The Red Couch: Soil and Sacrament Discussion

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June-RedCouch-750My best friend used to belong to a community church garden, smack dab in the middle of suburban Dallas. On the weekends, I would accompany her to a small patch of soil that felt like an oasis amidst the commonplace suburbs and concrete. Though sometimes I would complain and grumble about the heat, (my tolerance for summer’s high temps and mosquitos bites is low), Janie usually shushed me in her calming way, and gave me a job by putting a shovel, a rake, or a pair of soft gardening gloves in my hand. Sometimes we picked weeds, sometimes we tilled the soil and on a few occasions, I was lucky enough to be along during a harvest, when we would bring home tasty morsels, like Swiss chard, cucumber, radishes and tomatoes by the handfuls.

Despite my limited knowledge of all things gardening, (let’s just say, I’ve unfortunately killed more than one cactus) I always feel nearer to God when close to the Earth. Whether its a mountain range, a hiking trail, a path in the woods, or the soil of a garden, God meets me in and through His creation, and teaches me about the depths of my spiritual life and connection to the Eternal. Author and agrarian Fred Bahnson articulates these feelings beautifully:

“… I love plants, but I am most attracted to the fervent and secret work that goes on beneath the surface. Soil is not dirt.  It is a living organism, or rather a collection of organisms, and it must be fed. Soil both craves life and wants to produce more life, even a hundredfold … Soil is a portal to another world.” (p. 3)

Soil & Sacrament follows Bahnson’s journey to four various community gardens,  from Chiapas, Mexico, to Washington, Connecticut and the Carolinas.  He follows the Christian liturgical year by staying in each community a full season.  He travels “…as an immersion journalist, but also as a pilgrim.” (p.11) While his story is rooted in the quest of finding community through the land and partaking of food from farm to table, his memoir delves into so much more soul excavating richness. Bahnson speaks to the heart of many questions that we as people of faith encounter and wrestle through.

So many of Bahnson’s discoveries in his journey feel like truths I have been seeking for a good part of my life.  

“Over the course of that year, I would discover many things: That intentional solitude deepened, rather than distanced, my relationship with others. That manual labor disciplined not only the body, but the spirit. That trying to save an imperiled world is for naught unless that work is undergirded by a rigorous prayer life. And everywhere I went, I witnessed how our yearning for real food is inextricably bound up in our spiritual desire to be fed.” (p.12)

One of my favorite chapters was The Underground Life of Prayer, in which Bahnson spends the Advent season at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina, a Catholic Trappist monastery. His conversation with a young monk is one I’m still mulling over when I think of my own questions and struggles in my pursuit of faith.

“I needed to put my faith in my hands.” [He] had learned that certain mental and spiritual problems could not be resolved intellectually; they needed to be worked out physically, with one’s own body. Manual labor was the ancient monastic cure for many a spiritual ailment. I see work as very incarnational. Jesus became flesh, muscle, sinew. He put his body where the question was. And then he walked the question.”

… Human sin. Broken relationships. Loneliness. Take the most agonizing questions of your life—that’s the question Jesus came into and walked.” (p.35)

I lived for 5 years in the countryside of Lancaster county,working in full-time theatre ministry. I have vivid memories of living amongst acres and acres of farmland. While I worked onstage daily telling Biblical stories to the bussed-in masses of tourists, the Amish and Mennonite communities all around us were living off the land and working the soil, in beautiful simplicity.

Bahnson lived and worked for a season in the hills of North Carolina at the Lord’s Acre, a food pantry, kitchen and garden community. The truths he gleaned brought me back to the reason I wanted to be in ministry in the first place.

“We grow food for the food pantry, but our work here is really about finding ways to make love visible. We begin each day by asking What does it take for this person, this plant, this community to flourish? And not just individual plants or people, but what does it take for them to flourish in relationship?”  (p. 88)

Bahnson showed me the indelible link between soil and sacrament for all of us who are seeking the life of Christ. This book is full of truths that need to maturate deep in the soul, and its one I’ll return to with regularity.

Questions to Consider:

  • What physical practices draw you closer to God and your faith in your own life?
  • Do you believe Jesus came and walked the most agonizing questions of your life?  How does that change (or not) your understanding and relationship with God?
  • How do times of community around the table feed your deeper need for connection and spiritual hunger?
  • What truths or takeaways were the most fruitful for you in your own life?

Reminder:

Our July book is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Come back Wednesday, July 2 for the introduction to this wonderful novel. D.L. Mayfield will lead our discussion on Wednesday, July 23. For on-going discussion each month, join The Red Couch Facebook group.

Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

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Sarah Caldwell
Sarah Caldwell is the Chief Creative Curator at All Manner of Inspiration, where she gathers everyday inspiration and encourages artists of all makes and models. A musical theatre performer and book lover, Sarah aspires to shed a bright light on the Creative Process that draws others to see their dreams more clearly. When she’s not auditioning, performing, or blogging, Sarah is seeking out ‘the perfect pen’, reading an ever-growing stack of books, and spending time with her friends and family. She’s currently chasing the next inspirational spark and her sweet pup Daphne in the heart of Fort Worth, Texas with her husband Frank.
Sarah Caldwell
Sarah Caldwell

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  • I loved this book so much! I have done so little (read: none) thinking about soil in the past, but it is such a rich metaphor for so many things: community, social change, life with God. I’m a writer and a ministry person, so a good metaphor can really change the way I view what I’m doing. So much of writing and ministry (and relationships and life in general!) is slow work, like nurturing the soil. I’ll be mulling over the idea of giving more than I take away for a long time… I’ll be recommending this book as a valuable reez horse. 🙂

    • Yes, yes, yes! Great thoughts, Christina. I agree about the power of a good metaphor!

    • It is such a fantastic ‘reez horse’, isn’t it? (That made me smile). I haven’t read much of anything about soil either in the past – wasn’t Bahnson’s book a amazing introduction? Reading Soil & Sacrament made me want to read ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’ by Barbara Kingsolver! Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Sandy Jones Fox

    I also love this book-this will be my second time through and I hope to glean even more.
    The other day, as I was weeding my garden, it occurred to me that my position was the same as prayer- on my knees. It’s also a position of worship. Weeding is sacramental in so many ways-the weeds need to come out so that the soil is healthy and the plants can grow. Some weeds can be yanked and hoed out. Some have to be carefully pulled out by hand so that other plants aren’t damaged. Weed are hard to pull out and they thrive in the same conditions that plants do.
    Soil is an amazing metaphor- I agree- for life, for growth. It needs to be fed, it needs different food in different places around the world. Good soil is critical for good growth.

    • Such great thoughts, Sandy! Weeding as sacrament- such an interesting idea. I wonder if that’s why gardening can be so therapeutic, because of our posture, because of its purpose. I’ll be mulling this over.

  • My parents always had a kitchen garden but I didn’t take interest until college. Desperate to learn French, I spent a month working at an organic farm in the Bordeaux region. I realized the work that goes into truly living off the land…. I’ve always had pots, as apartments have allowed and my husband and I have our own kitchen garden now.

    For me, gardening is about making wise choices with our food, about pulling out of “the system” and voting with our dollars. It’s a very practical way for me to live out what I believe.

    This book didn’t resonate with me in the same way that others on food and gardening have, but I did appreciate the glimpses into all types of gardens and motivations for gardening.

    • What a unique and life-changing way to learn French! I’d love to hear more about that time in your life.

    • Though it didn’t resonate with you, I still loved hearing about your story. I felt my greatest takeaways from the book really delved into the journey of pilgrimage, finding your vocation and drawing closer to God. I love what you say here about ‘making wise choices with your food’ – I know my best friend (that I spoke in the article) would heartily agree, and I do too! 🙂

  • Janie

    I haven’t read the book yet, but my garden was the inspiration, so I feel I can weigh in;)

    My ex-boyfriend and I struggled mightily because although we agreed on everything else, our spiritual lives were inspired by such different ideas. For years, we talked and argued and hashed out every idea under the sun and kept coming back to our differences, not our similarities. As a last-ditch effort, we joined an open-minded church and community garden in hopes of being able to find some common ground – and we literally did. As Bahnson mentions, the manual labor felt thirst-quenching, a way to get out of our heads and find relief. It was a visceral, healing balm to our mental weariness. That relationship inevitably failed because of our differences, but that garden and its lessons spoke to my soul in a time when words and ideas had failed to produce the results I desired. Our disagreements made me feel extremely isolated because I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it, and becoming part of a little community of people creating life-sustaining food – the need for which unites every one of us – out of dirt and some seeds made me feel less alone. We may have had problems, but we MADE RADISHES. It was a Castaway moment, like when Tom Hanks MADE FIRE! I may have felt alone on my ridiculous relationship island that bore no fruit, but learning to create my own literal fruit was empowering and connecting in a way little else has ever been.

    • Oh my word, Janie! I know I’m biased and all, but this comment deserves to be its own blog post – what BEAUTY & WISDOM was mined through your experience! You truly have been my inspiration in all things gardening and foodie. My response isn’t doing justice to what you shared above, but I think you need a new garden. Working that soil now, and perhaps with Barry, sounds like redemption to me. 🙂 Love you friend!

  • Corrie Aw.

    I have a garden, and while I love feeding people and feel closer to God through harvesting, cooking and canning, the whole getting-my-hands-dirty part is just hard work for me. Maybe that’s why this book doesn’t speak to me like I hoped it would. (But I haven’t finished it yet.)
    But I agree with the author about how the church needs the broken and weak.

    • I think if you keep reading, you’ll find some good morsels in there – many not about gardening! I love that you do canning – I’ve always wanted to, but have been slightly intimidated by the process! 🙂

  • sandyhay

    “How do times of community around the table feed your deeper need for connection and spiritual hunger?” I didn’t realize how much my spirit was feed at the table until I read Bread and Wine by Shauna Neiquist. And now Soil and Sacrament. My current Bible study meets in a kitchen around a large oval table. Slowly I’m getting it. The community that develops there is both spiritual and physical nourishment … It’s God and Food 🙂
    I have no doubt that Jesus walked through similar agonies. This helps me be real with Him.
    I starred and underlined so much of this book that there’s not enough room here to tell you all I’ve gleaned. I learned so much about soil that’s eye opening. I’ve tried to eat organic the past few years but what I quote next was startling…. on page 180 “…the soil on the farms of our conventional farming neighbors was like a body in a coma. The only thing keeping it alive was a heavy cocktail of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. An expensive life-support system for a corpse.” WOW…Scary!!!
    There is holiness everywhere. We must learn/choose to see it.

    • ‘There is holiness everywhere, we must choose to see it’ – amen to these words, sister! I too, highlighted the bejebees out of this book! Bahnson’s writing is so beautiful, and feels so contemplative in tone. I too LOVED Bread & Wine. Your Bible study group around the kitchen table sounds wonderful!! 🙂

  • Corrie Aw.

    I finished the book today and wanted to share my favorite quotes:
    “Food is the physical embodiment of prayer. Food nourishes people. It’s creating justice on all the different levels. When people are fed, they are warm and relaxed. It’s how you reach people.” (restaurant owner Rosetta on p. 97)
    “… eventually I had to acknowledge a shameful truth, one that is nearly impossible to admit in polite society: I don’t like animals.” (p. 122. I feel with Bahnson here.)
    “That’s what everybody has been waiting for all their frickin’ lives, man. For someone to say we need you.” (Zach on p. 156)
    “Such moments, if faced over a lifetime, were small investments against despair, so that when you lost your crops or your topsoil or a loved one, for we all lose something important to us eventually, then you would have enough beauty stored up to keep your buoyed. You would have built a house sturdy with hope, and from there you could emerge and begin the necessary work of repair.” (p. 227)
    I loved the whole chapter about the Jewish community (especially the bathroom blessing :-)). There is so much to learn.