Sabbatical Reflections – 9/18/11


 The first week of Sabbatical was a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, about a 2 ½ hour drive from here.  The Abbey is currently a community of around 60 Trappist monks and is best known for its most famous monk, Thomas Merton, who was there from 1941 until his death at age 53, in 1968.   Along with praying the Liturgy of the Hours, seven-times-a-day prayer, and doing labor to sustain the monastery, the monks offer a place of hospitality for retreatants who come from around the country and around the world to pray and read and rest and, retreat, with this spiritual community.

It’s a silent retreat.  Aside from the prayer times themselves, a welcome from the guestmaster, a morning spiritual teaching session offered to the guests, a few designated talking areas, and recordings of Merton’s lectures played over the speakers while we ate our meals, the week was one of silence.  This short period of having a quiet life was extended by the fact that Abbie and the girls had left two weeks before Sabbatical officially began for an extended stay with Abbie’s family in Kansas.  The home had been quiet during that time, and now the silence took on new depth.

I spent most of the time reading and journaling.  I read Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published, interestingly enough, when he was the same age that I am right now – 33 years old.  I also read a book given me by John Davis about Merton’s writings on the natural world.  In my first Sabbatical journal entry I wrote this: “Take a deep breath, you’re on Sabbatical… So glad to be starting this off here at Gethsemani.  I can already tell that it is a very special place.  Prayer is in the air, no doubt.  Strange mix of silence and impersonalness, but also great hospitality… Almost from the very beginning I experienced this silence as a great freedom, not weird or anything.  There is no need to present oneself in any particular way, no need to think about who you’ll sit by at meals or prayers and no need to have the same introductory conversation multiple times with different retreatants about why you’re here.  The point is, maybe, that we don’t know why we’re here.  God wants to have a great love come through us and radiate out as a creative, life giving force which will lead to who knows what.”

To be honest, for the first couple days I found myself feeling sorry for these monks.  Here I was, on retreat, reading at my leisure, choosing which times of prayer to attend and which to skip, sleeping through all but one Vigils, the prayer hour that happens in the middle of the night; and the monks were stuck.  Seven times a day, every day, every night.  And their Sabbath for the week, rather than giving them some time off from prayer, was seven times plus an extra Mass.

I can’t quite imagine greeting such a life with the same joy that Thomas Merton did at age 26, when he called the Monastery, “the four walls of my new freedom.”  But I did settle more into the rhythm of prayer, the invitation of the liturgy to continually transcend the personal ego and join in communal exaltation of the divine – something this low-church Protestant hungers for on an increasing basis.

During that week of retreat I didn’t make any new friends, because I didn’t talk with anybody, but I did gain a sense of having my soul permeated with prayer.  I hope to return.

Three sisters

After the week at the Abbey, the next two months and change were spent with my parents on the farm where I grew up in Bellefontaine, Ohio.  Fortunately for us, my parents were open to this temporary communal living arrangement.  We tried to earn our keep through our labor and by offering daily no-commute access to grandchildren.

It’s an interesting thing indeed when going home feels like a cross cultural experience.  Although I grew up on the farm, I am reaching the point in life where I have spent almost as much of my life off the farm.  My formative adult years, have been in urban settings.  So having this block of time back home meant that I was seeing with new eyes what I had seen before.  In the words of TS Eliot – one returns to the place where one started, and knows it for the first time.  Although there’s a lot to know on a farm.  It’s an incredibly complex place.  I can’t even understand what’s going on on the microbial level in a handful of soil, let alone a whole garden.  As I’ve mentioned before in a few different sermons, in what I’m about to say, don’t be fooled if I sound like I know what I’m talking about.

It was early June and there was still some planting to do.  We had requested that a portion of the garden be reserved for something we could plant and tend ourselves.  We chose to plant a three sisters garden, an old strategy developed by the American Indians.  From a distance, a three sisters garden looks like a patch of corn, which it is.  But within that same space are also planted beans and squash.  These three plants work together in a number of complimentary ways. The pole beans use the corn stalks to climb as they grow and, as legume, fix nitrogen in the soil which the corn needs to thrive.  While the corn and beans go up, the shade tolerant squash spreads out over the ground.  Along with being a creative use of space, the squash also act as a ground cover to shade out weeds and keep more moisture in the ground.

So that first week, under Mom’s tutelage, we planted the seeds that over the course of the summer we would watch become the three sisters.

There is a creek that runs through the property called Blue Jacket Creek.  Blue Jacket was the name of a Shawnee Indian chief whose land included the area we now call our farm.  Although there’s some uncertainty on the facts, there is a strong chance that Blue Jacket was a white man, captured by the Indians at a young age, growing up to be a leader among them.  After we did the planting Abbie talked about having a distinct feeling of being connected to previous generations who had planted in this same way, before, and after, white people were on this land.

Although it wasn’t the reason for planting that garden, it was a little hard planting the three sisters and not making the connection between the three sisters in our family.  We were able to be around Belle’s tree for the summer and watch the new growth.  Even though that tree is her main way of being physically present to us, growing up each year, I’d have to say that in the garden she was the squash.  Eve and Lily ran around the farm all summer, nearly claiming different parts of it as their play areas, sometimes playing together beautifully, sometimes trying to claim the same territory as their own.  Definitely a corn and beans kind of relationship.   And Belle kept growing underneath us, not even visible unless one were to get up at close range.


Waste = Food.

I’ve never tried crack-cocaine, but this summer I think I discovered something just as addictive: feeding weeds to chickens.  For someone who, from time to time, just gets tired of throwing things away, this came as something of a revelation, and it turns out to be one of many examples of closing the loop in the waste cycle.  It’s both simple and quite profound: weeds, unwanted growth in and around gardens, through the miracle of the chicken body, get transformed into eggs, which taste delicious.  A liability becomes an asset.  Waste = Food.  Weeds don’t provide everything a chicken needs in order to lay its daily egg, but tossing the hens a wheelbarrow full of freshly pulled weeds reduces the amount of purchased grain that they need to eat.  It’s pretty addictive to watch 50 happy hens pecking away at what is otherwise useless and annoying growth.  This would fit well into that collection of parables which Jesus begins by saying, “The kingdom of God is like…”  It’s like feeding weeds to chickens.

The very same logic of turning a liability into an asset can actually serve to reduce the amount of weeds in a garden.  After my dad combined the wheat in the field, harvesting the grain, the fields were full of the unneeded wheat stalks – waste.  For a long time farmers have cut the stocks and baled them up into straw bales to use as bedding for animals.  Once the straw gets combined with the animal manure it creates a nice fertilizer package to take back and spread over the fields.  Another use for the straw, we learned, is using it as mulch for the garden.  This involves some work up front, with a big pay off for the rest of the summer.  After the desired plants – tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, three sisters, etc – established themselves enough to be clearly visible above the soil, we covered the entire garden area with two –three inches of straw.  We first removed as many weeds as we could, then carried the straw bales throughout the garden, broke them up, and spread them such that they covered everything but the plants we wanted to grow.  This took three of us a total of about four – five hours, and about 100 bales.

The straw mulch does several things.  In relation to weeds, it represses their ability to grow.  The weed seeds remain in the soil, but are unable to sprout because they have no access to sunshine.  This greatly reduces the amount of weeding that needs done throughout the entire growing season.  The mulch also keeps the ground moist.  It acts as a buffer between the ground and the air and reduces evaporation of water from the soil.  We never had to water the garden the whole time we were there, which was a surprise to me.   This, incidentally, makes the few weeds that do happen to shoot up much easier to pull.  Moist soil means loose soil, and the weeds can be pulled up easily, root and all, placed into the wheel barrow, and delivered to the anxiously awaiting hens.  After the growing season, the straw is then worked back into the soil to build up soil quality and add organic matter to feed the next year’s planting.  Wheat stalks are a waste product of harvesting wheat grain, but, waste can equal food, and, along the way, do a number of other really cool things.

Another waste = food phenomenon this summer was how dad feeds the pigs.  Across the road the neighbor has extended his garage and turned it into a cheese factory, Blue Jacket Dairy, which, I learned recently, has a stand down at Findley Market.  A waste product of cheese making is whey, the watery part of milk that separates from the curds.  So there are two liabilities on the two sides of the road.  Our neighbor needs to get rid of his whey, and my dad needs to feed his pigs.  Both liabilities are turned into an asset for each as the neighbor allows my dad to collect the whey for free.  Free disposal for him, free and nutritious hog feed for dad.  Good pork for people who buy the meat at the Bellefontaine farmers market.

I found that being a part of this kind of economic loop was not only interesting and “good stewardship,” but also incredibly fun.  And rather addictive.  It gets the imagination going, pondering all the many other ways that waste might equal food.

Preserving the summer

Summer is a time of too much. Too much to do to get it all done, too much that you’ve already done to remember it all, and, as it comes to an end, way too much harvest to be able to eat it all before it spoils.  And so is born the art of preserving.

Mason jars and freezer bags were one of the more straight forward and obvious ways of preserving that we did.  There’s a large maple tree in our front yard under which many an ear of corn has been shucked and many a green bean has been snapped over the years.  As long as one person knows how to do the whole process, others, that’s me, can get assigned to grunt labor which involves a lot of repetition, like snapping beans.  Somehow, even with some arthritis in her hands, my Mom still manages to be the fastest bean snapper I’ve ever met.  This could be really mind-numbing work.  It’s a job that’s meant to be done with other people that you enjoy being around who are up for conversation.  As we were doing some of our canning I wondered if any CMFers were getting together in the church basement this summer for corn or apples or other preserving projects that have been done in past years.

If there was a single activity on the farm that took the most time and effort this summer it would be baling.  This involves mowing the hay, or straw, letting it dry on the ground for a few days, raking it into rows, baling it and loading it on wagons, and unloading it and stacking it in the barn.  Plus getting the equipment ready, which sometimes takes as much time as the actual baling.  This felt like very different work than what we were doing with the corn and green beans, until Abbie made the observation that baling is basically canning for cows.  Very true.  Another case of how the too much of summer is preserved for winter.  The barn is a big cow pantry.

The art of preservation showed up in other ways as well.  The tomato cages we used are second generation hand-me-downs, made by my Grandpa Lehman and preserved by my parents.  One of my early vows of the summer was to climb on top of the shed and fix the tin roof that was blowing off in a couple places.  Even the shelters that are intended to preserve other things themselves need preserved and it’s sobering how quickly they can deteriorate with just a few small open spaces in the roof.

Half of my time over the summer was dedicated to reading and study and the best way I have found to preserve some of the random thoughts that fly through the brain during these times is through journaling.  One can always hope that the half baked notes and paragraphs stuffed into a Word document can be at least somewhat digestible when they are pulled out at a later date.

In coming back to Cincinnati we have tried to stay in preservation mode.  We had a fun discovery a few weeks ago when we were walking around the neighborhood and noticed a tree loaded with apples in someone’s front yard.  As usual, Abbie was the one who actually noticed it.  We talked with the owner and he said we could pick as much as we wanted and save him the hassle of picking them out of his yard.  So we took him at his word and picked four bushels, about seven five gallon buckets of apples.  We spent a good part of Labor Day weekend making and canning applesauce.  Yes, we were slightly giddy, obsessive, and overboard about it.

Building a chicken coop for our backyard and bringing three hens back from the farm has been another way of preserving what the summer meant to us.  Fortunately, the hens have overcome the trauma of riding in the dark trunk of our car for two hours and are starting to lay eggs on a regular basis.  We love watching our food scraps turn into tasty eggs, and I love it that I have a whole different perspective on weeds growing around neighbor’s houses, seeing them as potential assets.  We will try not to covet our neighbors’ weeds.

In late October we’ll return to the farm for a weekend and harvest the three sisters garden and bring it back to Cincinnati.

Our hope is that in being given the gift of this summer Sabbatical, that what is preserved can both literally and figuratively be shared with you all over the next weeks and months.  I think I can speak for both Abbie and me that it has certainly directed our attention much more closely to the earth, and filled up with a sense of wonder, and, I would say, a new found hopefulness in this tremendous power and potential that our earth holds.