There is no greater tragedy in the spiritual life than to be lost in unreality.
– New Seeds Of Contemplation, Thomas Merton
In growing up the greatest joy I experienced in life came from my simple, direct apprehension of the natural world around me. These experiences were there for the taking: watching the sunrise, riding a bicycle, petting my dog, swimming, gardening and eating food out of my garden, kind words of affirmation and encouragement spoken to me by a relative. These acts cost nothing. And they were genuine, unmitigated experiences of life. But at the same time I also realized that in most instances most people lived incredibly complicated lives based on various aspects of their egos.
Somehow I had acquired the habit as a child of stopping by the church in which I had grown up and sitting quietly in the sanctuary. I did this when I was riding by on my bicycle. I found the church to be quietly regenerative. It held its own solitude, unique and yet a part of the natural world that I so appreciated. Neither did I think anything in particular when I was there, much like the quieting that I did when I was in the woods, just sitting, just watching, just listening. This all seemed so natural to me. Was it not the same for everyone? But as I grew older I found out that it was not. People were demanding. People were opinionated. People could not quiet themselves, not outdoors, not in their home life or work life, and not before God.
As an adolescent I began being pumped with information about life, including my spiritual life. Most of this was in the form of moralisms and social expectations. And I did not find these difficult to follow, but they felt hollow. Most of the time this took the form of people in church distilling words from scripture down into social maxims. Others seemed to already have a social agenda that they justified by the selective reading of scripture, pulling out justification for what they thought and how they lived. But I did not fall for either. By the time I was in later high school I was regularly reading the Bible, but again somehow I had developed the habit of not imposing myself on the text, simply reading and letting the words settle in my heart and mind without feeling like I had to justify them or adjust my life to them. They were more like words spoken over a telephone line through time. They had a life-giving resonance, a certain ring to them in which I recognized myself in the person speaking them. And that was enough. I was especially drawn to the Gospels and in particular the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount and the various parables he spoke. These words had a life-giving way about them that contrasted sharply with goals and operation and exegenses of the human world around me. Most of all I saw the society in which I lived going to church and yet cutting out wide swaths of what Jesus taught from how it so unnaturally structured its life of war and acquisition and domination and abuse of one another.
In university I had enrolled in a bible study. And while the people with whom I met encouraged the regular reading of scripture and prayer throughout my day – which proved to be a good initial grounding in the ancient practise of lectio – they too had their own theological agenda which proved to be a profound moralistic burden after a year. This was replaced by the writings of Thomas Merton who I began reading in 1976. His writings on contemplative prayer were deeply moving, naming as he did a natural propensity that I had carried with me throughout my life. And his biblically-generated reflections on the direct and natural apprehension of God in daily life and the natural world were totally liberating. I visited a Trappist monastery and rather than finding it limiting like my companions did I found it a thriving place of social, spiritual, and ecological renewal. These all gave me a lot to chew on; Merton’s very writing style encouraged no rush to an ends. And then a friend – someone who is now a long-time Catholic Worker, although was not then – directed me to some authors. Clarence Jordan brought Jesus parables alive for me in daily life with his Cotton Patch version of the Bible. Jim Wallis’ Sojourners magazine began making connections for me in regard to what it meant to contextualize farming within a larger ecological and spiritual reality. William Stringfellow’s life as a pro bono lawyer working in Harlem sharpened the way in which I began to evaluate the inherent self-interests of organizations and the manner in which individuals looked to personally benefit from these and to manipulate others to these ends.
And this all happened over the course of my working as a farm labourer and student of agriculture during 1976 and 1977. Something more integrated than the lives of the farmers and church goers around me was in the making and beginning to take shape…
Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in their soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of people. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because people are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.
– New Seeds Of Contemplation, Thomas Merton
Yesterday we planted massive amounts of potatoes, peas, beans, carrots, beets, squash, and zucchini in open gardens that we have worked extensively on to remediate their soils (and will continue to do so), as well as finished rebuilding the raised beds we use for our in-season kitchen garden. It was very grounding physical and spiritual work. Last night we feasted on freshly cooked rhubarb. All of it is fully organic. It is 5:20 a.m. and after I post this I will go out to till and water.