I am no gardener. Though I recall tending to my designated ‘plot’ in the suburban garden of my childhood, the passion never took root. My beloved, however, is a gardener. I appreciate the beauty, abundance and joy of what she does. Though the city balcony on which she has to work is frustratingly small, the soil that’s there feeds her soul, and mine, in the most tangible ways.
Fred Bahnson is a gardener, a passionate one, and a theologian too. His book Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith is perhaps the most significant book I have read in the last year. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, Bahnson is now director of a seminary based ‘food, faith and religious leadership’ initiative. More importantly, he has dedicated a significant part of his adult life to the establishment of community gardens, those that give expression to a discipleship of the soil.
As a memoir, Soil and Sacrament traces Bahnson’s journey from the establishment of Anathoth—a faith-based community garden in rural North Carolina—to his own farm where he lives and works the connections between earth, food and faith. In between he takes a year to reflect and travel. Inspired by the prayer of the early Christian ascetics, ‘We beg you, God, make us truly alive’, Bahnson goes in search of ways to live such a prayer through his visits to four gardens, each coinciding with one of the four seasons and a related liturgical festival.
‘This journey was a quest to find those modern prophets who might teach us all better ways to be at home in the world. I visited a Trappist monastery in the South Carolina low country where I prayed the Divine Office with the monks and learned to grow mushrooms. At a model community garden started by several Protestant churches in the mountains of North Carolina I asked a blessing over a potluck meal and renewed my faith in community. I ran a prayer gauntlet with Pentecostal organic farmers and meth-cooks, turned-coffee-roasters in Washington’s Skagit Valley. And finally, in what struck me as the completion of a sacred circle, I traveled to a Jewish organic farm in the Berkshires where I davened in a red yurt in the predawn hours, celebrating the bounty of the fall harvest according to an ancient tradition. … And everywhere I went, I witnessed how our yearning for real food is inextricably bound up in our spiritual desire to be fed.’
It is his account of these four communities and their gardens that makes up the bulk of the book, but it is Bahnson’s ability to weave together seamlessly his experience with intelligent theological reflection that makes this more than a collection of interesting stories. Bahnson writes beautifully, feels and thinks deeply and, I sense, struggles as much with himself as he does for a faith planted securely in the earth. For me, it is this that makes the book such a gift.
His own words of summary are better than mine:
‘I said before that soil is a portal to another world, but I’ve since learned that it’s not just one world. Working with the soil opens us inward to find a God eager to lavish upon us God’s mercy and compassion and love. Soil also opens us outward, where we learn to receive the fruits of this good earth, and where we also discover that ours is not the only hunger. Soil work reveals the joyful messiness of human life where we find others who need us, and whom we need in return. How we hunger is who we are. We are each one part pain and one part desire, and we should not be ashamed that our ache to be filled is so great, so overwhelming. God gave us this hunger, and we should not squander it on lighter fare. As a stream will run downward until it joins the immensity of the sea, so will our soul seek the level Ground of our being. It is our desire, after all, that makes us most like God.’
Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.