Share God's Nature
In May I drove up to Bishop’s Ranch, which is an Episcopal retreat outside of Healdsburg, for a conference. I left my car at the lower end of the parking lot and found a path that went the back way up the little hill to the conference center, and when I came out of the trees at top I found a remarkable sight. There, as expected, was the grand vista across the Russian River valley to Mt. St. Helena, but at my feet, growing on the side of the hill in a small patch about the size of this room, was a beautiful stand of grain. It stood dense and tall and free of weeds. The pale gray-green ears were already fully-formed, and rippled gently in the breeze. I stopped in my tracks, gazing with admiration. Also curiosity. There was a little hand-lettered sign posted there, that said “Heirloom Sonora wheat,” but it gave no indication as to who had planted it, or why.
I passed the wheat patch repeatedly over the next couple of days, on the way to and from my car. I meant to ask one of the ranch staff to tell me more about it, but I never got around to it, and the conference ended with me none the wiser. In fact I pretty much forgot about it until the week before last, when I got a phone call that cleared up the mystery. It was from Elizabeth DeRuff, an Episcopal priest friend whom I last saw almost five years ago when she came here for the service formally installing me as Priest-in-Charge of St. John’s. We hadn’t gotten much of a chance to talk at that event, so Elizabeth began the call by catching me up a little on what she’s been doing.
She told me that in the years since I knew her at St. Gregory’s Church in San Francisco, she had become passionately interested in sustainable agriculture. She tried for a while to set up an educational farm in Marin County, where she lives. But some developers outbid her for the land she wanted, and in the meantime she became more and more focused on questions about bread, and the wheat that it is made of. She was calling me, it turned out, to see if I would like to come up to Bishop’s Ranch last Saturday to help harvest her first crop of wheat. I said I didn’t think I could make it on such short notice, and then she asked me if my congregation in Petaluma might like to have a share of the flour once they’d threshed the grain and ground it in a stone mill.
Because Elizabeth’s purpose is not just to play wheat farmer. She planted her crop at Bishop’s Ranch because Episcopalians from all over the country meet there, and she wants to get church communities to start to think more deeply about the bread that we place on our altar tables every Sunday. We put it there in the climactic act of our weekly offering of worship. We invoke the Holy Spirit over it and proclaim it to be the gift of God for the People of God, and the Body of Christ. We eat it together to experience the life-giving truth of our communion with God and with each other.
And I could go on and on, as sacramental theologians have done for centuries, about the symbolic significance of this bread and the ritual by which we eat it. But what Elizabeth is asking is how it might deepen our engagement with the symbol if we thought about this bread as food. She’s asking how much more nourishment it might give to our souls if we knew where it came from and how it is made. She’s asking what difference it would make if we experienced this holy eating not as a separate species from the eating we do three times a day, every day, but as its supreme embodiment.
Now, we’ve already been engaging with these questions here at St. John’s. I arrived at this church five years ago yesterday, and I hadn’t been here more than a couple of months before Susan Hadenfeldt approached me about using homemade bread for communion in place of commercially-produced wafers. So for almost five years we’ve been worshipping with bread that Susan and others make by hand in our own church kitchen. If you’d come by our office last Wednesday morning you would have smelled it baking. It’s not always consistent in the size or shape of the loaves, or their thickness or texture. Sometimes it’s perfect, but sometimes it’s too dry and crumbly, or too floury, or too hard. It takes time to break it up, and it’s difficult to get the size of the pieces just right, so there’s enough for everyone but not too much left over.
It would certainly be more convenient to just use the little wafers that you buy from the church supply company, which are stamped out by a machine so they’re perfectly uniform. They keep for months, and you just count out the exact number you need and put the rest back on the shelf. But convenience isn’t the highest value in the Christian religion. That variable, perishable homemade bread speaks to what is most precious and eternal in a way that those dry little wafers just don’t. It’s a little like the difference between getting a Hallmark Card for your Birthday and one your child made herself.
On Elizabeth DeRuff’s website, I found this quotation from the Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry:
“Eating with the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance – is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”
This is as good a description of the Holy Eucharist as you could ask for. The Eucharist is an enactment of connection, an experience and celebration of dependence and gratitude. And it is meant to be pleasurable, in the fullest sense of the word. But almost hidden in Berry’s very apt description is a critique of how our culture has diminished the pleasure of eating. It has reduced it to a few simple considerations that are flatly utilitarian: food, we have come to believe, should be quick and convenient to prepare; it should be pre-packaged in standardized individual portions; and it should be cheap. We have come to see eating as the equivalent of putting fuel in a machine, and that the system that does this most efficiently is the best. Berry sums up this attitude toward eating in a single word—ignorance. More often than not, this ignorance covers up ugly truths about how our food comes to us—truths about the erosion and compaction and sterilization of the soil, about the overuse of petrochemicals and the depletion and pollution of groundwater, about the collapse of genetic diversity, and the inhumane treatment of animals, and the over-fishing of oceans, about the exploitation of migrant labor. But we are also ignorant of what is beautiful about our food, and the whole fabric of complexly interwoven relationships that put it on our plates—relationships that are evolutionary and historical, familial and social, economic and ecological. We live at a time when there is a growing hunger to remake those connections, to begin to re-weave the fabric of culture and nature that holds us in life. And why shouldn’t Christian churches, with our focus on holy food, be at the center of this process of healing?
In church we enact our interconnectedness, we celebrate our dependence and gratitude, with a symbolic meal of bread. It can only enhance our experience of mystery to know where that bread came from, and what was the true cost of producing it, in water and soil and energy, in time, and labor, and love. It matters whether reverence came into the picture only at the moment that bread was placed upon the altar, or whether the whole process of ploughing and sowing, cultivation and harvest, of threshing and milling, of mixing and kneading and baking was, in some sense, an act of worship, of which our ritual blessing and breaking, our taking and eating, is the consummation and the crown. Because when we eat with the consciousness of just how precious and miraculous this sacramental food really is, we receive the gift, not merely of a piece of bread, but of the love and mercy of God that gives life to the world.
This piece was originally published here.