The Sower and the Soil

At the very end of his Rule, St. Benedict encourages his followers, in an almost throwaway line— about the need to continue reading and studying. It is one of the best examples of being told about preparing to open up to the new. Benedict called this opening up to the new conversatio morum which is described as conversion of manners—an openness to continual conversion and ongoing transformation.

Conversatio morum is not a special project of self-transformation, or a course, special event, or liturgy that you will take or attend this summer…it is not a setting aside a time to “work on yourself”…rather it is a process of letting change come quietly and invisibly on the inside. It is a place from which this interior journey begins—breaking open new worlds, asking new questions, and unveiling new vistas. It may be taking the same path day after day, and seeing with fresh eyes or listening with the ear of your heart for the lilt in the landscape of the ordinary. It may simply be, as poet Marilyn McEntyre writes that you see a blaze of light in every word! That you actually see a word rather than look through a word –as you would look through a window or discover a word because of its pungency, its sharpness or smoothness…or even for the sting it gives rather than reading just one more word in series of pages needed to complete a reading assignment. How would our lives be different if we see a blaze of light in every word!

Almost twenty years ago artist Donald Jackson’s questioned, the monks of Saint John’s Abbey asking, “Do want to see the Word of God dance on a page?”. That question is still alive today. I reflect on this illumination—the Sower and the Seed with you today, I am taking artistic liberty and renaming this illumination The Sower and the Soil.

sowercutout

So many of Jesus’ parables and teachings depend upon the wisdom of good agriculture not only because he was speaking to people who tilled fields and tended sheep, but also because sciences such as biology and ecology are sources of divine wisdom and revelation.

Let’s tend to the soil first—in an age of global crises such as resource wars, climate change, and economic meltdown,—some argue that the most urgent crisis is soil depletion. Human life on the planet depends on the health of the few inches of topsoil under our feet. We have not stewarded it very well. The soil is being depleted and eroded. By 1950, the number of tractors went from 0 to three million. Add to this overuse of land, an increase in the production of fertilizers. According to recent statistics, the United States is losing topsoil ten times faster than the natural replenishment rate. The single greatest leverage point for a sustainable and healthy future is underfoot: the living soil where we grow our food.

I discovered at the Natural History Museum in Minneapolis an exhibit called: DIG IT: The Secret of Soil. There I learned that not only had I fallen asleep in my biology classes—but also that in a teaspoon of soil there are more microbes and organisms than people on the earth? It was in this exhibit that I saw a panel of dirt from every state in the union—and each state’s soil was significantly different from the next. How could this not be the work of the Creator, I thought. Soils are alive. They are born, they breathe, they age. Soils are everywhere.

In William Bryan Logan’s remarkable book and now documentary entitled: DIRT: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, he offers a long, reverent reflection on the life of soil. He writes: “There is glamour to the study of rock. The most mysterious place on Earth is right below our feet. How can I stand on the ground every day and not feel its power? How can I live my life stepping on this stuff and not wonder at it?”

I want to shift the focus of the landscape to our interior landscape—our topsoil. We cannot really separate the care of the earth we were given from the care of our bodies, a duty that is, in turn, inseparable from care of our spiritual lives. There is a profound threshold that remains between our exterior and interior landscapes. Am I willing to be hospitable to God—to make room for a deeper encounter with my interior self and the Sower— and emerge to meet the world beyond the self without my protective defenses? To stop myself from being eroded and depleted?

For us, gathered here, perhaps our landscapes may be seen from right to left, rather than the traditional left to right that is usually interpreted in this illumination—from an abundant mound of harvest—great preaching, evangelizing formation programs, and life-changing immersion experiences—created possibly from the mound of depleted soil and thorns of busyness, or a desire to meet every need and to be all things to all people. Perhaps this summer season gives us a chance to pause, in the third mound, to once again listen to the Word for ourselves…for our lives. Sometimes we make the mistake in thinking that because nothing is happening above ground—God is not doing anything, and more uncomfortable might be the notion that it may look like I am doing nothing. This mound is that deep place where God finds us and we find God. It is not empty space per se; its purpose is to become the space for listening to the Word. We enter into silence and hear God’s conversation and take our proper part in it— And then we join that little bird, picking at the soil, we lift our eyes and heart to follow the one—the One Sower who moves to the edge—to the margin of this illumination…to cast Words that are blazing with light….tending every Word—from the center.

I wonder with you, “What about the center and the edges in our life? How do we come and go—from center to the margin? Are the edges not perhaps the center? Does the center not hold the edge?:

Perhaps it is a reminder of who the Messiah is—and who the soil is—we are the soil—you and I are DIRT—may this summer be a time of renewal so that we can be the ecstatic skin of the Church…that we may go back to the point of return where at the trailhead of that circuitous journey we discover once again the Word illuminated in us!

Barbara Sutton, D.Min.
Associate Dean of Ministerial Formation and Outreach
Saint John’s School of Theology•Seminary, Collegeville, MN

© Sower and the Seed, Donald Jackson and Aidan Hart with contributions from Sally Mae Joseph, 2002 The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.

Seeing Easter: Wisdom, Week 6

carpet

For our final Sunday of the Easter season before Pentecost we use the image, the “Sirach Carpet Page”, which closes the Wisdom volume of The Saint John’s Bible.  There is no scripture passage associated with this page, as it marks the end of the entire volume.  However, we see written at the bottom of the page, “She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her: those who hold her fast are called happy.”  We also see a stamp that was prominently used in the illumination “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”.  The colors used are those same colors that we saw in the “Garden of Desire.”  We are brought back to the images, knowledge, and inspiration of the entire volume before this.

“She is a tree of life”.  We have learned a lot about Wisdom from these books and from the Wisdom illuminations.  She was present with creation.  She identifies herself with the voice of the Lord.  People must find her in order to find life and find God.  Wisdom is not God, but she is how we come to know God.  She is the connection between the Lord, and the created world.  Therefore, it makes sense that we see on this final page, the image of a tree and the words that “She is a tree of life.”  Not only was she present since before the creation of the universe, but also she is the link between God and the created world.  It is through her that each of us will be able to find God and create our identity as a people of God.

We leave the Wisdom books with an image of Wisdom as life giving.  And yet, the scattered-ness of the stamp also sends the message that it is hard to grasp at.  We are left being told to embrace life, embrace wisdom, and continue to seek her out in all we do.  As Susan Sink says, “In the end we are encouraged to live, to experience beauty, and always to seek God and God’s partner in creation, Wisdom.” (The Art of the Saint John’s Bible: Wisdom Books and Prophets, 52)

 

 

© Donald Jackson, 2002 The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition, © 1993, 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Seeing Easter: Wisdom Week 5

Listen

Catherine, the little girl that I nanny for, just turned six years old. One of the most amazing things about Catherine is how hospitable she is for such a young girl. When I pick her up from school we stand by the door and wait for her older sister as the rest of the elementary school kids push their way down the hall and out the door. Parents weave their way around the crowd with one, two, three, or more kids attached to them. Catherine not only greets people by name as they fly past us and out the door, but she often tries to find something personal about them to talk about or compliment them on. She does this not only for her classmates, but for the older kids and adults too. Most recently we were standing by the door waiting for her sister and one of the dads that she knew came walking by. She said something in her quiet, six-year-old voice, to him about somewhere she had seen him recently. The dad, not hearing her, kept walking. Catherine spoke to him a second time and, again, the dad didn’t notice. Catherine raised her voice and spoke at a level that most adults speak at, but by this time the dad was so far down the hall, that he didn’t hear her. She turned to me exasperatingly saying “Ugh! Just listen!”

Listen. How often are we so caught up in the chaos of our lives that we miss the opportunity to hear the small voice that is speaking to us, calling out to us. I wonder how many times I have kept on walking or let me own thoughts take over the conversation when God is reaching out to me. The illumination for this week, Listen, says that if we listen we will “blossom like a rose growing by a stream of water.”

The illumination was created by a local Minnesotan, Diane M. von Arx. There are images in this illumination that, if familiar with St. John’s, really connect the viewer to this local place. If you look closely, you can see a bit of honeycomb outlined in the center of the illumination. This is a connection to the pattern of the windows of St. John’s Abbey. There are voiceprint images from Psalms that represent the monk’s song at prayer. Even the command, “Listen,” connects to the opening verse of the Rule of Benedict. These connections remind us that we need not search far to hear God’s voice. If we open the ear of our hearts, and are mindful, we can hear the gentle voice of God speaking to us from right where we are, even in the midst of a hurried day. So don’t walk by unnoticing. Stop. Listen.

 

© Donald Jackson, 2002 The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition, © 1993, 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Seeing Easter: Wisdom, Week 4

ccsk

“I was there”. These three simple words, written on the right side of this week’s illumination, can hold great meaning, wonder, and even power. When looking through pictures of places I’ve traveled to, I say with a sense of accomplishment, “I was there”. We may say the same words with excitement when recalling a party or celebration, or with reverence when describing a great tragedy. “I was there” connects us directly with moments in time and space. This illumination contains four portraits from Genesis and Exodus; four snapshots of pivotal moments in these narratives. As we recall these moments – Creation, the Great Flood, the Pillar of Fire in Exodus, and the Promised Land, we can almost hear the voice of Wisdom: “I was there”. Gold and silver bars are scattered throughout the illumination, connecting Wisdom’s presence in these moments as closely as God’s presence. Solomon affirms this: “With you is Wisdom, she who knows your works.”

Where was Wisdom in these moments? After all, was it not God who created the heavens, the earth, and all living things? Was it not God who destroyed all but Noah and the ark in the Great Flood; God who delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land?  On Good Friday we saw Jesus nailed to the cross. Was Wisdom there?  This illumination tells us that she was.  These images show Wisdom’s creative power and connection to human life.  She was present at the Creation, she was present throughout history, and she continues to be present today.  We see this most especially in the breaking of the bread each week.  Wisdom, a prefiguration of Christ, is in the Eucharist and is made present before us. And just as we are present in that holy moment, so too were there at the crucifixion.  These stories depicted in the illumination are ones that many of us are very familiar with.  Our memories of these stories, like the memories of those places we have traveled to, show us that we were also there.  As we continue to journey onwards, may we be present and recognize Holy Wisdom in the graced moments of our lives.

 

© Donald Jackson, 2002 The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition, © 1993, 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Seeing Easter: Wisdom-Week 3

eccles frontis

We see it all in this illumination: the past, the present, and the future. The page is being ripped apart in front of us, and what does it reveal?  We see most prominently, a raven.  The same raven that has flown across the Creation illumination is here in the Ecclesiastes Frontispiece.  On the left and right-hand sides we see the images of creation from as seen from the Hubble telescope.  The butterfly wings remind us of Jacob’s Ladder from Genesis.  The seraph wings connect us to the Prophets.  The bars of rainbow colors bring us all the way up to Revelation.  We see so much here, we might begin to think we know the whole story.  But that is exactly what the scripture passage warns us of.

“I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.  I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.  For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow” (1:16-18).  The author of Ecclesiastes is not saying that wisdom is a bad thing.  On the contrary, wisdom brings light into the darkness.  However, we are reminded that life is a fleeting moment, and that death negates any kind of lasting profit (Ceresko, Introduction to Old Testament Wisdom).

I know that for myself, as is true for many others, I often struggle with humility. Sometimes my desire to be right about something can overshadow something very important that another person has to offer.  In a week, I will have completed a Master of Divinity.  Certainly that knowledge and the experiences I’ve had in the now seven years that I have studied theology do give me some prestige, do they not?  In reality, this knowledge does not bring me any closer to that which I most desire in the depths of my being: to be united with God.  Wisdom is not about gaining theological knowledge, or knowing all of the “best practices” in responding to people in tough pastoral situations.  Of course those things will be useful tools to me as I enter ministry, but again, I do not believe that is what will bring me closer to God.  Wisdom only brings us from darkness into light when we open ourselves to the wisdom of all things.  This illumination shows us the past, the present, and the future not to know those things but to know ourselves in those things.  To move into the light we must open our hearts and listen to that wisdom of all the ages and humble ourselves in the realization that we are but a fleeting moment of it all.

 

© Donald Jackson, 2002 The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.  Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition, © 1993, 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Seeing Easter: Wisdom, Week 2

I AMi am my beloveds

This week’s illumination, I Am My Beloved’s, is in many ways a continuation of the illumination on the previous page, Garden of Desire, which we looked at last week. Similar to the garden, this illumination has the boundaries around the edge. In this image, however, that edge is softened, rather than the strict boundary that we saw on the preceding page. So too, are our hearts softened by the words of this beautiful passage from the Song of Songs. “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he pastures his flock among the lilies” (6:3). These words, which are placed in gold among the bright red of the illumination, jump out at me as soon as I lay my eyes on the page. Next, I find my eyes drawn downward following the stems of the lilies that trickle down the page. The sensation of my eyes drawn downward leaves me with the sense of being almost lost in the illumination.

It is easy to relate to the sense of feeling lost when you have experienced love. How easy it is, especially in new love, to be so completely consumed by the emotion that suddenly that person is all you can think about. Your heart always desires the next time you can be with that person. As my eyes go down to the bottom of the page, I notice the delicate lace imprint that makes up the soft boundary of the page. My eyes follow it around to corner of the page and then begin to climb up, noticing first the butterflies, which are so detailed and intricate in the midst of this abstract piece. I notice the blossoms of the flowers. And finally, I am brought back to the center, to the beautiful burst of color with gold, red, pink, and even a small smudge of blue. I move past the words and into the colors, and rest. Allow yourself to experience the grace of that rest embrace of God.

The medieval Benedictine and founder of the Cistercian movement, Bernard of Clairvaux, had a deep love for the Song of Songs and gave a series of homilies on it. He relates to that moment of union in the form of a kiss, the kiss that comes with the incarnation. He writes, “The mouth which kisses signifies the Word who assumes human nature; the flesh which is assumed in the recipient of the kiss; the kiss, which is of both giver and receiver, is the Person which is of both, the Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus…Oh happy kiss, and wonder of amazing self-humbling which is not a mere meeting of lips, but union of God with man.” (Sermon II, On the Kiss, II.3) Bernard believed that our desire for union with God comes from our love for God. Our desire will only be satiated when we are united. The kiss that Bernard describes is God uniting with human kind. We praise and thank God for the gift of that union, which we have so recently realized the full meaning of in Christ’s dying and rising. May we continue to relish in the beauty of that kiss.

 

I Am My Beloved’s, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2006, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA., Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

 

Seeing Easter: Wisdom, Week 1

“Garden of Desire” (Song of Solomon 4:12-5:8)
“I am faint with love” (5:8). When I gaze upon this illumination, my heart feels full. I have the strongest desire to enter into the garden and to search, as the passage says, for “him whom my soul loves”. The beauty of this image is in that invitation to enter and search. The colors are so gentle and the pattern so intricate. I feel embraced and warmed by the gated garden. “You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes” (4:9). When I glance upon this image with my eyes, my heart does, indeed, feel ravished.

I feel drawn in, not only to the garden, but to the search for Wisdom. While the beauty of the image is so very moving, there is still an incompleteness to it. The garden has only two gates, it is unfinished. It is closed off. Pieces are strewn about the page in a kind of disordered fashion. “Listen! My beloved is knocking. Open to me, my sister, my love…I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone” (5:2, 6). The love that is so beautiful in this illumination is also not yet perfect. That scatteredness, as Susan Sink points out, represents our disconnection from God. The pieces appear to be pieces that would all fit together, and if they could unite we would be complete and one with the Divine.

The connection to seeking out God as the one whom we most desire is simple. But, how do we as human beings begin to know and understand love? Is our first feeling of love for God? I, like many people, first came to know what love is by the unconditional love of my own parents. It is through them that I started to understand what God’s love must be like. As I grew and understood other forms of love, my awe for God’s love also grew. As my knowledge of God and God’s love for me has deepened, my own ability to love others and know what selfless love is has also developed. I love because God loved me first.
Through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, we get a glimpse of what God’s perfect love for us looks like. It is only through the awe-inspiring love of God for us that we are able to love others. As this passage and illumination show us, Wisdom is the key to unlock the garden and to find who our soul loves. Wisdom is how we seek God and it is how we are brought to communion with our God, our lover. Even more so now with the resurrected and living God among us, who has shown us unimaginable love, we know that seeking God and uniting our soul with our Divine Creator will be greater than anything we could ever know.