asten. In January 1989, she moved in and went to work enlarging the house and converting its dilapidated chicken shed into a chapel and guest house. Little by little the property was improved. Pilgrims began to come. Donations trickled in and bills were paid. She was in time joined by nuns from other convents as well as lay people seeking a life of monastic prayer. Mother Maria had become the abbess of a secure foundation.

Life at Asten is focused, the services full and straightforward. Everything is orderly without being fussy. Mother Maria is someone who gets things done. As one sister commented: Its best if you move aside when shes onto something. She looks after her sisters with the devotion of a parent while attracting visitors from near and far to the Orthodox faith. Thanks to the monasterys hospitality, many families experiencing difficulties have found shelter in the convent guest rooms. With the donation of an adjacent plot of land, the convent has doubled its holdings. The convent chickens wander about freely.

In February 2003, the vogelpest — bird flu — reached Holland, invading industrial-scale poultry sheds in many parts of the country. The poultry industry was severely affected. The Ministry of Agriculture ordered a cull of the poultry in each affected area. Millions of chickens were destroyed. At the same time privately owned poultry were declared a hazard. Hobby farmers who had quarantined their chickens were ordered to surrender them. Though the disease had run its course by June, the government was taking no chances, since the poultry industry was waiting to resume production.

The convents chickens were untouched by bird flu. Nevertheless, government inspectors brought crates and demanded that the convents hens be surrendered. When they returned the next day, the crates were empty — the condemned chickens had been taken to safe houses out of the area.

On the eve of Pentecost, inspectors arrested Mother Maria for extended questioning. Within hours, she became a celebrity in the Dutch media.

Here are extracts from an interview made after her release by Fr. David Pratt.

Q: What is this all about?

A: First, we had a choice, either to obey the agricultural ministry and give up our chickens to be killed, or stand against that policy. I would have given them up, but I had a lot of information saying the disease had nearly run its course. Our chickens were not afflicted; we knew the symptoms, and they were far from any infected farms. So, logically speaking, why give them up if it was unnecessary?

Some veterinarians were saying this, not I. The question had become one of conscience and civil disobedience. Many times in history, we have seen when something is wrong in a country, that disobedience, at a certain point, can cause change. Previously, we had an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease. We saw many thousands of healthy cows destroyed because that was cheaper than vaccinating them. A lot of people protested, and now the EU favors a vaccination policy. Protestors caused that change. In America, was it not the civil disobedience of quite a lot of people who turned public opinion there against slavery? At a certain moment, the disobedience of many abolitionists caused a crisis: people saw slaves as human beings. Disobedience brought about a change of thinking. And it is possible to see this in Christian terms. There are times when Christians must obey the laws of the land, but there are times when we must say no, this is not good and stand up against certain laws. It is not always necessary to obey a government. Conscience is part of church history.

Once I made the decision not to exterminate the convents chickens, my relationship to them changed. I had to hide them. I needed help, but thats forbidden by law. Now my decision of conscience came to involve others — the sisters, our benefactors, and neighbors. They agreed to support my decision, and so my relationship to these people also changed. How do I answer the inspectors without betraying my supporters? How do we not betray each other? We know from our experience during the Second World War that when we act, we involve others, and if we dont act we involve someone else. Life is not black and white, and very often we have to make a choice between different degrees of badness. Life is not so easy if you live according to your conscience. Thats another theme in this experience — not to lie and not to betray others. Fortunately, Dutch law forbids self-incrimination; we are allowed to remain silent under interrogation.

Ecology is another theme. Under the law, I am the owner of the chickens and I have to answer for them. Under God, I dont own anything. The chickens actually belong to Gods creation. I am just responsible for them while they are here. Its my job to look after them. They trust us and look to us for food and shelter, and in return, they provide us with eggs. Thats a relationship. And I am responsible to God for it. I cant give them up to be killed!

Similarly parents dont own their children. They receive them and raise them as their own. Its similar here with livestock. In the New Testament there is the image of Christ the Good Shepherd who looks after his sheep and knows each one by name. Of course, that is a symbol referring to us humans, but were involved with nature in much the same way. Were the shepherds. We have dogs and cats with names. Theres a relationship going on here.

Q: Whats at the heart of this relationship?

A: I have been charged with breaking economic laws. This means the chickens are just economic units. Theres no special relationship — only money. The industrialization of domesticated animals has changed our position toward them and toward all of creation too, I think. The image of animals around and in support of a household no longer exists. We have stables filled with thousands of caged animals on a production line. What kind of image is that? Economic, of course. We have come to accept the existence of chickens that can barely stand in their cages, whose legs are feeble and useless, because we need their meat at fast-food restaurants. I dont know if human beings have a right to do that to animals. I dont think they do. This is not a picture of the shepherd and his sheep. We have reduced animals to the level of raw materials such as plastic or iron in a production process. Is this Gods law for creation? I doubt it.

Q: What are your views about the proper use, abuse and care of farm animals?

A: Nature is under our care. We use it to obtain food, but what Ive just described is abuse. Were going against nature when we raise animals that way. Raising them for food still implies a relationship of care. Monastics dont eat meat, and I dont think eating meat is necessary, but for people who do, there is no getting around the fact that these animals are alive and under our care. Bio-dynamic farming is gaining attention because it attempts to place animals closer to their natural way of life. Free-range chickens are obviously better off than the others. And if we accept that as true, then we have to consider restoring our relationship with all the animals we use for food and sustenance.

Q: Does our treatment of animals shape our treatment of each other?

A: Yes, it does. You see, Im protesting an economic policy. I petitioned the government to vaccinate our chickens. All the hobby farmers wanted to do that. But our petition was denied, though the EU permits vaccinations. Everything in Holland was geared toward resuming the poultry business as soon as possible. That was the economic rationale. At that point, I decided to protect my chickens.

Q: What finally provoked your action?

A: It was the papers the officials asked me to sign. They required the owners to sign papers before they gas the chickens. The similarity to the Holocaust was too much for me, and my conscience was already strained by the extermination of the cows. Did you know that the government publicizes a special phone number for informing on your neighbors? One lady was moving her chickens and was arrested because of this hot line. In other words, her neighbors denounced her. Thats Stalinist.

Q: Is it a problem being put on the front page of newspapers?

A: When a nun gets arrested, people take notice. Some say this has gone too far. But this gives us an opportunity to highlight certain urgent questions. Were conscious that human life in the womb and the geriatric center is threatened. When we deny life to an unborn handicapped child, its for economic reasons. When we terminate the life of an old person, economic reasons underlie the act. Some hospitals are proud to offer euthanasia. Economics drive that policy. If, today, you can economically destroy entire species of animals, then tomorrow you could do likewise with certain classes of people. If these agricultural measures were intended to ease world hunger, I could understand them. But this industry is not for the hungry; its for the wealthy.

Q: But what about rendering obedience to lawful authorities?

A: Sometimes your conscience just tells you to act. Conscience is very important. Theres no difference between a monk and a layperson in that regard. Every Christian with a life of prayer, based in the Bible and the Church Fathers, gets a sense of how to understand Gods law. We are trying to follow Psalm 118 — teach me Your statutes. We have to answer this question: What does God want? If you never hear the Gospel or never go to church, then its easy to forget that question and lose your conscience. Living as a Christian means never letting your conscience go silent. We must worship, go to confession, receive Holy Communion, pray, and study. Then we can ask if our life is in keeping with Gods will. I dont think there is a distinction between monastic and lay conscience. Theres only one kind of purity, as I understand the Fathers. There is just one ethic for everybody.

Afterword: Mother Marias stay in jail was brief. Not only were the convents chickens allowed to live but the Dutch government at last decided that all hobby chickens could be vaccinated rather than exterminated.

This is a shortened version of an article by Fr. David Pratt published in volume 9 of Divine Ascent, the journal of the Monastery of St. John in Pt. Reyes Station, California. The monastery and journal have a web site.