22 July 2009

The Good Soil of Humility

I was struck today by the Gospel for ordinary time and the possibility of the Word of God taking such root within us that it would produce a fruitful harvest in an almost unthinkable range. We all know the parable: a sower goes out to sow in the Palestinian countryside --- a harsh and difficult territory for farmers --- and therefore sows seed all around, hoping to maximize his return. Some seed falls on rocky ground, some on a pathway where it was immediately eaten by birds, some on ground choked with thorns, while some is snatched away by "the evil one," and some falls on good soil. The seed which falls on rocky ground where there is little soil springs up quickly but dies in the sun because there are no real roots to hold and nourish it; the shoots from the seed which fell among thistles is choked out by the stronger, more rapacious plants. But the seed which fell on good soil grew well and produced a rich harvest of 30, 60, or even a hundredfold (an amount the Palestinan farmers would have found unimaginable).

Jesus goes on to explain to his disciples who are troubled and perplexed by the fact that he is always speaking to others in parables (they want something more straightforward, something more informative than formative I think!), that the seed is the Word of God and the various soils represent various kinds of hearers, one whose hearing of the Word causes immediate joy, but because the Word strikes no root in him, has no staying power. When troubles come on account of the Word he falls away at once. Another hears the Word but is so taken with "worldly" cares and wealth (including status, etc) that the Word has no way to grow and so is barren in his life. In another hearer who has no understanding of what he has heard, the evil One snatches the Word away and carries off what was "sown in his heart". And in one person who both hears and understands it, the Word bears an immense harvest.

A couple of things are interesting in this parable (and in Matthew's interpretation of it). The first is that the Word which represents the Sovereignty or Kingdom of God is "sown" in our hearts and it is there that the seed finds the soil in which it will either grow to fruition, wither and die, be carried off by some other power or choked to death by other values and concerns. I have written a number of times here about the human heart as a primarily theological term and a dialogical reality, the reality created by God's call, voice, breath, song, etc, and the response we give to that, so I am not going to go into that further here except to refer the reader to past posts (cf labels, heart as a dialogical reality, for instance).

The second is that one must hear the Word in a way which includes understanding. Now this notion of understanding has come up for me recently in several ways. First, during retreat Fr Basil Matthews made some comments about understanding [the Word of God or the Rule of Benedict] being a form of "standing under." Just as knowing God is really about allowing ourselves to be known intimately by him, so too is understanding God a matter of allowing him to have sovereignty over us. Real understanding or knowing is not an intellectual act (or certainly not only that), but what happens when we allow God to dwell and act within us as sovereign Lord.

Secondly, I ran into the same notion of "standing under" while working on a homily there when one of the readings (Proverbs) connected real understanding with a way of being vis-a-vis the Wisdom of God --- something we were to assiduously seek out like buried treasure, the reading noted. At the same time I also read a passage from Gerald May's book on The Awakened Heart which referred to understanding as "standing under." And thirdly, here it is again with a reference to a person not understanding what they have heard and so, having the Word snatched away and carried off from their hearts by "the Evil One." In this case too, understanding is a matter of really standing under this Word in a way which marks one as being from and of it, as one belonging to it and as one who carries it into the world as the standard (and basis) of their lives. To not understand, to not hold this Word as precious, to fail to allow it to govern our lives and be sovereign in them is to allow another power or principality to steal it from us.

It is important to say something here about the soil of our hearts which either allows the seed to take root, or not. In fact I know that my own heart is as diverse as the terrain of the parable. There is soil packed down as well-worn paths (the places --- or the self-images --- I am comfortable and safe travelling on --- or moving through the world with); there is rocky ground (places of hardening due to woundedness, stubbornness, fear and insecurity, etc), thistle-strewn soil (the stuff that grows up because barrenness is a bit too scary, for instance, or because the Word had not been heard despite a hunger for it: nature abhors a vaccum and the human heart is the same). There are vast regions of wilderness I have never explored (and some I have!) which are inhabited by all manner of demons, and there are patches of good soil as well.

What I am aware of is the need for cultivation, a clearing of the rocks and thistles I allow to take the space God created for himself, for instance, or the need to feed and water the soil which is, or will soon be, ready for the Word --- and of course, something which requires the exploration of those desert spaces which remain largely unknown and frightening to me. What I know is that in my own heart the soil is not all the soil (humus) of humility -- the rich ground out of which life really springs and all the other virtues grow; it is not all the ground which allows God's Word to take root and his sovereignty to come to fruition in the Kingdom --- the garden of real and sustaining friendship with God --- and of course, that is precisely the soil which is needed.

Jesus wants us to hear and understand (stand under) the Word of God. In the Markan version of the parable the passage begins with the imperative, "Listen!" and in today's version from Matthew, the parable closes with the command, "Listen, those of you who have ears to hear with!" Once again he makes it clear that we share in a singular way in the story of God's search for a unique counterpart, one who is from God and of him, one who responsively embodies the Word of God in a unique way. He wants our hearts ready for this Word (a Word already present and active within us) in a way which allows it to be sovereign in our lives and in our world. He wants us to reflect as exhaustively as he does the truth of the dialogical reality we are at the core of our being. The ground in which this Word springs to fruition, the humus which is rich and capable of sustaining the growth of the seed in today's parable is the good soil of humility, the good soil of truthfulness about who we are in light of God. If, empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, we can cultivate this soil and allow our hearts to be seedbeds of genuine humility, then the Word of God will indeed come to an immense harvest -- one which we ourselves could never have imagined.