sweet reads: soil and sacrament

Soil and Sacrament, Fred Bahnson, Simon & Schuster, 2013.

“To grow and share food with others in a garden is to enter a holy country. American spirituality is discovering itself anew as people of faith reconnect with the land…Many of those I’ve come to meet in this loosely woven movement view soil as a sacrament: a physical manifestation of God’s presence, a channel of Divine grace. They know soil is a portal that joins us to the world to come even while rooting us more deeply in this one.”

Soil and Sacrament tells the spiritual journey of author Fred Bahnson as he learns to connect with God through soil. Built around visits to four faith communities—Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, and Jewish—over the course of one liturgical year, the book invites readers to see God at work in the process of caring for the land.

From an Advent visit to a mushroom growing monastery, an Eastertide visit to a community garden, a Pentecost visit to coffee growers and roasters, and a Sukkot visit to a Jewish farm, Bahnson discovers the power of prayer through silence, experiences God through caring for the needs of others, develops a deeper capacity for love through dreaming, and expands his understanding of Sabbath rest. Interwoven with each of these stories, Bahnson also shares the work of different farmers that first taught him to love and care for the land. A farm in Chiapas, Mexico where he began envisioning what his life’s work might entail, a plot of land named Africa where he was introduced to the art of tending soil.

Soil and Sacrament serves as a testament to the ability of working the land to reconnect worshippers with the God that formed them out of soil, adam from adamah. The process of tending the soil and ushering life to grow through it develops in farmers and gardeners a deeper understanding of spiritual living.

 “The land is not just a natural resource,” Bahnson says, “it is a living entity worthy of our deference and servitude, our watchfulness, and our best attempts at preservation.”

I heard Bahnson speak last September at Princeton Seminary’s Just Food conference, where he told of his time with each of these four faith communities. I deeply admire and resonate with his story of early adulthood, wrestling to discover God’s calling on his life. Though passionately committed to renouncing his own life, “being willing to stand up for the oppressed in places like Palestine and Columbia,” he sensed that “what Jesus had in mind for [himself] was something much less glamorous.” Bahnson describes his restless searching for the next plan, which left him exhausted, unrooted, and anxious about what lay ahead. Shifting the setting from his rooftop in Chiapas, Mexico to instead a dock in Cotonou, Benin, or a river in Iringa, Tanzania, or a couch in Somerville, Massachusetts, Bahnson’s story of restless worry is an exact description of my own confusion over the past eight years.

In the years since the publication of Soil and Sacrament, Bahnson has begun a leadership development program for young religious leaders through Wake Forest Divinity School. Pulling together a dozen leaders each February, he provides space to dream together and envision what individual vocations focused on food, health, and ecological well-being could look like. I look forward to joining this group of Re:Generate fellows later this month, to set aside my own restless wandering and settle into the path that God is sure to slowly reveal.

Soil and Sacrament is a book for anyone that loves to garden or to eat, anyone that longs to experience God in a tactile way, anyone that aspires to better understand communion with the land and with one another.

Bahnson’s poetic prose draws readers into the dirt and up to the table; he not only shares the stories of those who interact with soil in a sacramental way, but commissions readers to do the same.

“The spiritual ecology of prayer always includes such places of withdrawal—landings, tree stands, a chair by the wood stove—unadorned places where your soul can touch down for a while and simply be. It is in such silent emptiness that God is waiting. Here there is no need to plow the air with constant chatter. Let the mind’s field lie fallow, such places tell us, let the mycelial strands of prayer run in the dark and see what fruit may come. And when you leave, those same strands will follow under your feet, undergirding everything you do.”

Looking to purchase Soil and Sacrament? Find it here: Soil and Sacrament