I write this not out of a place triumph or a place of happiness – I wish that were true – but out of a place of loneliness, confusion about my vocation, and a general feeling of having failed as a human being. I add this preface, not because it is completely relevant to what I am going to say, but perhaps to give it some context in case it sounds otherwise too unrealistic or idealistic. One of the curses of being a Christian is that knowing and seeing the truth – yes, even teaching the truth and writing about it – is not always a guarantee of feeling it, and maybe it is even sometimes imperative that we don’t feel it, so that others might know that being in love with truth can also be a matter of darkness – that they too, feeble and blank though they feel, might also know they are capable of loving and being loved, and that darkness is not synonymous with absence.
Moving on to the main topic, what I want to write about today is the reading from the Gospel on Sunday, the famous parable of the sower. For a good part of my life, this always seemed like a terrifying reading. God’s word comes to us like seed spread by the sower, but the seed faces so many perils – hard ground, weeds, predators. It always terrified me because there didn’t seem to be a point – God sends his word to us, and you are I suppose lucky if your heart exists in that perfect storm of conditions that produce thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold, but you are more likely to be one of the others with weeds, predators, and a hardened heart, or a combination of all three. From my former Protestant perspective, this was all the more terrifying because it cut one off from the one thing that was supposed to be able to change a person. The Bible, so the typical Evangelical/Protestant mentality goes, is the primary way God gets into and changes our hearts. So this was a terrifying conundrum without a solution. What was needed to deal with the hardened heart, the distractions, and the ravaging beasts was the power of God’s Word – what else could free us? And yet here we see the Word itself prone to these powers – it cannot free us because it is being eaten by the birds, killed and scorched by the sun and hardness of the soil, and choked. So we have a problem; change – salvation – comes from hearing the Word of God. Yet, in order to hear the Word of God, these problems need to be out of the way – and the Word of God, subject as it is to these problems, seems powerless against them.
This past Sunday, though, the meaning struck me in a different and much more hopeful way. Christ is here not simply referring to individuals consigned to categorical and inexorable fates – here is a “hard person,” here is a distracted one, here is a receptive one, and lucky for you if you are the latter and too bad if you are the former. No, he is talking about the landscape of our hearts – and every landscape is different, and has various of these problems and blessings at various sites of the geography of the heart. When a farmer encounters problematic land in his field, he doesn’t just throw up his hands and give up; no, he removes the stones, sets up a scarecrow, and weeds the garden. And this set me to thinking – the point of this parable is neither to discern ourselves the perfect soil and gloat over it, nor to discern ourselves the problematic soil and despair. No, the real question is how we care for the soil. How do we till it? Keep the birds away? Make sure it is not scorched by the sun? Get rid of the weeds? But the problem I always came across as a Protestant was that the only way to do these things was engagement with the Bible. But at the same time, one could not effectively hear the Bible till these things were done. So I ended up in a cycle of despair.
I will not say I am less despairing at the moment – it will be a lifelong struggle and temptation for me – but I will say that what suddenly made sense for me, when I heard this passage in the Catholic context, is the Church; the Church is God’s instrument for tending to the soil in which he throws the seed. It will be too complicated at the moment to get into any kind of deep ecclesiology here, but perhaps I can best convey what I mean with a few examples. We have the sacrament of reconciliation to till the soil of our hearts, to keep us from becoming hard; we have the nutrience of the Eucharist to enrich our hearts, watered with water and blood from His side; we find shade in the shadow of the psalms we pray, and practices of prayer – whether something as simple and childlike as the rosary or something as complicated as the hours – are effective in driving off the birds and supplanting weeds that might otherwise grow up. This – finding methods of prayer that I can actually do – has been so important for me. Rather than looking at what to avoid, as is my Protestant proclivity, daily prayer – humble, with modest aims, and even seemingly silly at times – does for me what the roaring flash of zealous Evangelical prayer could never do. It takes me through my life with God, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health. But it is a small thing. Always a small thing. The small prayers that we pray often are so much more blessed than the long and elaborate ones – or, for that matter, the intensely personal Evangelical ones – that we barely ever have the energy to pray. Our garden – the garden of the Song of Songs – is tended by small things. It is tended in those little things between two lovers – the glances, the jokes, the indescribable graces, yes, even sometimes a childlike theatricality – that are the glue of real relationships, and that we will never achieve in our more earnest prayers. O You Who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for Your voice; let me hear it. Make haste, my Beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices.