US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Earth is a sacred text

The holiness of the Eucharist is alive in the soil with which we work.

By Robert L. Ernst | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Your Faith

The smell of horses and leather filled the air as I made the last harness adjustments, stepped behind the team of willing Belgians, and drove them to the walking plow that stood at the head of the garden. Trace chains clinked against the doubletree as I hooked the plow. I joined the lines in a plowman’s knot and ducked into the loop they formed, situating the smooth leather around my back. With the loop running under my left arm, across my back and around my right shoulder, I was able to control the team while I took hold of the plow handles, worn smooth with repeated use. Pursing my lips, I kissed the air and the horses stepped forward. The plow came alive, and as I lifted the handles ever so slightly, its point dove into the fragrant earth.

We were plowing.

This spring season marks the 22nd year of our life on Plowshares Farm. I have lived on this small patch of Kentucky hills and hollows longer than I have lived in any one place, and it has left an indelible mark on my soul. It is in this place that I have nourished a childhood fascination for all things of the earth, all beings wild and unfettered by human constraints.

It is also in this place, in the simple rhythm of work, the seasonal cycles of time, and the bloody, dirty, glorious reality of life, that I have come to a deeper, more intimate sense of God and a fuller appreciation of my faith.

Green and full of spring’s energy, the team stepped out at a brisk pace, so I leaned backward a bit, tautening the lines to temper their enthusiasm. Quickly adjusting the position of the plow for greatest effect, I locked my eyes on a dogwood tree at the end of the garden. I was laying out the first furrow, which would guide all subsequent cuts of the plow, and I did my best to make it smooth and straight by keeping the dogwood between the horses’ heads as we plowed.

At the end of the garden, we turned and plowed in the opposite direction, laying the newly turned soil against the first cut furrow. The pattern was established and our work became a mantra, drawing me deeper and deeper into earthly communion, deeper and deeper into my connection to the divine.

Perhaps better than any other work I have done on the farm, the intimate and meditative nature of plowing behind a team of horses has deepened my understanding of the connections that exist among me, my fellow humans and other living beings, the elements of the earth that contribute to life, and the God who is present in it all. It is in such work that the deepest meaning of the Eucharist has been revealed to me.

The Eucharist, one of my primary experiences as a Catholic of my relationship with God, is also one of the primary tenets of a deeper understanding of our relationship with the earth. In cultivating my earthly connections, I have come to a greater understanding and appreciation for the significance of the sacred liturgy I celebrate in community each week.

Each time I plowed, slowly and methodically turning roots to the sun, a grand web of relationships was revealed. The smell of my sweat mingled with the horsey smell of the animals doing most of the work. The loamy earth filled my nose with the richness of rotting earth, worm castings, teeming bacteria, and memories of all living things once at home here, now contributing the stuff of their lives to the soil that would feed my vegetables.

My eyes scanned the ground for knapped flint points that would betray the past presence of the ancient hunter whose food may have been laced with some of the very atoms that now feed me. I considered the various people who would eat their fill of this garden’s bounty, building their cells with the same elements that inhabit my flesh and bones. My thoughts turned to Olga and Ciro, friends from Mexico who would grace part of the garden with their maíz and calabazas, connecting this small plot to the memory of their home in Cacahuatal.

In my work on the land, I am cultivating communion. I am participating in the sacred, mysterious, cosmic dance of God, a dance of intimate relationship. My participation in this daily earthly sacrament has enriched my participation in the Sunday Eucharist. Even as I join my community in the weekly celebration of the Mass, the glowing foliage of sunlit trees outside the chapel windows enhances my sense of Christ present in the sacred liturgy. Bread and wine that embody our God are rooted in the wheat and grapes that were once bound to earth and tended by human hands.

I am challenged to see beyond the physical presence of those earth elements to embrace the mystical communion of the Holy One in all creation as reflected in the soil, air, sunlight, and water that lent their elements to the formation of that very bread and the fermentation of that wine in which God has deemed valuable to reside.

In a conversation with God, the writer of the book of Wisdom touches on this divine immanence: “How could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you? But you spare all things because they are yours, O God and lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all things” (Wis. 11:25–12:1).

I hear those words through ears tuned to the Eucharist. The Body of Christ is alive in all the diverse and abundant life of this earth, in the teeming masses of humanity as well as in forest fecundity, the opulence of oceans, and the sheer determination of the desert. I am one in Christ, who became the earth to show us how to live as people connected to a bigger reality. There is only one Earth, abounding with life. We are really one people, a significant yet limited expression of that life. We share in the earth as a living expression of that communion we take and eat.

The truth of our communion is revealed in every breath we take. Our mystical connection is made real in the shared soil, earth itself that is broken to provide our food. We are given life in the water that drains the hollows of this farm and every other peasant landholding across the planet, water that feeds the snow and rain, that runs in rivers and fills the oceans, that saturates every catechumen coming in joy to the Easter sacraments.

Earth is a sacred text, revealing to us the divine mystery. In my ongoing efforts to live in communion with this land, I have read that text, and it has increased my sense of wonder and awe for the living presence of God. The Eucharist is not some disconnected ritual in its own distinct little box in my life, but rather a deeply relational celebration that confirms my intimacy not only with the Christ of sacred rite, but with every living expression of God that graces this earth.

This article was originally published in the April 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic.

Image: Flickr cc via JohnInPortland

Published: 
Thursday, April 13, 2017