One of the pitfalls of contemplative practice is that we can easily get stuck in our heads. Combing through the Bible or other books for lectio divina, investing time to daily prayer and meditation, and nurturing our faith through study or devotional reading - these are all fine pursuits, but, especially when combined with the kind of white collar work so common in western society, they can result in a spirituality that is abstract, overly mental, and divorced from the messy realities of life.
With this in mind, I asked a couple of friends on a recent visit to Asheville NC if they could recommend teachers or resources for fostering a more earthy, embodied spirituality. They immediately pointed me to Fred Bahnson, who they knew as the director of the "Food, Faith and Religious Leadership Initiative" at Wake Forest Divinity School. Then - almost as if heaven itself were conspiring for me to discover this wonderful new voice of spirituality and justice - not two weeks later another friend who does book marketing sent me a review copy of Bahnson's recently published memoir, Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith.
I'm happy to say that this book delights me on multiple levels. Not only does it address head on my concern that we need to find ways for keeping spirituality grounded, but it ties that concern in with the web of social and political issues surrounding food production. How we eat has a significant impact on how we live, and this book considers not only issues of raising food holistically (with an emphasis on permaculture and organic gardening), but also the cost to communities when food production is industrialized, with food items shipped around the world, and luxury products like coffee are grown sometime to the detriment of local economies. Bahnson touches on issues like these when he introduces the readers to the resistance movement in Central America or the impact of community gardening to race relations in rural North Carolina. But Bahnson also understands that the politicsof food eventually points to the spirituality of food, and so his journey toward learning more about the relationship between food and faith takes him from his own faith-based community garden to a farm at a Jewish Retreat Center, a coffee roasting program at an urban ministry in the Pacific Northwest, and - most delightful of all to me - the mushroom farm at a Cistercian Abbey in South Carolina. Whether dealing with Catholics or Protestants, Jews or Pentecostals, all the people Bahnson visits, prays with, and works with, share a clear understanding that the work they do with their hands to grow and produce food is an extension of their devotion to God and commitment to living a spiritual life.
There are lots of unexpected treasures in this book, from the character studies of the Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey to the sober consideration of the political oppression which is a way of life in parts of Central America, to a brilliant re-visioning of keeping kosher on the part of one of the Jewish farmers in Connecticut. Bahnson's style as a writer is simple yet elegant, so he does a fine job at making a variety of both rural and urban settings come alive in his narrative. He also knows his history, and so weaves in figures from the tradition like the Desert Fathers and Mothers and Saint Benedict, to show that seeking God's blessing through a proactive relationship with the land has always been embedded with the search for union with God through prayer.
If I have a quibble with this book, it would be that I never really felt challenged to do more than reflect on the author's own wonderful journey of heartfelt commitment to the earth and the husbandry of its many blessings. A brief epilogue offers a few brief thoughts on how anyone can start their own community garden, and a bibliography offers three pages of suggestions for further reading. But that left me (pardon the pun) hungry for more. Maybe Bahnson's next book can offer a more concrete challenge/invitation to all of us who do not currently farm or garden, to find ways that we can increase our own engagement with the blessings of the soil.