The well-known author and farmer Wendell Berry is considered one of the “New Agrarians.” This community is known for its emphasis on caring for the land and the soil, both in terms of the health and healing aspects of each. Many of the people I met at the Growing Food and Faith conference – where we experienced the physical and spiritual through the Episcopal Relief & Developent Abundant Life Garden Project – would fall in this group (whether or not they are familiar with the term).
Berry understands deeply that work and prayer are inexorably linked together, just as St. Benedict understood in proclaiming the mantra “ora et labora” (prayer and work) so often linked with the Benedictine spiritual life shared by monastic communities across the world.
Some wise words from Berry:
As a farmer, I understand what it means when Christ says He’s a shepherd. I understand what it means when scripture describes the first Creation as a garden. That makes sense for me not because of revelation from on high - but from revelation from below so to speak - from my experience; and I see the ways the things of time relate to the things of eternity analogically.
New Agrarians are earthkeepers by their intentional and organic way of tilling, planting, and keeping of the land as a sacramental vocation: farming. A very dear friend, when asked what he intended to do with his master of divinity degree (since he was not going to go down the ordination track), responded: “It is going to help me learn how to farm.” Indeed, he and his wife live sacramentally every day by their way of life – one that, beyond the fences of their sheep farm, has become a prayer to and for others in our community of Sewanee, Tennessee (often referred to as The Mountain).
In the dirt, which becomes rich soil (humus) when we cultivate it with reverence for the earth and our neighbor, is where we can share in a “real economy” in the truest sense of the word: ecological and economical within our local communities. These communities must be committed to a spiritual life, a life of prayer. A spiritual life that must be weeded and watered, cared for – just as a garden must be attended to on a daily basis for the fruit to grow and flourish. We must take care of the soil together, “learning the language of the field” as Thoreau brilliantly taught us.
As Thomas Merton gave us: “Contemplation is life itself, fully awake, fully alive, fully aware…spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life.” This is how I encountered my good folks in Ohio recently: Alive, awake and aware! New Agrarians living out a contemplative way of life. So let us cultivate our garden (parish) and our farm (community), and share in the S-O-I-L, by way of a sacramental – organic – intentional – life.
Michael Trent Thompson is Director of the Organic Prayer Project, a program of the Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee (The University of The South). Actively involved in Faith-Farm-Food initiatives, Thompson weaves biodynamic farm practices with his vocation as a Lay Cistercian (Oblate of St. Benedict). He is founder of the Ecumenical Lay Associates of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, and currently serves on the Commission for Spiritual Growth in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.
Photo courtesy of Harvey Wang for Episcopal Relief & Development.