Where Poverty is No Achievement

I want to take a moment and talk about what you will not see here at the farm. If you visit Egret Isle, you will not find a picture perfect, story book farmstead. While I hope you find it a pleasant place, it has its rough edges and undone work. One of our goals with Farm Day, and indeed, with the Serene Disciple Project in general, is not to display a polished, finished product. Rather, what you will get is a work in progress along with the invitation to come and join in the creative work around here. And in doing so, we are modeling what I think is an important life principle: learning to be comfortable with imperfection; both mine and yours.

It has been very tempting during this week leading up to farm day to dash from task to task trying to make the place look perfect. And, conversely, there has been the parallel temptation to feel overwhelmed and to experience the anticipation of embarrassment as I look at all of the tasks that need to be done to even approximate perfection. I can easily imagine the quick glances of quiet judgement at that pile of wire fencing and tomato cages overgrown with tall weeds behind the garden. Dang! Should have gotten to that! Or the hands on hips and tilted head of disappointment when looking at the loose mounds of old landscaping fabric strewn around the garden that is still partially buried and is too heavy for me to move by myself rather than neat rows of joyfully growing produce. Really, I have a good excuse, but still, I know, I should have figured out a way to clean that up before you got here. Sorry. I know you thought I had it all together–a well ordered mind and spirit reflected in a well ordered space.

I was sort of hoping to avoid, well, the truth.

The truth that I am a work in progress and sometimes the progress seems pretty questionable. Of course, I might have been able to run myself into the ground with work and managed to pull off, if not perfection, then something that that would not embarrass me for you to see. And then, as you walked around cooing at the pretty farm with well behaved chickens and pigs, I could smugly pride myself in knowing that I had achieved, truthfully, a deception. It looks good, until you open that bulging closet door and are buried in an avalanche of all that I didn’t want you to see. Wait . . . am I talking about my farm or my soul?

When you come to the farm, whether it is tomorrow or some other day, you will find imperfection. You will find undone tasks and projects, weeds, disorganization, things that I could have done myself but didn’t, and things I had to admit to myself that I could have done when I was younger maybe but can no longer do by myself–pulling up landscaping fabric, for instance. But, you will also find beauty, thoughtfulness, the joyful song of birds, the anticipation of new life resident in a seedling or a carefully attended duck nest, the crazed exuberance of galloping piglets.

The maddening (or fascinating, depending on how you view it) thing about what makes me nod and smile with the feeling my soul is being nourished is that I can’t take credit for having created any of it. I can’t say, “I made that piglet joyfully cavort around you.” I can’t say, “I made that field of wildflowers grow in just that configuration of form and color that resonates with some deep place in your soul.” And I certainly can’t say, “I created the way the evening light picks out the tops of the willows in golden hues while leaving the pond itself in deepening tones of blue in just that way that makes you think about wild geese in wild places.” None of those things are achievements for which I can tap my chest and say, “Me! Look at me! I am special! Admire me!”

I think this is what Thomas Merton was thinking about in the next line of the poem that we have been unpacking over the last few weeks. Click here to see the poem in its entirety. Here is the next stanza:

Here you will find

Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.

There are no ways,

No methods to admire

Where poverty is no achievement.

The poverty Merton is talking about is, I believe, the poverty of effort to create that which would cause you to admire me, to think me successful, to conclude that I am valuable–the effort that would make you walk around Egret Isle Farm and think, “That Brett Hart is really something! Just look at what he has done with this place.” But there is also no proverb, no memorandum that I found or read or can pass along by which I can make you feel the playful joy of young animals. There are no ways or methods that can tell me how to make the luminous mist fill the pecan grove at dawn that fills you with wonder that such beauty can exist. I stand empty handed in the poverty of effort that is no achievement on my part. And yet, without me, you would not have had those experiences. Now there’s a paradox!

What did I do? In a sense, I embraced Merton’s poverty with hard work, faith, some patience, and a little fear. What I did was create space for something miraculous to happen. It is true that I didn’t make the piglet cavort, but I did set up the farrowing pen and sit with mama pig through the cold, windy night she was delivering her litter, helping where I could to keep the tiny piglets warm and safe. I didn’t make the beauty of wildflowers touch your soul, but I did care for that meadow throughout the rest of the year so that the wildflowers had the best chance of blooming in the spring. I didn’t create the luminous dawn mist, but I did spend hours and hours mowing the grove and tending the trees, such that when the morning mist rose from the moist soil and grass and was illuminated by the rising sun the brush and fallen trees didn’t mar the wonder. I worked, and worked hard, to create an opening for the Spirit of God to fill with luminous beauty, playful joy, and soul nourishing presence. And, that is exactly what we do in the gardens of our souls; that is the essence of spiritual growth.

Ultimately, the poverty of effort Merton is talking about has to do with not striving to make spiritual growth into a scheme for which we can claim credit for our spiritual achievements. Rather, what we do is exactly what happens here on the farm. We work to open space in our souls, creating an opening for the Spirit of God to fill with luminous beauty, playful joy, and soul nourishing presence. What we think of as spiritual disciplines are not tools of achievement, but ways to create an opening. Prayer, contemplation, reading Scripture, fasting, creative endeavor, hospitality, spiritual friendship, and community are all ways of making space in our souls for what only the Spirit of God can create in us. And when that happens, “there are no ways, no methods to admire where poverty is no achievement.”

What does that mean in practice? It means that I will invite you to my farm and my home even though you will see all that I have failed to get done, or clean up, or make perfect. It means that I will invite you into my life even though it’s something of a mess, and I am going to be vulnerable enough to let you see the bits that I can’t sort out without help. I am going to let you see the disarray of my belief system and accept that you haven’t sorted it all out either. I am going to offer you a place at my table even though the other end of it is strewn with unopened mail and all we are having for supper is leftovers, knowing that your couch at home is piled with unfolded laundry and the floor is littered with an obstacle course of toys. Together we will know that none of that matters as much as sharing our laughter and our souls. And in doing so, we open space inside each other, and God fills it.

So come to the farm. That buried landscaping fabric isn’t going to move itself!