Building soil, cultivating peace

High school students help tend the garden at Eco-Justice Center in Racine, Wisc. (Christin Tomy)

It's late, and the autumn insect chorus is accompanied tonight by the hum of a tractor still harvesting corn many hours after sunset. As I glance out the window to see the headlights moving slowly to and fro in the neighboring field, I muse that the farmer is probably trying to beat the rain in tomorrow's forecast. It seems somehow fitting that these plants should be harvested just as they sprouted: in the dark.

"The reign of God is reflected in seeds sown in a field," Sr. Pat Farrell reflected in her address to the LCWR assembly earlier this summer. "They grow during the night. Take note here. Seeds sprout in darkness, without tending. . . ." This is a humbling reminder, lest we think that we are the ones who build the reign of God through our own efforts.

In other words, these seeds take root only by the grace of God. We can't make them sprout on our own, but we can cooperate. As much as possible, we can create nurturing and favorable conditions; we can build fertile soil. Soil building is an unglamorous, hidden process that takes time and patience. No quick-fix fertilizer can ever do the job of a load of compost, good cover crops, and plant rotations and pairings that protect the health of the soil and the plants.

When I reflect on how I am drawn to build fertile soil in my life, one clear answer emerges: contemplation. Acting as half of the contemplation-action duo that is central to the Dominican charism (and many other religious orders), this sacred "time out" is essential to the authenticity of our work and our witness as Christian peacemakers.

Just like the slow work of soil building, contemplation is unglamorous and mundane. Most days it simply feels quiet or even empty, with no tangible results. I know in the deepest parts of me that little by little, this silence is nurturing my soil, connecting me to the Source of all Being, and helping me widen the space of my tent. However, I am still a product of my culture and society, in which efficiency, productivity, and personal achievement are prized above all. And so, I often feel inadequate or even selfish when I take time to be rather than succumb to my restless desire to do. When I'm busy, contemplation is often the first thing to go.

However, as Thomas Merton famously wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, "There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist . . . most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist . . . destroys the fruitfulness of [her] . . . work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

There is a shadow side to my deep desire to do good and to invest in the well-being of my brothers and sisters: at best, it's the temptation to do too much on my own and at worst, it's a tendency toward pride and self-centeredness. The more frenzied I let myself get the more the focus shifts, however imperceptibly, from God's movement to my efforts. I have come to learn that this can be a temptation for anyone actively involved in ministry — whether we are members of religious communities or not.

This week our community, in solidarity with faith communities around the world, observed the International Day of Peace with prayer. While we could have begun with organizing, planning, or acting, we opted instead to begin with prayer. To return to Sr. Pat Farrell's address, "The spaciousness of deep prayer readies our hearts for the in-breaking of the reign of Love." Rather than a passive resting place, contemplation prepares us move from inner peace to its outward expression. It teaches us to practice peace, as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, with every step.

In a wounded and broken world, perhaps the most important gift we can offer is to cultivate peace within ourselves. Can we boldly embrace the selfless, slow work of soil-building for the good of the whole? Can we nurture fertile silence in the midst of frenzied action and risk receiving what we hear there?

[Christin Tomy, OP, is a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. While living and working in Central and South America, she discovered a passion for ecological work, and she currently ministers as Care for Creation Coordinator at Sinsinawa Mound.]