It was a colorful day, with blue and white sky and hillsides dappled red and gold. The sun was bright and warm, the black dirt cool and damp. There were potatoes and carrots still in the ground, the last of the vegetable garden, and it was a day in between the rains – a day to finally finish the garden for the year and put it to bed. I love square foot gardening – I can plant exactly 9 seed potatoes in my 3-foot square, and harvest just enough to last us through a winter’s worth of fennel-roasted or garlic-mashed potatoes. And if I’m lucky, I’ll have a few left by the first of June which are just starting to sprout long leggy things from their eyes (ooh, try to picture that!) and I can use those to start my new crop.
I use a small garden fork to get me started, but end up sifting through the dirt with my bare fingers, it feels so earthy, and love to pop out those spuds, gently brush off most of the clinging soil and place them in my bucket. I remember planting that piece of budded eye last spring, ignored it all summer except to pick off an occasional potato beetle and now find it solidly fascinating to harvest the miracle of growth and know I can put a pile of produce in our little root cellar.
The carrots also fill an entire square, and I actually thinned them pretty well this year so they have grown nice and straight without too many tiny ones. Kneeling or sitting next to the box, I can take hold of a green carrot top with one hand, rock it back and forth just a bit with my other hand as I shove my fingers down into that cool dark soil and pop up the carrot. In one motion I swipe off most of the dirt while twisting off the green tops with the other hand. The tops will go into the compost pile, and the carrot root goes into my cart. One after another, grab, pop, swipe, twist, I am like a machine. Pretty soon I am not even thinking about what I am doing, and realize I am working like in a frenzy. There are a lot of carrots here, and I want to be done already. The clouds are moving in. My back hurts, and the tendonitis in my elbow is screaming.
Funny, but in one instant I am reminded of an old monk I once watched harvesting carrots. I don’t remember exactly when, or why, but many, many years ago, it must have been in the early fall, I was visiting a Benedictine monastery, the beautiful Weston Priory in Vermont. While strolling through the lovely grounds, I came upon the large, tidy, fenced-in vegetable garden. There in the middle of the garden, kneeling in the straw, was an old monk in a rough brown robe. I watched as he unearthed each carrot, one by one, and reverently laid it out in front of him, creating a straight row of orange and green against the soil. He worked in a rocking motion, back and forth, and from where I stood, it looked like he bobbed in prayer over each carrot. The whole scene was filled with an astonishing peace and completeness.
I actually stood and watched the monk for quite a while. It seemed to me an inviting example of what Brother Lawrence calls “practicing the presence of God”. I was captivated by his deliberateness, alone there in the garden, cultivating discipline. I don’t think he ever noticed me. The image was very vivid, and I did nothing more with it at the time than tuck it away.
Here then, years later in my own garden one late fall afternoon, I considered the discipline of harvesting carrots, and decided to give it a go. Each carrot, a singular gift. Each root, from a tiny seed placed in the soil months ago. Each one, unique and unlike all the others. I tried to slow down enough to consider each carrot as I pulled it from the earth. I laid it down, tops and all, along the edge of the planting box, instead of tossing it right into the cart. I noticed the gentle softness of the leafy greens. I noticed the heady aroma of fresh carrots, its own perfume. I noticed the sweetness of the rich soil. I noticed beauty, simplicity. One single carrot after another. I noticed quietness, peace. God was there. I imagined Him enjoying each carrot, even as I did. Time slowed. I slowed. I actually started to listen. For a short while anyway.
Then I’d had enough. After about four dozen carrots, which, at maybe 5 seconds each, is only 4 minutes, I was ready to be done. I was ready to finish the carrots, rake the garden out, empty the compost, clean up and go inside and make myself a cup of tea. The last section of carrots went grab, twist, plop, and the chore was finished. But when I straightened up and brushed the dirt off my hands and black-kneed levis, and looked down and saw the pretty row of colorful carrots serenely lying there, I realized what I’d missed. A powerful truth of spiritual discipline nearly bowled me over: “That’s why it’s called Discipline!” I couldn’t pull it off, not without concentration and disciplined effort anyway. I managed only four minutes of patience, then I couldn’t do it any longer. How much practice would it take to maintain that presence for an entire carrot crop??! And what a harvest of peace and grace that could be, indeed.
After I’d given my nails a good scrub and as I sipped my steaming cup of blueberry tea, I pulled Richard Foster’s book down off the shelf. It has been decades since I read Spiritual Disciplines. But there was something I wanted to be reminded of, and I found it, underlined: “Instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem…The classical disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths.” And that’s where I do want to live, really, in the depths. In the presence of God. And a brief four minutes is no measure. But something has stirred in me, and I sort of wonder if I may give it another go. Maybe not with carrots, at least not this year, but maybe I’ll go about my morning reading a little bit differently. Or, maybe I will need to join a monastery.
I’m gently encouraged as I remember that Jesus understood (Matthew 26:41) :
Couldn’t you stay awake even one hour? The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.