Plant Ground Cover
“We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
I recently saw The Biggest Little Farm, a documentary about a California couple, Molly and John Hester, who took a daring leap on a parcel of parched and forgotten farmland. They spent a decade transforming it into a vibrant, biodynamic farm with miles and miles of vegetation, orchards of fruit trees, hives of bees, chickens, cows, ducks and pigs galore. As you see in the film, the learning curve to create Apricot Lane Farms was steep with significant setbacks and daily tests of patience, perseverance, finances and faith. But there were also remarkable surprises of joy, the first fruit harvest, the surprise success of the egg production and the resurrection of their famous pig, Emma. The journey was unpredictable, one step forward two steps back. But through it all the Hesters knew they were participating in something so much bigger than themselves; something beautiful, at times transcendent. What a marvelous metaphor for our spiritual journey.
In the early days at Apricot Farms, Molly and John were introduced to a farmer/sage named Alan York. He gave them wonderful advice applicable to farming and to faith: Plant ground cover! The Chesters spent most of their time and financial investment in the early years seeding their 250 acres with a diverse ground covering of native grasses, legumes, fruit trees, and flowering vegetation. Alan York knew Apricot Lane Farms needed a deep and diverse root system for growth and protection.
Each of us has been deeded with our own metaphorical farm, a plot of time and space to grow something beautiful and benevolent with our lives. We must also make sure we have deep enough roots to sustain us through life’s inevitable setbacks. Following the blueprint of nature, we are designed to not only survive but expand. God wants us budding in every season, in every field of our lives. We have to roll up our sleeves, get our hands in the dirt and lay the ground cover. Father Thomas Keating said, “It is never too late to start the spiritual journey or start over and it is worth starting over any number of times.” Before the shovel hits the earth or a single seed is sowed, ask: Where am I? Where am I in relation to the person I know I can be? Am I living a life that feels good to my soul? Where am I in my relationships? Do they receive the best of me? How close am I with God? Are we polite acquaintances or does God know the crux of me? Am I daily searching for signs of the Divine reality inside and all around me, or am I stuck in a one-dimensional material reality? Answer these questions and you know where seeds need to be sowed.
The reality of the spiritual life is that over the course of our lives there will be seasons when our faith isn’t yielding the quantity or quality of fruit we would like. We feel disconnected from our inner spiritual self and God. Our prayers aimless—–The “Who am I, What am I doing here” frighteningly unclear. Often this happens after a significant life change —–a broken relationship, a lost job, or when our health, sobriety or parenting proves insecure. Maybe we have gulped the cultural “Kool-Aid” and allowed our lives to become too busy—-too secular. Fred Craddock, a beloved 20th century preacher, said, “we all have an invisible God-shaped hole within us, nothing will ever be able to fill it, but God.”
William Stafford’s poem, “The Way It Is,” resonates: “There is a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change. While you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; you suffer and get old. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread.”
An authentic faith journey is going to have fallow seasons. It is our job to hold onto the thread and keep sowing seeds. God promises the new buds will come!
Embracing a rich and evolving spiritual life will yield fruit in so many places in our lives: in our relationships, in our work, in our creative endeavors—-in our meaningful contributions to the greater good. But just as important, ground cover gives us the roots to withstand seasons when life doesn’t go as we planned and the farm/soul struggles. At the end of The Biggest Little Farm, after many years of crippling drought in California, a deluge of rain sets in, dropping over eighteen inches of rain in a single twenty-four hour period. The topsoil of all the neighboring farms washed into the ocean. They were ruined. But not Apricot Lane Farms. The years of planting diverse ground cover with deep roots had protected the farm from such a natural disaster. You should expect and prepare for precarious weather on your farm; floods, droughts and plagues are part of every story. This is when laying spiritual ground cover will be our salvation.
What is the reward of a vibrant spiritual life? The best of you will be revealed. You will achieve a deeper, fuller experience of being human. Your life will inevitably serve a purpose beyond yourself. You will have access to an inner strength, confidence and assurance that will gird you in the face of struggle. Your spiritual seeking will draw soulful people into your orbit. You will fully embrace the present moment without fear because you understand your life in the context of an eternal bigger picture.
You are the steward of your unique spiritual experience here on earth. Be like the pileated woodpecker who spends his life pecking at a material reality for a divine reward. Open the Bible to the psalms, invest in friendships that nourish and expand, practice the sacraments, serve your neighbor, join a spiritual community, get out into nature, confess, pray, journal, study. Be spiritually open, curious, and porous. God will speak to you in infinitely creative ways.
Recently, I listened to an interview with Gordon Hempton, a world renowned acoustic ecologist. In his book, One Square Inch of Silence, he calls us to make silence a priority. Silence soothes the soul. It is the only way we have a chance of hearing the still, small voice of truth speaking from within us. Try layering your experience with the writings of fellow seekers like Barbara Brown Taylor, Thomas Merton, Rumi, C.S. Lewis, Thich Knat Hanh and Richard Rohr. If you really want to feel the thread in your hands, and grow your spiritual life try speaking to God as you would with your most loyal and loving friend—-intimate and often!
I have always loved Brother Lawrence’s life instruction to “practice the presence of God” in the routine ministrations of one’s day. Find the sacred (because it is there!) in the ordinary and you transcend the dust-to-dust material reality. Frederick Buechner’s words are revelatory: “In the entire history of the universe, let alone in your own history, there has never been another day just like today and there will never be another just like it again. If you were aware of how precious it is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all.” My favorite New Testament Professor, A.J. Levine, concluded, “Jesus asks us to live as if we already have one foot in heaven.”
Be patient. The spiritual path takes a lifetime. You don’t build the farm overnight. Do a little each day. I assure you The Thread is always there.