Last month the fields were white for harvest, and the farmers impatiently waited until the moisture in the grains of wheat or barley was low enough to send the combine harvesters ploughing into the rippling fields. By the end of the month some of those fields were cultivated and sown with next year’s harvest – and so the cycle continues. The seminal moment in the cycle is the harvest, not least because it contains next year’s seed.
Surrounded as I am by farmland, and walking a footpath daily that passes three fields, my life and my ministry is informed and inspired by this land and the people who work on it. They are constant reminder that growth takes time and that sometimes there have to be times of stillness and immobility. Winter wheat crops are dependent on being ‘vernalized’ or ‘frosted’ – as are some soft fruit crops. Growth does not always mean ‘onwards and upwards’ – it sometimes means being frozen and dark.
There is a frequent mention in contemporary spirituality about “fruitfulness”: “that was a very fruitful experience”, someone will remark; or another will ask “what is the spiritual fruit of that approach?”
In the spiritual life we do indeed look for fruitfulness (Gal 5.22) – the fruits of the spirit include patience and self-control. There is no room in the spiritual life for impatience; there must be a gentle waiting for God’s time. This does not fit very easily into the pattern and instinct of contemporary life, with its emphasis on the immediate and instant. Unlike the farmer some people are not very happy to invest time and effort, and cannot keep waiting for the ripe moment.
Think about your own spiritual life – how many aspirations, rules, resolutions, intentions, prayer purposes have you given up on? How much do you keep fiddling around trying to “get somewhere”? Then ask yourself this question: “have I exercised patience and self-control?” Have you, as further on in Galatians 5, allowed the Spirit to direct your course?
I have always found the title to Walter Hilton’s (fl.1380) The Ladder Of Perfection hilarious. The point he keeps making is that the Christian called to a life of prayer never gets any higher or further: it is the climbing itself that is the end and the purpose. He is cruelly accurate in his characterisation of those claiming charismatic and ecstatic experiences as some kind of fruitfulness. It is a ladder because it is about the repetitive, step-by-step hauling of the self up against the forces of nature – about a constant beginning again, with the end nowhere nearer. This is an endeavour of hope and faith – the abandonment of self to that hidden growth and transformation – just like the farmer looking over the gate into a muddy mid-November field with the green shoots growing paler every day for want of sun and sustenance.
This is all part of the harvest, and sometimes we need reminding of it. Some years ago one of my home communicants turned 100. She had been a farmer’s wife, and one September we were talking about the wet harvest. I often recall her remark “they’ve always got it in yet, Vicar; they’ve always got it in.” That seems to be the point of prayer – God is more faithful than we are, and if He plants the seeds of prayer in you, “He will get it in.”
Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House