I invite you to consider viewing Jesus’ “Parable of the Sower” — about a farmer sowing seeds — through the lens of the third chapter of Thomas Merton’s book New Seeds of Contemplation. Merton was a twentieth-century Roman Catholic monk, who lived in Kentucky and was a prolific writer. I will share with you two separate excerpts from Merton’s words then briefly reflect on each one for some of the meaning I see in them for us today.
Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in her or his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men and women. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.
Merton is inviting us to see that Jesus’ Parable of the Sower is not about the occasional moment when God or a human evangelist sows a seed about God. Rather, everything at every moment of every part of our lives is a seed suffused with life-giving spiritual import. This claim is not to say that everything that happens is good or controlled by God; instead it is to say that the sort of soil that we are — good or bad, rock-filled or thorn-infested — in each arising present moment effects how we receive the seeds of experience that are always being sown around us and within us.
Merton uses three words to describe good soil: “freedom, spontaneity, and love.” And, I invite you to consider that our commitment to spiritual practices like Sabbath keeping, contemplative prayer, and works of mercy (like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick) help till and fertilize the inner soil of our souls. Regularly practicing silent, contemplative prayer can help us cultivate the soil of inner freedom, as we practice setting aside our agenda and simply open ourselves to God’s presence. Practicing Sabbath can help cultivate the inner soil of spontaneity as we practice setting aside any plans for one day each week and open ourselves to receiving the day in gratitude as it naturally unfolds without undue work or effort on our part. And practicing works of mercy can help cultivate the inner soil of love, for as we practice setting aside our egos and engage in acts of loving-kindness toward others we find love becomes more and more our second nature. So, one of our invitations is to discern what disciplines God is calling us individually and collectively to practice that we may cultivate within ourselves the good soil of “freedom, spontaneity, and love” and receive the seeds that is sowing in our lives.
In the second passage I would like to share with you, Merton writes that:
Unnatural, frantic, anxious work, work done under pressure of greed or fear or any other inordinate passion, cannot properly speaking be dedicated to God, because God never wills such work directly. God may permit that through no fault of our own we may have to work madly and distractedly, due to our sins, and to the sins of the society in which we live. In that case we must tolerate it and make the best of what we cannot avoid. But let us not be blind to the distinction between sound, healthy work and unnatural toil.
I find this passage challenging for at least two reasons. First, Merton names our tendency to introduce toxins into our inner soil through our fear, anxiety, and selfishness. These toxins poison the seeds that God is sowing in our lives and inhibit our growth. Second, I find this passage challenging because Merton names that there are big toxic systems of government, prejudice, and corruption that deeply affect us — and our inner soil — but that are also out of our direct control because these toxic systems are so large and pervasive. But if we are to have any hope of redeeming these toxic systems — even in part — we must begin with tilling our own soil. As we heard from Mother Teresa at the beginning of the hour, “Before you try to love the entire world, start by loving one other person. You can save only one at a time. We can love only one at a time.”