Once I took a year off to build a small house in the country. I would work mornings at a nearby sawmill, off-loading trim and stacking these for sale to the charcoal factory. Instead of cash I would take my pay in oak and pine lumber which I used to build the house. Afternoons I would gather rocks for the foundation, work on framing the house, nail down planking or apply shingles to the roof. Looking back, it seems one of the most blessed and productive times in my life. And I have a small house to show for all my blood and sweat.
While building the house I would spend some afternoons working in the communal garden on the parcel of land I occupied. For a while month I did the hard work of double-digging required to establish an organic garden in raised beds. Once the beds were in place, the task was to hail in the horse and cow manure, the sand and sawdust that would build up the soil. Then it was time to plant: zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, okra, winter squash, kohlrabi, carrots, onions, even peanuts. As I worked I was serenaded by bluebirds singing in the nearby pasture.
This building and gardening time was the beginning of serious training as a mystic, I am convinced. There was something deeply satisfying about the nearly direct connections between my labors and my eating from the fruits of the garden and staying warm in the winter because of the insulation carefully installed in the walls of my house.
I can recall many evenings lying abed, deliciously tired from the day’s work and profoundly satisfied with what I had done that day. The efforts of my muscles and the sweat off my brow had contributed directly to my own needs, my livelihood and the well-being of the small community in which I lived, unmediated by paycheck, social security garnishments, boss or necessity for marketing to others what I had crafted. It was, quite simply, one of the most profoundly satisfying pleasures I have ever experienced.
The garden work was particularly rewarding. As Matthew Fox points out, gardens “teach us interdependence and groundedness and therefore wisdom.” The first story in the Bible is about a garden. Christ’s resurrection is celebrated in a garden and, in one account, he is disguised as a gardener. Gardens are a rich metaphor for life, renewal and hope. Juliana of Norwich, a medieval mystic, wrote this eight centuries ago:
Be a gardener. Dig a ditch,
tToil and sweat, and turn the earth upside down.
tSeek the deepness and water the plants in time.
tContinue this labor and make sweet floods run
tMake noble and abundant fruits to spring.
tTake this food and carry it to God as your true worship.
All our work – whether immediately rewarding or difficult drudgery – needs to take on some of this grounded quality. Satisfying work is true eucharist, a genuine thank you for being here on the earth. Turning over the ground of discontent, futility and insecurity in the pursuit of our daily bread can also yield an abundant harvest of integrity and meaning. The bottom line: Our work is a most holy enterprise. We need to look with fresh eyes at our daily efforts and see them for what they are: the most sacred endeavors.