by Kyle Watson

As Common Friars we often joke that we are of a particular strand of lazy farmers. As proof, we have instituted a two hour siesta in our normal work day following lunch. We stop to pray twice a day and we generally meet with our friends and landlords Robert and Margaret every morning over coffee to talk about the day’s tasks. There are also seven of us who manage a garden and pasture totaling 5 acres. What’s more, faithful weekly volunteers work alongside us in our normal responsibilities. But before you lose confidence entirely in the way that we work, what I would like to suggest is that perhaps we all suffer from a distorted view of what our work is ultimately for. This is not to say of course that we haven’t labored diligently to reap a good harvest as farmers. However, what seems more compelling to me about this work is the ‘agricultural grace’ which we inevitable rely upon. That is to say, the mysterious power of the earth which we cannot create or direct that brings forth the harvest. So it seems to me that though harvest necessarily brings to mind requisite work, in many ways it has more to do with the way that we wait and receive which inevitably changes our perspective on what our work is ultimately for.

But first I want to talk about work. For a monastic community that grows the majority of its food for donation to food pantries, it might seem obvious to say that our work is slightly different from that of a market garden or CSA or even a large scale farm. We operate entirely from the generosity of other people, and we make little money from what we produce. For most farmers, this might seem downright absurd. However, this precarious work is intentional on our part. Not only have we all committed to a life of poverty together, but our insistence on poverty forces us to examine why we work and grow food in the first place. One large critique of our modern food system (and of most profitable industry) is that it draws us away from serious considerations of how the work put in to growing and distributing our food either promotes or destroys natural life. We therefore live without knowledge of the true cost for the things we consume (apart from its monetary cost). Without true knowledge of how something came to be, we are unable to truly give thanks for it and without such awareness we are unable to properly care for the very things that sustain our lives. “Modern work,” writes Norman Wirzba, “rather than being an activity that connects diverse human needs and desires, is often symptomatic of a life that is fragmented and without a unifying context.” And so, our work and economy, distracted by the obligation of utility and profit, lacks a necessary awareness of the ‘unified context’ by which our lives are sustained.   

So it seems to me we must also talk about the way that we give thanks for the things that give us life, the way that we wait for and receive the harvest, for this necessarily directs the way that we work. As a German philosopher once said famously, “Man is what he eats.” Food is essential to man’s basic condition. Alexander Schmemann in his book For the Life of the World makes clear that the Bible begins with the image of man as essentially a hungry being. More importantly, in Genesis the food that man eats, “the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God.” And so it should not seem surprising that the story of the Fall centers again on the issue of food and how we consume it. Man chose to eat the forbidden fruit, the fruit that was not offered as a gift to man. “Not given, not blessed by God,” he writes “it was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. It is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself.” This idea of the world loved for itself should seem an obvious description of the way we continue to consume the world now. Consuming for the sake of consumption with no true understanding of what this action is ultimately for has produced the most efficient and destructive food production industry in history- farms operate more like factories and food is grown like a commodity, giving the illusion of plenty but at great cost. And thus our work only serves to perpetuate our propensity for consumption devoid of greater meaning or context.     

But I want now to return to this idea of ‘agricultural grace,’ and how it gives meaning to our work and moves us to thankfulness for the life that we receive from God. God has given himself to us in the world as food which is life and has endowed all the earth with his goodness that brings forth fruit of itself without our doing. What then are we to do besides consume? We are called to participate in this life. We are called to see that our lives are constituted not only by what we do, but even more so by how we wait for and receive God’s gifts to us. And if we work and receive without awareness that we are loved by God, inevitably our lives and work remain a closed circuit content upon destroying the world for the sake of our own satisfaction. But if we are mindful of God’s love and generosity towards us, we participate in His love for others by working to harvest, give thanks for and share in the abundance that surrounds us.  It is this love that, according to Schmemann “puts the value, the very meaning of life in the other and gives life to the other, and in this giving, in this sacrifice, finds the meaning and joy of life.” 

As Common Friars we work that we might better understand how to receive. We farm to remind ourselves that we cannot bring the harvest, but must simply participate in waiting for and receiving it with care. We harvest in order to understand that we are loved by God and that he gives himself to us in the world abundantly so we might know the joy of life lived in communion with him. We work closely with the soil and with each other in order that we might be moved to true thankfulness for the life God gives us as a gift.     

Kyle Watson is originally from Malta, Ohio and joined the Common Friars in May 2010. His interests include beekeeping, sharing meals with people,making ince cream, and DJ-ing an occasional dance party.

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