A present-day monk, lamenting the spiritual poverty of the modern age, said that the greatest sin of all is that today we receive the words of the desert Fathers as beautiful rhetoric, yet never heed or live them.
In his Cultural Liturgies Project, James K.A. Smith argues that we humans are liturgical animals—worshiping beings who become what we love. We are, he writes, “creatures who can’t not worship and who are fundamentally formed by worship practices, Our everyday rituals, including the “secular liturgies” that usually pass under our notice, shape our souls. Our daily rhythms are not neutral; we are always being formed either towards or away from the kingdom. Nothing is insignificant, not even the banal details: “Even the most mundane can instill a whole cosmology.”
Smith argues for the “formative power of practices—communal, embodied rhythms, rituals, and routines that over time quietly and unconsciously prime and shape our desires and most fundamental longings.” Quoting Nathan Mitchell’s Meeting Mystery, he writes, “our bodies make our prayers. . . . After all, the mind will say anything one wants to hear; the body never lies” (60). Material beings that we are, the particulars of a place have much to teach us. Traditions such as the Eastern Orthodox are fond of saying that we, as physical beings, need the tangible elements of the liturgy—incense, icons, bowing, crossing, candles—to engage all five senses. We are not merely spirits, but neither are we merely bodies; we are embodied creatures made in God’s image, made to take on Christ’s likeness, made to worship him in spirit and truth.
Smith’s project advocates intentional Christian formation specifically in the Christian university and the church. But what if we take this further? What if we conduct a “practice audit,” as Smith suggests, to our everyday liturgies, not merely our media habits or church attendance, but the very shape of our Sunday-through-Saturday lives? What can we learn from the everyday practices of traditions that challenge the illusion of autonomy? Few vocations spring so starkly from the idea that we are “creatures who can’t not worship and who are fundamentally formed by worship practices” than that of the monk’s; few trades expose so clearly our embodied nature than that of the farmer’s. Learning from those vocations is not a matter of finding a more fulfilling, unconventional, hipster lifestyle. Rather, it is about conforming our (embodied) souls to Christ through our quotidian habits, both individual and communal.
Very cold for Aug. 20. Froze corn & some tomatoes. Started watering about 3 AM. Saved most of the tomatoes, but some corn was “cooked.”—Russell Carter’s diary
My dad comes from a stock of family farmers. In 1955, my grandfather Russell Carter bought land in northern Minnesota and began to farm: dairy and beef cattle, tomatoes and strawberries, chickens and goats. He had come from Michigan to serve as a rural missionary. But though he preached for several years and worked the mail route to make ends meet, he was always a man of the fields. Few things were as important as making sure the strawberries are hoed, the tomatoes planted, the crops irrigated. Every sunrise the cows must be milked. If the sun is high and the ground is dry, there is hay to make. Sunday is church, but after Sunday’s lunch of crockpot stew, the asparagus must be checked and the strawberries watered. My dad remembers morning and night milking times, unloading hay after school, raking manure in the fields.
Grandpa hired migrant workers and immigrants passing through to work on the farm, and his five sons grew and found their own specialties: my dad the mechanic; Jonathan the hog farmer; Anthony the trapper; Dwight the gadfly; Paul the workhorse. My aunts sewed and cooked and tended to the greenhouse flowers and crops.
You can’t learn to farm well from a book, and you can’t farm with merely good intentions. Good husbandry is a living tradition that’s passed on from father to son, from mentor to apprentice. Farming demands a particular way of life and an intimate knowledge of a place, like the intimate knowledge required by charity itself.
I don’t think there is an argument for being a farmer. There are only two reasons to farm: because you have to, and because you love to. The ones who choose to farm choose for love. Necessity ends the argument, and so does love.
—Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter
My grandpa always loathed leaving the farm. If he’d had his way, he would have keeled over and breathed his last while hoeing strawberries.
The Benedictine vows stability, obedience, and conversion of life. Just as the farmer is dedicated to his own plot of land, so the Benedictine gives his life to his monastery. Both plant themselves in one piece of ground. The farmer cultivates his fields for the sake of forthcoming generations. The abbot attends to his own abbey for the sake of the salvation of all people.
But isn’t this restricting, staying in one place nearly one’s whole life? The monk in his cell wouldn’t say so. In Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island, he writes that quality of experience surpasses quantity, especially in the spiritual life:
We do not live more fully merely by doing more, seeing more, tasting more, and experiencing more than we ever have before. On the contrary, some of us need to discover that we will not begin to live more fully until we have the courage to do and see and taste and experience much less than usual.
In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a monk in Scetis who sought wisdom from old Abba Moses. The abba said, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” Sometimes the whole world can inhabit one place.
He has his dwelling around heaven and earth and sea and all that in them is. He lights the light of the sun. He furnishes the light of the night. He has made springs in the dry land. He has set stars to minister to the greater lights. . . . He is the God of heaven and earth of sea and rivers, of sun and moon and stars, of the lofty mountains and the lowly valley, the God above heaven and under heaven.
—Daily Readings from Prayers and Praises in the Celtic Tradition
My brothers and I worked on the farm in the summers. The boys chopped wood and hauled hay; I trained cucumber vines and picked raspberries. We picked pail after pail of strawberries, moved irrigation pipes, snacked on cracked watermelon, loaded firewood, picked more strawberries, planted tomatoes, picked tomatoes (and cucumbers and peppers and green beans and corn and asparagus and rhubarb), hoed strawberry fields, hauled gourds and squash, hoed some more, and drove baskets of fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers to the market in town. The farther I’ve wandered from my grandfather’s farm in Minnesota, the more I’ve come to realize how its rituals, its story, have shaped me.
We are not what we think: we become what we love. We are not merely minds, neither merely bodies. Neither mind nor body are divisible from each other in the liturgical animals that we are. We become what we love. Our loves are shaped by our desires and our desires are formed by our stories. Our stories in turn are told through our bodies and our bodies are molded by liturgies.
This includes what Smith calls secular liturgies: the communal rituals and routines of our everyday lives. Smith writes that these, too, shape our loves, “because we fail to appreciate the religious nature of these ‘secular’ practices.” Participating in liturgies—whether Sunday morning services or shopping at the mall—is participating in a story: “We are attuned to the world by practices that carry an embodied significance. We are conscripted into a Story through those practices that enact and perform and embody a Story about the good life.” The liturgies we embody shape our imaginative being-in-the-world, which is in turn “governed by the dynamics of metaphor and narrative, poetry and story.”
On the farm, the rhythms of planting and harvesting govern the days. At the monastery, liturgical rhythms define the hours. The morning bell chimes for matins. The rooster crows at milking time. In the evening, two bells ring: one for vespers, one for supper. The monks gather for evening prayer, and the farmer prays over his evening meal.
The Benedictine prays at least seven times daily. The Rule of Saint Benedict orders life hour by hour, season by season. In The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris writes of her “immersion into a liturgical world” when she became a Benedictine oblate. Her understanding of time fundamentally changed. The Benedictines taught her that time is a gift, rather than a curse, that “there is time in each day for prayer, for work, for study, and for play.”
But the days of the monk and the farmer are defined by more than the demands of the hour or the season. The story of death and resurrection also shapes them. Agriculture means nothing without the yearly cycle of life arising out of death. A seed must fall to the ground and die before growing into a full-grown tree. The everyday grace the farmer experiences through this cycle beautifully frames the central truth of the gospel—Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The monk must die to himself daily through the discipline of the hours; the seed the farmer plants each spring must die before it blossoms into a crop.
This is not merely the ordinary cycle of nature; it is the cycle of the church year, which begins with Advent, climaxes in the death and resurrection of Christ in Holy Week, continues with Pentecost, and concludes with Ordinary Time. “Ordinary” does not signify a return to pre-sanctified time. Rather, Ordinary Time is eighth-day time, the day of the church, the time of the kingdom. Now that Christ has sanctified the material world and time by His years on earth, routine hours and days are shot through with glory. Just as Christ came to die and was raised to life, so we die in Christ and are raised to life.
But even in sanctified time, you still have to get up at 3:00 a.m. to water the crops or to pray the hours. This, too, is a gift.
Morning Labor/Midday Prayer
From Easter until the Calends of October,
when they come out from Prime in the morning
let them labor at whatever is necessary
until about the fourth hour,
and from the fourth hour until about the sixth
let them apply themselves to reading.
—Rule of St. Benedict, “On the Daily Manual Labor”
The farmer cannot escape the contingency of being and of bodies—even without the spiritual disciplines of fasting, Sabbath keeping, and feasting, the farmer knows what it means to rely on sun and earth and sweat. And there is something deeply satisfying about this, about working in the sun with one’s own hands. I found the rhythm of fieldwork, especially hoeing, to be good for both conversation and contemplation. My farmer uncles have also attested to feeling similar to the landowner Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:
He heard nothing but the swish of scythes…. Another row, and yet another row, followed—long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came all easy to him…
My uncle, who now runs my grandfather’s farm in Minnesota, writes:
I enjoy doing some repetitive, manual task where you don’t have to worry about machinery breaking down or figuring things out[;] you can just do it and engage in some contemplation while you’re at it. This seems to become rarer as time goes on and I spend more time running around messing with machinery, employees, phone calls, etc. A lot of what motivates me is a rather vague notion that agriculture in particular should not be industrialized, which may be illogical and impractical.
Farm life is hard work. But there is a primal nobility to it. Both John Adams and John Seymour believed it the noblest work on earth. There’s a reason another uncle of mine has mused, “I can’t seem to shake the assumption, deep in my soul, that everyone would prefer to be farming over any other occupation were things as they ought to be. . . . Why would anyone want to waste their time other than doing what we were made to do?… But I am once [in] a while reminded that this is not the general perception.” It is no accident that the choice of labor of the majority of monastic communities is the husbandry of land.
We offer the world and ourselves to God. . . . The Church is all those who have been accepted into the eucharistic life Of Christ. And we do it in remembrance of Him because, as we offer again and again our life and our world to God, we discover each time that there is nothing else to be offered but Christ Himself—the Life of the world, the fullness of all that exists. It is His Eucharist, and He is the Eucharist.
—Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World
Alexander Schmemann writes in his classic For the Life of the World that each of us are priests of God’s creation, and we are meant to offer His creation back to the Eucharist, Christ Himself. “Thanksgiving and praise”—eucharist—must permeate our lives:
For eucharist—thanksgiving and praise—is the very form and content of the new life that God granted us when in Christ He reconciled us with Himself. The reconciliation, the forgiveness, the power of life—all this has its purpose and fulfillment in this new state of being, this new style of life which is Eucharist, the only real life of creation with God and in God, the only true relationship between God and the world.
Schmemann says we are called to become eucharistic beings. As priests of God’s creation, we are not called to subdue or overcome this earth: we are called to bless it, and to continually offer back to God sacrifices of praise. To live eucharistically means to live continual thanksgiving of the God of creation, to bring healing to the broken world through by the power of divine grace, and to commune with God through the sacraments He has given us.
If nothing is our own, and all is given, how must we treat every field, flower, and fawn? If we are priests of God’s creation, and all that we have is given to us, all that we are given we must offer back to God for praise of Him.
St. Francis blessed the animals; let us also bless the soil.
“What do you want to want to be, anyway?”
“I don’t know; I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic.”
“What you should say”—he told me—“what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
—Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
Neither the farmer nor the monk sets out to be a hero—a pioneer, a martyr, a solver of the world’s problems. They set out to be faithful.
The same virtues monastics pursue—humility, moderation, abandonment to God—we should pursue, inside or outside the monastery. And we live, whether we know it or not, by the same necessities of the farmer: health of the soil, planting of seeds, rain, and harvest.
Not all are called to be farmers or monastics. But we are all called to be saints. And we are each given time enough for what we are called to be. This may sound trite. Where is the time, when one is a young mother of three children under five? Where is the time to become holy when one is an overworked elementary school teacher? Where is the time when one is on call at every minute to one’s boss through the iPhone?
Perhaps there are two things to take from this. First, the way to holiness is unique to every person; it is possible to pray in the midst of everyday demands. Otherwise, how short would be the list of saints! Thomas Merton writes, “But what a hopeless thing the spiritual life would be if it could only be lived under ideal conditions!”
Second, there may be much that we—suburbanites, nomads, city folk, laypeople—can learn from the rhythms of the farm and the monastery. Both manifest creation’s interdependence, a reality that tends to be hidden in most everyday occupations in America. The farmer understands that he is one of many God’s creatures, and that he is meant to steward the relationships of human and soil, human and animal, human and human.
The business executive is also responsible for stewarding relationships between created beings, if only because he too is human and is dependent on the great chain of being. However self-sufficient he may feel living in a world of illusory autonomy effected by the ubiquity of digital gadgets, the businessman must eat. Eating itself, says Wendell Berry, “is an agricultural act.” The businessman must also pray. He too is called to be a saint, and to cultivate the solitude that is communion with the living God. He does not need to be a monastic, but the disciplines of the monastery were designed for beginners in the spiritual life, which we all are.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
The gospel means to transform our lives, but our everyday habits are hardest to change. And because no man is an island, there is wisdom in communities living together with the Eucharist at the center, by the disciplines of the liturgical calendar and the seasons.
Even now as I live in a city in the desert and work indoors, far away from the farm in Minnesota, I’m still learning from the rhythms and disciplines of those days in the fields. I learn the rhythms of the monastery secondhand, as I try to become a saint in my own faltering way. Planting and digging my hands in the dirt have deepened my spirit in ways I’m still trying to articulate.
I want to be one of those who loves trees and who loves Christ. I want to bring the monastery’s and the farm’s eucharistic rhythms to my own life, as far as is possible. I want to be a faithful steward of God’s creation; I want to bless every one of God’s creatures. And I want to praise farmers like my grandpa Carter and monks like the Benedictines who are faithful to their own land and obedient to the call of Christ.
May we all be faithful to our own plot of land. May we love without getting tired. And may we practice resurrection.