It was quiet and calm and clear when I stepped outside at 3:30 this morning. The air was a delight. The stars were immediate.
It was this way throughout the fall, our first year here, as we worked to take shelter before winter. In the time between submitting my resignation as clergy in February and our arrival here in July, and without asking, we received an avalanche of donations…thanks and well-wishes for what we had been for the people whom we had served for twenty years. Then in August we came upon a small farmsite, abandoned in the 1960’s. The unsolicited money we had been given and the price of the farm were exactly the same…to the dollar. Without a lawyer we did our own title search, walked into the office of a notary, handed him a cheque, the owners handed him the title, he handed back the appropriate paper work to each of us, and we began life here.
We had not wanted to own property. And in fact we still do not feel like property owners even after twenty years. Land for us is only a trust. But as much as we believe in communal administration, we also believe in private ownership. That is because we cannot conceive of either the state or the modern, corporate church being anything other than interested and biased in their ownership of a farm bent on serving the actual needs of the poor. The early Christian communities of Nitria, Scete, and Kellia were founded on land that was unwanted. These locales may have fallen within the boundaries of empire, but it was marsh and desert and at the time unwanted. But today there is no place that is unwanted. Every square metre of land on the planet is now claimed and monitored and occupied. So we realized that in the absence of some gospel-generous soul who would simply allow squatters to work and eat and sleep and pray, someone would have to register one’s presence, and take responsibility for the founding of a personalized and communal way of serving the poor. We even went so far at the time as to meet with the regional municipal counsellors to tell them our intentions and seek their favour, which we wholeheartedly received. We still would like to place this property in a land trust. We need other like-minded people to join us before doing so. Privately owed; communally administered.
At the time the bush had reclaimed the site. First settled in 1907 the same family had owned it until the time that we came. Planted into 140 acres of alfalfa with 20 acres of woodland I could start to farm with minimal adaptation…no grain here, thank you. Hay would provide an income for paying our bills; accommodations for solitude and gardens for serving the poor would need to be developed.
We sold two steel grain bins off of the site, which income allowed us to drill a seventy foot well with a three foot casing. It produces nine gallons of water a minute and holds 2000 gallons of extremely hard water in reserve. We installed a telephone landline. A forty by seventy foot metal quonset was sealed and a thirty foot by forty foot heated concrete slab was added to the front portion of it and made into a vaulted living space. Brush and trees that had encroached over the decades were all cut and cleared by hand; it was homesteading work. Materials were donated…a lot of materials were donated. Neighbours were helpful in so many ways. The half mile driveway was gravelled so the school bus could get into our yard. And after the hay had been removed – which had already been contracted by the previous owner – we marked all of the waterways that ran across the property and then used a discer to accentuate them and ordered saplings for establishing waterways and to control erosion and retain water for delivery the next year. Being a rated structure our interior work to the quonset in order to make it our home was simply renovation work. We bathed, washed dishes and did laundry outdoors using a water tank that drained onto the ground. Pens for livestock were fenced and a hay shelter was built. The day that it dropped to -30C was the day we hooked up the indoor plumbing. And on the first of November it began to snow and it fell for three days straight and with that our development work for the first year came to an end. I had taken work driving grain trucks during harvest and soon I would work casually at a local mill; Carol began teaching. The sky every night that late summer and throughout the fall was ablaze with the aurora. October days were very warm, which was unusual, and we worked in shirtsleeves. We accomplished a lot and then settled into the solitude, empty spaces, and fresh air of this beautiful and remote region. Hours were spent every day just sitting, just decompressing, contemplatively reading scripture, getting back in touch with Merton, following up on his suggested reading resources from the early church, and for the first time in our lives coming to fully accept that even though we did not really know the next step, we had somehow started to formally break free of what post-modern Western culture and modern Christianity had enculturated us into. The ways we had been raised were just one way of being; we were starting to divest ourselves of the opinions and ensuing sadism of the environments in which we had been raised. Where would simple openness to Christ take us?
The more I am able to affirm others, to say ‘yes’ to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.
– Thomas Merton