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.
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.