Sunday’s Gospel lesson (John 11:1-45) was about the raising of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany. Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) also talks about Mary and Martha. In Luke’s story, Jesus is visiting their home, where Martha is distracted by the household tasks while Mary sits and listens to Jesus. When Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her with the work, Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part”. A common interpretation of this story is that Mary stands for the contemplative life and Martha stands for the active life.
If there is any distinction between contemplation and action, it’s become very fuzzy for me. Many years ago when I was deciding what to study and where to go from there, choosing between the two seemed like an essential piece of figuring out what to do with my life. Later on, I realized that contemplation often pushes us to action, and that the most effective and satisfying actions are rooted in contemplation. From there, the question became one of finding a “balance” between contemplation and action. But now the two seem to be so completely intertwined as to be indistinguishable from one another.
On Saturday I planted some seeds in a couple of raised beds, an activity that helped me see that the line between contemplation and action is so permeable as to be nonexistent. Not only does prayer often lead to action, but action often becomes prayer. It’s hard to tell where one starts and the other ends. Some achy muscles afterwards assured me that there was action involved, but a sensation of spiritual centeredness reminded me that there was contemplation involved as well.
Instead of planting vegetable seeds in rows or homogeneous groupings this year, I’m planting several varieties of seeds in the same space, following the principles of polyculture. There’s a lot planning and organization involved, figuring out which early seeds to plant together and what kinds of seeds and plants to have ready to fill in later on as early lettuces, radishes, peas and so forth are pulled from the garden. The planting itself, though, is purposely freeform; part of the idea of polyculture is to avoid a straight row of peas for a rabbit to easily munch along, to have some taller plants able to provide cooling shade for smaller plants that prefer a little less sun, and to prevent plant diseases through diversification.
I started with a few onion sets and bush pea seeds, which both need to be planted a couple of inches deep. I tossed the onion sets on the garden and then knelt down and planted them where they landed, the same way I plant daffodil bulbs for naturalizing. After the onions and peas, the rest of seeds were ones that could be scattered on the soil and then scratched into the soil.
To vary the patterns and promote true intermingling of the seeds, I did some squiggly rows from north to south and some from east to west. Some seeds were scattered in arcs or circles, and some in an X or a cross. The latter made me aware of what I had been doing all along – praying while planting. This wasn’t a spoken prayer, but a combination of bursts of thoughts about the work at hand, hopes for its results, gratitude for being outdoors in early April, and an absorbing task that gave me a steady focus.
There were prayers of adoration, awe at the beauty and joy of the bird’s songs and the early spring flowers blooming. There was thanksgiving for the day, the seeds, the return to time in the garden. There was confessional prayer as I remembered my personal contribution and our collective contribution to climate change and how that endangers subsistence farming for many people in the world. Planting seeds is always an act of hope. Mixed with that hope are prayers of intercession for the environment, for all of God’s creation. In the hope we have as we plant gardens and fields in a year when unusual and severe weather seems to have become a norm of sorts (the day I planted a record high temperature was recorded in Grand Island), we make a leap of faith, a statement that the powers of life and growth are ultimately stronger than the forces of death and destruction.
Early Sunday morning I watered the raised beds. The final layer of this polyculture planting was curly cress. Since it needs light to germinate, it gets pressed onto the top of the soil, and then needs to be kept moist until it sprouts and sends roots into the soil. Spending those few moments tending the seeds brought back the centeredness of planting.
Rooted in prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, confession, and intercession for God’s creation, I started out to church to read the story about Jesus and his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. On the way, we saw sandhill cranes that are still here in the Platte Valley. When we stopped the car to get another good look at them before they leave, they began dancing in the field. Hope is all around us!