‘The Sacred Meal’
Those of you who are Southerners know that it is customary to offer a blessing at a feast like this—not to make the food holy but to recognize that it already is. So I got Wendell Berry to offer the blessing tonight—in a poem he calls, “the man born to farming.”
The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death yearly, and comes
back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
His thought passes along the row ends like a mole.
What miraculous seed has he swallowed
that the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth
like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water
descending in the dark?
That’s all I really want to talk about tonight—what farmers know that other people don’t know, due to the unending sentence of their love—only I want to include the women born to farming who are here tonight, along with the men and women born to raising calves, lambs, goats, hogs, and hens; born to keeping bees, gathering eggs, making cheese, compost and feed.
You see things other people don’t see. You suffer things other people are spared, and by a kind of divine alchemy you turn it all into food, which is far too poor a word to end the unending sentence of your love, but there it is: you feed us. You bring us joy and sustain our lives. You give us reason to sit around tables like these and remember what it means to be truly human.
I am not a farmer. I am a teacher, a writer, an Episcopal priest. My only real qualification for being here is that I am married to a farmer—a man who has to be reminded to take his hat off at the dinner table and who always has dirt under his fingernails; whose worn out khakis smell like diesel from the tractor and whose pockets cough up seeds, screws, receipts, twist ties, pennies, Swiss Army knives, and the occasional wedding ring when I turn them inside out for the laundry.
This makes me an expert witness, which is sometimes better than being an actual farmer since I see things actual farmers are too engaged in their work to see. The fixation with seed catalogs, for instance--dozens of them, all over my dining room table—with so many pages turned down that some of them look like the farmer has been practicing origami. But that is not what he has been doing. Instead, he has been shopping prices on heirloom tomatoes, discovering new kinds of eggplants, peppers and beans.
“Will you look at that!” he says, waving a Kitazawa catalog in the air. “Twenty different kinds of bok choy!” I have never seen him so happy. This is February, after all. The garden in his head is perfect—so colorful, so bountiful, so weed-free and well-tended. If I were a better wife I would keep my thoughts to myself. I would not say, “Are you sure that’s not too many seeds? Remember what happened last year?” But it wouldn’t make any difference. This is a man born to farming; to him the soil is a divine drug.
What happens later, happens: too much rain, too little, too warm too soon, too late a frost. A farmer does what he can. Then he waits to see whether the earth will accept his offering or rebuff it, giving him something he can work with or not. Already this makes him different from people who think they can solve their problems by opening a faucet or flipping a switch. There is no switch on the sun. During a bad drought the only thing that comes out of the faucet is a gasp.
Yet there is no malice in this, any more than there is malice in the mind of the potato beetle, the digging vole, or the late blights. These things happen, the same way gentle rains and perfect temperatures happen. The farmer would love to control them but since he can’t he learns to live with them instead. That is why the sentence of his love is unending—because it has to last from a good year to a not-so-good year to a bad year to a better year—seeing the light lie down in the dung heap, and rise up again in the corn; entering into death and coming back rejoicing.
While Alice Rolls and I were dreaming of this celebration, we wondered why farmers aren’t regarded more like ministers. Both are engaged in ancient professions. Both earn very little money for doing things other people would pay good money to avoid. Both serve the divine economy of life and death in ways that are largely invisible to the culture at large, yet ministers are granted a measure of respect that farmers seldom enjoy. I don’t think you have to be religious to wonder why the ministers who teach people the Lord’s Prayer are valued more highly than the farmers who give us our daily bread (along with our butter, our honey, our milk and eggs).
A few years ago, Princeton Theological Seminary turned the question around by asking what ministers could learn from farmers, not only about the connection between food and justice but also about the connection between humans and humus. In one of the oldest creation stories that parents still tell their children, God made the first person from a handful of soil and a puff of divine breath. When the creature was up and running, God put him in a garden to till it and keep it (the original man born to farming). God also gave him dominion, which he misunderstood as domination, but the divine intention was clear: you are here to take care of this garden. You are here to husband this earth, so it bears fruit for every living thing.
Princeton calls its program the Farminary. Students who sign up for courses meet at a 21-acre spread where they drop their book bags in the barn before heading out to the fields or the hoop house to see what has changed since the last time they were there. Nate Stucky, who directs the program, says the goal isn’t to turn budding ministers into farmers (though that happens). The goal is to ground the formation of ministers in the agricultural rhythms and often-heartbreaking realities that will equip them for ministry better than a clergy production line in a theological factory ever can.
“Innovation, creativity, successful farming, successful ministry,” Stucky says, “all depend on the ability to take risk, endure failure, and move on.”
That’s what farmers know that other people don’t know, in the unending sentence of their love: that whether you are thinning tender lettuces, tearing up last year’s cover crop, or taking a calf to the abbatoir, there is no separating life from death. They are wedded to one another, the same way summer is wedded to winter, and day to night.
You can take a special liking to a particular chick—one the mother left cheeping in the yard while she hustled the others off to a nest made soft with feathers from her own breast. You can raise it up, feeding it mash and worms from the compost heap until it is big enough to rejoin the flock--and the very next day you can watch a red-tailed hawk drop from the sky to bear it away. C’est la vie—the farm life, anyway. Perhaps the hawk has not eaten in a week; perhaps she has chicks of her own to feed. Either way, she knows how the local economy works: every life on the farm, including the life of the farmer, is given so that others may live.
There is a word for that, which shows up in most of the world’s great religions. The word is sacrifice, from the Latin word for holy—a hard consonant followed by a sound you can only make by letting some of your breath escape your lips. Sacrifice. You can’t even say it without letting something go. Maybe that’s why I stayed away from it until I came upon a definition by Frederick Buechner, who always turns my head around so I see old things in new ways. “To sacrifice something,” he wrote in a book called Wishful Thinking, “is to make it holy by giving it away for love.”
I have seen that so many times in this community—in the farmer who leaves a carpet of cherry tomatoes in the field for the wild birds to eat, in the forager who gives three of his choice black morels to an old woman he knows will swoon when she sees them, in the star chef who takes time out of his day to make a plate for a patient in the hospital across the street. I see it in the programs Georgia Organics has planted and watered—doubling the value of EBT cards at farmers’ markets, linking local farmers to local schools, turning food deserts into oases. We all saw it in the food that arrived on our tables tonight, placed before us by chefs who could have been in their own restaurants tonight, serving more profitable (if not more delighted) crowds.
Why do these people do these things? They do it for love. They do it to keep the rhythm going, rounding the circle from sacrifice to celebration--from years of barely enough to years of plenty--bearing witness to the light that lies down and rises up. They do it to feed us—not only with their produce and their livestock, but also with their faithfulness to the garden, which they till and keep for the rest of us.
That’s worth a blessing, at a feast like this—not a blessing to make things holy but to recognize the holiness already in them, thanks to all of you who are willing to give things away for love. What miraculous seed have we swallowed to be sitting where we are tonight? Whatever it is, let’s keep planting it, and come back rejoicing again next year.