My 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?
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.
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