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Cultivating the Soil and Soul

By Ragan Sutterfield
February 9, 2023 11 min read
What Gardening Taught Me About The Way of Prayer

This spring, when the last frost had gone and the world seemed suddenly washed in green, a friend gave my family six tomato plants.  My daughters helped me pick them out from the varieties on offer—cherry, slicers, sauce— and we took them home to plant in the warming soil.  In my front yard, the sunniest option, I had two garden beds from which to choose, both recently cleared of their winter cover of greens.  This was my first spring planting into the mature beds and what it revealed to me was a lesson in prayer.

I am a reader of too many gardening books, always experimenting with what I learn, and these two garden beds represented two methods of cultivation—one intensive and time-consuming, one embarrassingly easy.  The first bed was built by double digging—a process that involved several hours of tearing off the sod and shoveling trenches of soil that were then mixed with compost and returned to the bed.  Double digging is a method used by some of the best farmers I know and so, though it took a good deal of effort, I was satisfied with the process and expectant for the results.  In the end, the bed was filled with what looked like healthy soil and yielded well for that first year.

The second garden bed was built using a technique called sheet mulching.  This method is less labor intensive but takes more time to reach fruition.  I’ll spare you the details (good guides are readily available online), but it essentially involved closely mowing the grass, sprinkling biologically active compost, putting big sheets of cardboard down on top of the ground, and then layering organic matter including straw, compost, and wood chips above.  I did this in the summer and by mid-fall the bed was essentially ready to plant.

The conventional wisdom would seem to suggest that my double-dug bed would be the better one.  I had cleared the sod and all its weeds, and I had tilled the soil nearly two feet deep.  And yet this spring, as I put a hand shovel down into the ground, the soil composition of this intensively cultivated bed could not compare with the one I’d sheet mulched.  Even though I had never tilled or turned the soil with a shovel, the mulched earth was soft and fluffy—I could easily push my hand shovel into it, and though I had never removed the grass, it was relatively free of weeds. Every turn of my spade revealed dozens of earthworms and everywhere there were the white filaments of the mycorrhizal fungi that help plants harvest nutrients.  When I pulled up a handful of soil, small clods held together but were easily crushed, indicating the glues that microbes use to form better soil structure. What was going on?  And what does any of this have to do with prayer?

The ecological farmer Daniel Mays writes, “Our busyness as a modern culture, and as an increasingly mechanized world, is tied to the root of our problems; we have trained ourselves to act, analyze, and impose control rather than observe, appreciate, and work with nature.”  

My two garden beds represent, in a way, the two possibilities for human action.  One was built by intervention and control and the other by patiently following the patterns of Creation.  Each required work and effort on my part, but the easier yoke and more abundant life came from the garden bed that followed Creation’s way and design, working with rather than against the life that was already there and ready to flourish.

“Like compost, prayer breaks down into fertile matter for the life around it,” writes the Augustinian monk Martin Laird, “Prayer matures by a process of breaking down rather than by acquisition and spiritual prowess.” In a consumerist society, always ready for a gadget or technique to solve our every want, we are unfamiliar with the patient practice of attentive waiting that God’s way demands.  Whether in contemplation or in compost, creatures are meant to work at the pace of mercy.  If the story of scripture is any witness, mercy’s pace is a slow one that allows room for all to catch up and be included.

Laird goes on to compare the work of cultivating prayer to that of being a gardener.  “A gardener does not actually grow anything,” he writes. “Plants grow due to their interaction with light, moisture, and nutrients in soil. The gardener cultivates certain skills in order to facilitate a process that the gardener serves. And so with our use of a prayer word or phrase or sitting in loving awareness; it is like gardening: it facilitates a process over which we have no direct control."  

When I created my sheet mulched bed I was doing so based on my increased awareness of the life of the soil.  Through reading and direct observation, I had begun to learn of the network of life that dwells in any patch of ground, the bacteria that draw roots down with electrochemical pulses, the fungi that join plants together in a subterranean network of communication and sharing.  

My attention had also been drawn to the way that God’s creation cultivates plant life.  As Daniel Mays writes, “The fact that untilled soils around the globe produce more biomass and support greater biodiversity than tilled ground is lost on us because we humans did not create those ecosystems.” By paying attention to the natural patterns it becomes clear that nature’s way is one of slow layering that feeds the life of the soil rather than the disruption that tilling represents.  Such disturbances in nature happen infrequently and yet we eager gardeners use them year after year, bringing disaster to the life of the ground like a tornado through the dirt.

What if the way of the soul and its cultivation in prayer is not all that different from a garden, since we too are creatures formed from the soil—the adam (human) made from the adamah (humus soil) as Genesis 2 puts it?

What if we approached our life of prayer like careful, no-till gardeners, paying attention to the patterns of creation?  What if our job is not to live from a flurry of activity, our minds distracted by the constant buzz and dings of our phones, our lives constantly moving among a myriad of things, even good things?  What if instead we are to live slowly, letting the layers of spiritual compost break down into fertilizer for our soul, awakening the life within us? That, I believe, is our call.  That is the way that God intends to work on us.  

The frequent call of scripture is not to action, but rather to wait on the Lord (see Psalm 27:14 among many others).  Even the Apostle Paul, whose conversion was so sudden, and whose life was so active, waited for fourteen years after his conversion to begin his missionary journeys.  It is in waiting that our roots can go down deep into the nourishing life of God by which we are sustained.

How do we enter this cultivation?  What are the skills that we need to facilitate the process of growth over which we have no direct control, the growth that is ultimately a gift and a mercy in our lives?  There are many skills, no doubt, and there are many good books on the varied spiritual practices that have been helpful in this process to saints recent and past.  But here I’d like to offer three practices I’ve learned from caring for and cultivating the soil that have also been helpful in my life of prayer.

The first is attention.  With attention, we open ourselves to the gifts of the world and are ready to be surprised by what is already happening.  The reality of soil is that most of the earth already has what it needs to grow thriving plants.  Those nutrients just haven’t become available yet because the life that can unlock them isn’t present.  When we pay attention, we begin to recognize that God is already working within and around us.  Often what we need to do is simply to get out of the way and become pliable to God’s will.  What we often need isn’t to force our way into growth. Instead, we must welcome some compost, often made from what we’ve let die in our lives, and wait for the life of God’s presence to unleash the gifts we’ve already been given.  

One practice of attention I have is to identify the weeds in my yard before I do anything with them.  There is a book called Weeds and What They Tell Us that shows how certain plants can indicate deficiencies or other problems with the soil.  The solution to my weeds isn’t always to simply remove them, but rather to change the condition in the soil that the weed is addressing.  What if we paid attention to our souls and spirits in this way?  What if the uncertainties, frustrations, and obstacles of our lives are things that might actually be pointing to something deeper?  We won’t know unless we stop struggling and begin to be attentive to the work of the Spirit within us.

The second practice I’ve learned from attending to the soil is that of patience.  Growing good soil is not a fast process; it requires a commitment to a piece of ground for the long term.  With my double-dug bed, I had something I could plant in within hours; my sheet-mulched bed took months to flourish.  It is with patience that we welcome the life, sometimes lying dormant for years, that is waiting for the right conditions to spring up and grow.  As the Apostle James writes, “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient” (James 5:7b-8a).  It is by dwelling with scripture, the slow work of spiritual disciplines, and the regular practice of worship that we come to growth (the “Cultivating the Soil and Soul” playlist could be a good place to start).  But the resulting life these practices bring is rarely rapid.  Often the roots must reach deep into the ground for a whole year before fruit can come in the next.  This is as true of the spiritual life as it is of gardening.

The final practice is humility.  Humility is literally being close to the humus, but in its fullest sense humility a state of living in the truth.  In this way, it is more truly a disposition than a practice.  Humble people are honest about who they are and the dependencies that sustain them.  When we embrace those realities, we begin to live into the truth and can accept the work of God within us.  St. Thérèse of Lisieux said that “Sanctity does not consist in this or that practice, it consists in a disposition of the heart that makes us humble and little in God’s arms, teaches us our weakness and inspires us with an almost presumptuous trust in his fatherly goodness.”  

In humility we discover, as any good gardener soon learns, that we are not in control but are instead deeply dependent upon realities that reach far beyond us, including our fundamental rest in God.  Psalm 131 is a beautiful reflection on this reality, comparing our soul to that of a child laying her head on her mother’s chest. Frequent meditation upon this psalm can be a help in bringing us into the disposition of humble rest upon God.

In my garden, my tomato plants are climbing ever taller, supported by long stakes and tied with twine.  I’ve added no fertilizer other than compost, and I’ve had to water very little because of the abundant rain.  My labor has been minimal, the gifts of the Earth many.  My work has been to enter a flow already active in the Creation.  I simply have to play my part, serving and keeping it as humans were called to do from the beginning (Genesis 2:15).  In living into this vocation my life is drawn into a disposition and practice of prayer—one of attention, patience, and humility—a waiting before God.  I am confident that even when I do not see it, God’s life is at work beneath the surface, enlivening the ground of my soul so that I might grow and bear the fruit of the Kingdom.


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About the author

Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and pastor in his native Arkansas.  His most recent book, The Art of Being a Creature: Meditations on Humus and Humility is forthcoming from Cascade.  Ragan's writing can be found regularly at his Substack newsletter The Way We Practice.