Another  part of my internship at Good Earth Farm consists of weekly readings and creative writing workshops. We recently read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet and discussed its relevance to our writing process and our understanding of writing communities.

And I thought a lot about how the letters are valuable for everyone: they’re much more than just creative advice from poet to poet.

While I canned carrots and cut lumber for a new garden gate this week,  passages from Rilke’s letters stuck in my mind. For the sake of simplicity—rambling is a constant threat when I’m at the helm of a notebook or keyboard—we’ll only focus on one quote and one memory today.

A Memory

When I entered the 2nd grade my family started attending a church next to our old brick elementary school. On sunnier Sundays or weekday afternoons us kids would walk to services or choir practices or vacation Bible school.

I remember things like soprano duets with my twin brother, covered dish dinners (almost always with green beans and green Jell-O molds and powdered sweet tea), helping Mama in the nursery during church, the time my twin brother got stung by a bee right after he was baptized, and how I always loved when my aunt came down from the choir loft to sing beside me in our pew. I still love it when my aunt sings, though she’s at another church now on the other side of the river and I’m states away, no longer singing soprano or much of anything.

I also remember things like the time I wanted to storm out of the sanctuary.

One Sunday I walked into church and immediately caught my breath; a very strong and very human stench mingled with the floor polish and wood wax.

I remember sitting down on a blood-red pew cushion and wrinkling my nose.

A few pews ahead of me sat a woman who pushed carts loaded with bags and boxes around Main Street and who asked for money for “medicines” outside of Food Lion or the park or anywhere people didn’t ask her to leave.

This Sunday, she was there humming to herself and combing her tangled gray hair with her very dirty hands. She sat alone in the pew. She looked around from time to time and shuffled over to families and couples when they arrived at their pews. She bowed and asked for “a little bit of money to help get me my medicines” and said thank-you for every polite refusal that came her way.

Admittedly, she smelled very bad. Unwashed and sweaty and old-alcohol-and-cigarettes bad.

And, admittedly, I was very uncomfortable in my youth and introversion and high-strung personality and loathing of any and all things awkward.

And this situation was very awkward.

The organ roared forth the prelude and people wandered into the sanctuary from Sunday School. The humming woman had a wide berth around her until a family came in late and had nowhere to sit but beside her. The family’s father looked at the congregation behind him and made faces behind the humming woman’s back, waving his hand in front of his face and making people laugh and shrug their shoulders.

Noses wrinkled and eyes rolled. I sunk into my pew hoping church went quickly and I could leave quickly and get fresh air quickly.

I sunk deeper. I wished I wasn’t so angry with everyone gathered around me. I wished I wasn’t so appalled by the unwashed humming woman myself.

I wished I wasn’t wrinkling my own nose.

A Quote

To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

Letter VII

Ruminating over this quote this week, I did livestock chores, worked with others to blanch an avalanche of new summer tomatoes to make quarts of fresh pasta sauce, and rested on the porch of my tiny cabin. The childhood memory came to me and troubled me and made me feel very small again.

And I thought about the reality at most workday lunches here on the farm: I smell.

By lunchtime, I’m usually soaked in sweat and crusted with dirt or tomato juice or hay and manure. A lot of us on the farm are. Admittedly, I’ve always been a self-conscious person, so sitting down to eat knowing that I, myself, smell pretty bad is a humbling thing. A late life lesson. (Shallow and embarrassing, I know.)

But beyond my shallow and self-absorbed preoccupations is a deeper thing: the work of love: the work of the Common Friars.

In my month working at Good Earth Farm, I’ve noticed an amazing and radical (and I do not say this with negative connotations) love of people. Strangers on the nearby bike path jogging past or walking by  looking for work sometimes stop and ask for water. The farm welcomes them. People from all walks of life come to volunteer on Saturdays—jugglers and college students and former interns and friends-of-friends.

And the farm even welcomes my shallow, sweaty, smelly self to lunch on hot summer work days.

The larger lesson here, I think, comes from the mission of the farm. Welcoming people to share food, to share work, to share life is at once joyful and draining. There are moments of exhaustion and moments of glee. There are times when I want nothing more than a cold shower and time to myself. There are times when I question why I’m here or how the friars keep going or why I’ve never thought of things like this before.

There are times when I remember not loving the humming smelly woman back at church—of not loving the congregation or myself enough to forgive them. To forgive myself.

My point is not that the congregation was completely wrong and the homeless woman was a lesson in piety and hospitality and love. That’s too black-and-white. That’s too easy. The congregation and I were human. The humming woman was human, too.

My point is that Rilke’s words provide an important lesson. The work of love—which, for the Common Friars comes from the Gospel commandments of loving their neighbors as themselves and being patient and being kind—is a constant and a test.

A Thought

Large scale, I see this work and this tough challenge to love and serve and welcome “all who hunger” as the work of the Common Friars at Good Earth Farm and the larger Episcopal Church. That is not to say that my views reflect the views of those living at the farm or those in the parish, the diocese, or the national church body.

Rather, this is meant to share what I’m observing while I work beside the Common Friars to do farm work, prepare free meals, and welcome everyone—smelly or not—to the table.

The work of love, in this sense, seems to be the work of community.

We all smell from time to time. We all grapple with love. And we all need to know others will sit with us through the smells, the love, the hard work.


Robert Meissner

2012 Summer Intern