Growing fruits and vegetables for market on our 27-acre farm takes time. But time is at a premium for me, with a full-time job and three young children, so during the season I’m up and running at 5 a.m. to take advantage of two precious hours for farm work before heading off to my day job.
My morning chore time is essential not just to keeping the farm running; it is also when I get some vital time by myself. I do some of my best praying in the morning, usually with a hoe handle or a tractor steering wheel in my hands. I often listen to public radio or podcasts to keep my brain alive and functioning. I savor the lovely silence of the waking day and the soft, early light of summer-solstice mornings.
One morning last season I was cultivating some of the bottomland market garden beds, a few hundred feet from our house. Back and forth among the rows, I walked behind our big Troy-Bilt tiller. The tiller’s engine loud, my earmuffs on and iPod going, I focused on not running over young plants, savoring my cocoon of vision and sound.
At the end of the long row I wrestled the tiller around for the next pass and saw my 31/2-year-old identical twin daughters, Eva and Clare, right behind me. As my wife and infant son slept, they had awakened early, and finding me nowhere in the house but hearing the tiller engine going, they had put on their garden clogs and wandered down in their pajamas through a head-high field of uncut hay to find me.
A Merry Parade
I am far from a perfect father. I love my kids endlessly, but I also marvel at my impatience, my quick temper, my frustration with them, my desire to be left alone from them. I marvel even more, however, that in spite of all this, my girls are devoted to their papa and look for every opportunity to spend time with me, even in the early dawn hours. I am not deserving of this love, or of this desire for my company. I’ll even admit, with some shame, that among my first thoughts in seeing them down in the gardens was a Type-A concern that they would slow down my work so much that I could not finish cultivating in time to beat the coming rains.
But seeing this pair of young twins, wet with dew and eager for inclusion, is enough to melt even my strongest focus on a given task. I shut off the tiller and my iPod and gave the girls a kiss and a big bear hug. After asking what I was doing, they piped up in unison: “We want to help, Papa!”
And so began our merry parade, in various iterations. First, they simply walked behind me like little ducklings as I guided the tiller down the rows. Then they insisted on holding my hand, so I steered the tiller as best I could with one hand, while they each grabbed a finger of the other. Every 20 feet or so, one would lose a shoe and cry out at being left behind, and the train would stop. Finally, wanting a more active role, they took turns at holding on to the tiller handles. I straddled them, tried to guide the tiller with them and accidentally ran over more plants than I care to mention.
Perhaps it is because I work at a Benedictine monastery that I have long held a rather monastic vision of the life of prayer: regular periods of time set aside each day for stillness, silence, Scripture reading and other devotions. But I am not a monk, and even monks are busy. Like many I know, I struggle constantly to find a way to nurture my relationship with God while at the same time juggling the various responsibilities of adult life as husband, father, farmer, carpenter, employee and so forth. I have tried the Liturgy of the Hours, journaling, meditation of various ecumenical flavors, the Rosary, you name it, always seeking some silver bullet or magical combination that will order the day and assuage my ever-present Catholic guilt that I am not doing enough spiritually. Most of these practices have been of some help, but managing to stay at them consistently, particularly amid the exigencies of parenting young children and farming, has generally proven a task far beyond me.
The Rhythms of the Spirit
Even though I fail at these practices as often as not, they are still valuable to me. I do not want to give up trying to allow them a rightful place in the rhythm of my days and weeks and months. But if true spiritual growth means getting these practices firmly ensconced in my life’s routine, then I’m sunk—as are many of us, I suspect.
I still think routine is essential for staying spiritually grounded. But to my mind, what is important about the routine is not that it follow some prescribed form of piety or devotion (although it can), but that it simply connects a person to essential things. For me, during much of the year that connective routine is the manual work of operating an organic farm and trying to tend the earth kindly and well: tilling, planting, weeding, harvesting, spreading manure, cutting firewood, fixing machinery and tools. For my wife, it is changing diapers, nursing, cooking and preserving, and minding young children as a stay-at-home parent.
Even a good routine, however, can become a rut, or a god—especially for someone with a driven, task-oriented personality like mine. When my daughters bounded down through the fields to upset my well-laid plans, they came also as holy interruptions, as messengers from the world of kairos time. They reminded me that while God may well be found in the grounding rhythms of my morning work, God is also and more insistently present in the very things that upset those rhythms.
I did not get as much farm work done that morning as I had hoped, and what I did accomplish was not done as well or quickly as I would have managed without the company of my daughters. Nor did I have the soul-feeding interior silence and solitude I had planned on. But I was fed nonetheless, and transformed by an incarnational, unexpected grace. Wendell Berry has it right when he insists that one of the most important products of a farm is not just the harvest, but the content of the farmer’s mind and character. If so, then that morning, in saying yes to the blessed interruption of my children, I reaped bounteously.