Sacramental Farming
September 26, 2022

Caryll Houselander begins her Passion of the Infant Christ with a meditation on seeds and sowing.

“The countryman is not impatient,” she writes, “when flowers and fruit disappear and winter lingers.” His seed is in the ground, and he is “as conscious of life in winter, when the crust of the earth is iron and not a leaf is on the hedges, as he is when the fields are green and the bough is white.”

To the farmer, the mystery of life is “the mystery of the seed”: “He knows that the life sleeping in the earth is stronger than that which assails it, that the life that is in all living is stronger than death.”

He knows the paradox of the seed. It is “one, but multiple. Dry, but contains the water of life. Little, but fills the earth. Black, but is white bread. It is within the ripe ear of wheat, and the ripe ear of wheat is within it. Scattered on the wind it is not lost, but carries life wherever the wind blows. It sows the meadows and the woods. It sows the cleft in the rock. It sows the roadside and the ditch. . . . Buried, it springs from the grave, a green herb of life” (1-2).

From this, Houselander teases out a sacramental vision of the world. Her premise is “the man who grows wheat . . . lives, even if he does not fully realize it, in harmony with the Eternal Law of Love” (4).

How? Because “he sees the wonder of life in the frailest living, how certain flowers and fruits and certain crops and birds and insects are in the keeping of some unseen power . . . the keeping of infinite love, and that nothing, even when it dies, is forsaken by that love.” He’s in harmony with Love because, when he holds a grain of wheat, he knows he holds “the germ of life” (4).

That grain of wheat is the difference between starving and having enough, but its mystery isn’t just a mystery of “not being dead.” The grain of wheat signifies fullness of life:

the delight that he has in his work, the bracing of his body to the frost in the morning air, the stretch and ripple of his muscles, his enjoyment of food and drink, the blessedness of sleep – the answer of his senses to the loveliness of the world around him, the sight of his roses in the dew, the smell of his apples in the loft, the touch of his children’s hair, the volume of infinitesimal sound that fills his silence. . . . the life of the wheat gives him the strength of restraint, the power to pity and comfort, to face and accept his responsibilities, to carry the burdens of his family (4-5).

His bread gives life not only to the farmer himself but to his wife, children, and friends. His bread is “one life in them all.” In sharing the fruit of his labor, he shares himself because “He gave his body to be their bread, and he wrestled with storm and drought, with frost and scorching heat. When he worked until darkness covered his land, when the sweat ran down his face as he tilled the earth.”

His children are “truly children of the fields of wheat,” and he’s not only their father but “the laboring man who has given them the joy and the health and the beauty of their life, in giving his body to the sowing and growing and reaping of their bread” (5).

Earning a living, Houselander concludes, is never just earning a wage. It involves “working for a sacramental life” (5), a life in imitation of the Bread from heaven to give Himself as our food.

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