Posted by: Sue Spencer | January 12, 2008

What I do on the farm

I came to the community’s Melrose convent just after Easter, 2007. It was mid-April, and planting season was in full swing. Immediately I was put to work in the “seed room.” It was my job to tend the young shoots as they emerged from their seeding mix, and to transplant them into pots when the time was right.

At first I did this with fear and trembling, tiptoeing into the seed room each morning to see if my little transplants had survived the night. As each dawn revealed that all was well, a long-dormant green thumb kicked in, and my confidence increased – if not in my own abilities, then in the resilience of green, growing things.

I have to laugh at myself now, remembering a conversation with Sr. Helena Marie a couple of years ago, in which I said, “I’m not looking to enter the religious life so that I can dig in dirt.” I couldn’t have imagined then how much joy I’d find now – working in the garden, tending the seedlings, preparing young plants for transplant, moving them into the garden, watching them grow, and finally savoring the harvest.

My other primary job is working in the kitchen with Sr. Catherine Grace. During the late spring and summer, the harvest flows into the kitchen, requiring immediate attention. I’ve come to imagine it as a great tide into which we must dive, swimming through it in mighty strokes until it has become food – the day’s meal, plus stores for the winter months. I’ve loved to cook ever since college days, when I taught myself, first from Fanny Farmer and then from Julia Child. It’s a great joy to have the time (not to mention the necessity) to do it once again.

Recently I was asked what gave me the greatest delight in the religious life. I found myself thinking in terms of the game of “charades,” where one uses both hands to make a large circle, signifying “the whole idea.” It’s difficult for me to separate the various strands of religious life, identifying just one that gives me joy. Rather, our life at Melrose forms a seamless whole, where prayer flows into work and work becomes prayer.

Framing the day-to-day life of ora et labora is a growing understanding of its planetary significance. Over the summer I had the chance to read Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest (which I’ve already mentioned in this blog), along with Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Sarah McFarland Taylor’s Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology (about environmental ministry in Catholic women’s communities). All of them have helped me see our work in a wider context, as part of what geologian Thomas Berry has called “the Great Work” – moving our beloved planet away from disaster and toward a new, life-giving, earth/human relationship.


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