“But on a well-banked plot Odysseus found his father in solitude
Spading the earth around a young fruit tree.”
It is one of the most powerful images of Greek literature. An old man is tilling the soil around a young tree. Most likely he will never see the fruit of this tree, and so in some sense neither will he see the fruit of his work.
Yet he still sows seeds, and tills the earth.
Working the earth can uniquely mirror, reveal, and instantiate the profound richness of truly human work—that is ultimately a cultivation of the fullness of human life.
Real human life is a masterpiece beyond compare. It requires the work of cultivating many things—from seeds in the earth, to contexts in the household, to dispositions in the soul.
Sometimes the work of sowing and cultivating is a delight, while sometimes it is a chore that wearies, weakens, and discourages. It calls for faith—in things we simply don’t understand, for hope—of things that yet can be, later, and for love: love for persons whose flourishing gives meaning and purpose to it all.
Yesterday I was pulling weeds and preparing soil in my overgrown, sunbaked garden. It is time to plant fall greens. As I was doing so I got to thinking. Even in an annual garden, one day I will likely sow seeds the fruit of which I will not live to see and to harvest.
Surely there is a grace in this. It can focus my attention on an astounding gift: to have the opportunity to labor as an exercise of faith, and of hope and of love, even when the fruit is dubious and hidden from sight. Perhaps the notion, nay the reality of the fruit of labor is itself richer and wider than I have realized.
Homer (8th century B.C.) is the great epic poet, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
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Husband, father, and professor of Philosophy. LifeCraft springs from one conviction: there is an ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families; and it is worth our time to hearken to it. Let’s rediscover it together. Learn more.
The father of a friend of mine was so provident in the care of his family that the firewood he supplied for the home served his wife and daughters for many years after his death. They were able to receive the fruit of his love and care for them on a very human level, even after his humanity was gone from them.
Nicolette, Thank you for sharing this! This is a wonderful and beautiful example.
A song, now, in honour of one that is my good friend; a song about a near kinsman of mine, and the vineyard that he had. This friend, that I love well, had a vineyard in a corner of his ground, all fruitfulness. He fenced it in, and cleared it of stones, and planted a choice vine there; built a tower, too, in the middle, and set up a wine-press in it. Then he waited for grapes to grow on it, and it bore wild grapes instead.
I have had the experience over many years of providing psychological counsel to patients when some would be moved to send off a letter of thanks many years later detailing how something I said made a crucial difference in their lives. Not only did these letters move me toward greater humility but they illustrated how words – simply spoken in the search for truth – were like seeds planted. And like so many different kinds of seeds planted, we’re not likely to know just how many more germinated and took root. However, we just might find out if Heaven is in our own future.
Deacon Edward, This is a beautiful reflection–revealing just how rich are the analogies to planting seeds in the earth. Many thanks.
Yes, and now some 10 years have flowed since l was honored to be given the grace of receiving your insightful wisdom in South Carolina. You were a beacon of hope during a trying time and l reflected upon your beautiful words just the other day.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Ed, Just now saw this. Thank you for your kind words. I’ve thought about you in the intervening years hoping, you were well.
Another beautiful post. Thank you, John. It brought to mind this quote I read recently from John Ruskin, which I thought you and other readers might like:
“It is one of the appointed conditions of the labor of men that, in proportion to the time between the seed-sowing and the harvest, is the fulness of the fruit; and that generally, therefore, the farther off we place our aim, and the less we desire to be ourselves the witnesses of what we have labored for, the more wide and rich will be the measure of our success. Men cannot benefit those that are with them as they can benefit those who come after them; and of all the pulpits from which human voice is ever sent forth, there is none from which it reaches so far as from the grave.”
This post was timely as it came when I was feeling discouraged as a mother and despite by feelings of faith and hope, I was close to despair and giving up in regard to circumstances in the lives of my children. However, like Deacon Edward, someone thanked me for my kindness and for my words and then this article arrived to renew my strength, The Ruskin quote is giving me much food for thought, thank you for sharing it Andrew. Humility is required in our attitudes to giving fo ourselves and I am reminded of that though his gracious words.
Cate, God’s Providence is a truly amazing REALITY. I thank God for the circumstances in your life that led to a moment of grace, of healing (even if only partial), and of insight. I sincerely thank you for sharing this. It is an inspiration and encouragement to all of us.
Wow. Thank you very much for sharing this, Andrew! John Ruskin has remarkable insight and power of expression.
Is it not a saying of yours, It is four whole months before harvest comes? Why, lift up your eyes, I tell you, and look at the fields, they are white with the promise of harvest already. The wages paid to him who reaps this harvest, the crop he gathers in, is eternal life, in which sower and reaper are to rejoice together. And here the proverb fits, which is true enough, One man sows, and another reaps. The harvest I have sent you out to reap is one on which you bestowed no labour; others have laboured, and it is their labours you have inherited. Jn 4:35-38 (tr. Knox)
Beautiful! Thank you.
Thanks, John. This brings to mind one my favorite poems, by Wendell Berry:
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
I love it. Thank you Mad Farmer!