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Ángel Bracho, The Wheat Ear, detail

The Ground of Hospitality

Norman Wirzba

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  • Patrick Walsh

    Thank you so much! I run a food pantry in norristown PA, so food and hospitality, and the beauty and messiness that all entails is something very close to my heart. This was such a joy to read.

  • Suzanne Marshall

    Norman, I love the "hospitality" of the soil and its transformation of death into life. Also, God's nearness, expressed in His breathing life into His creation, is near in every breath we inhale. Thank you for you insights.

  • c m b

    a most beautiful article. thank you.

The christian church has multiple saints associated with gardening, farming, and food. There’s Saint Isadore, Saint Urban, Saint Fiacre, Saint Patrick, and, of course, Saint Francis of Assisi. I especially like Saint Phocas, who farmed in the region of Sinope, a fairly remote Turkish peninsula jutting into the Black Sea. During his life he aided Christians being persecuted by the emperor Diocletian (284–305). He regularly opened his home to strangers and travelers, and he fed the poor with food he had himself grown. Phocas was well known across the country for being a man of great charity and virtue.

It was his reputation for hospitality that got him into trouble. Scholars believe that sometime around AD 303 Diocletian singled him out as one Christian especially deserving of death. The emperor promptly dispatched two soldiers to do the job. They had an enormous distance to cover, much of it through treacherous and hostile terrain. As they approached Sinope, they came upon Phocas’s farm. They explained their mission to him. Phocas insisted that they spend the night at his home. He assured them that he could direct them to the man on the following day. Meanwhile, they needed a good meal and a good night’s rest, which he provided.

While the soldiers slept, Phocas went to his garden to dig a grave.

The next morning, having enjoyed a good breakfast, the soldiers asked for directions. Phocas told them they need look no farther, since he was the man. The soldiers were astonished, perhaps even embarrassed, having just enjoyed such extraordinary hospitality. But Phocas insisted. If they failed to kill him, the emperor would likely kill them. And so they went to the garden, where the soldiers cut off his head and buried him in his grave.

While the soldiers slept, Phocas went to his garden to dig a grave.

I have no doubt that Christian training played a major role in Phocas’s development as a man widely known for his kindness, generosity, and hospitality. But I also believe that his work in the garden contributed directly to his hospitable manner. By giving himself to the ground he learned in the most visceral manner that the ground is constantly giving in return. The ground isn’t simply a stage on which people do their thing. It is, rather, the miraculous matrix that cradles, supports, and feeds life.

To work in a garden is to be surrounded by the mysteries of germination, growth, and decay, and it is to be overwhelmed by the gifts of raspberries, tomatoes, and onions that surprise us with their fragrance and taste. But it isn’t all pleasantries. To garden is also to be frustrated by the disease and death that are beyond one’s control and power. Where did this blight come from? Why won’t this seed germinate? A late frost again? The temptation is always to give up and walk away. But that isn’t really a viable option. If people are to eat, they must eventually return to the ground.

Saint Phocas understood that if the land gave itself to him, then he must give himself to the land in return. He did this daily, in the actions of cultivating, seeding, watering, weeding, pruning, and harvesting. He didn’t simply take what the land provided. He invested his time and skill, his devotion and energy. At the end, he even gave his body to the ground. I like to think that it pleased him to know that his flesh and blood would nourish the ground itself, feeding the life below that feeds the life above.

Gardening is one of the most vital practices for teaching people the art of creaturely life. With this art people are asked to slow down and calibrate their desires to meet the needs and potential of the plants and animals under their care. Gardeners are invited to learn patience and to develop the sort of sympathy in which personal flourishing becomes tied to the flourishing of the many creatures that nurture them. A garden, we might say, is a living laboratory in which we have the chance to grow into nurturers, protectors, and celebrators of life. This, I believe, is why the first command given to the first human being was to come alongside God the Gardener and “till and keep” the Garden of Paradise (Gen. 2:15). Gardening is hard and frustrating work, but it is not a punishment. To garden well – in the skillful modes of attention, patience, sensitivity, vigilance, and responsiveness – is to participate in the way God gardens the world.

We must become hospitable to the soil that is hospitable to us.

Among contemporary writers, few have understood and articulated these insights as well as Wendell Berry. Whether in the form of poetry, story, or essay, Berry has argued that apart from a people’s commitment to repair and nurture particular places and communities, the world comes to ruin. His call to “return to the land” is not the expression of some romantic yearning to relocate urbanites within an agrarian arcadia that never existed. The issue is not relocation, but the development of the sympathies and skills that make for an enduring, responsible, and beautiful livelihood. One doesn’t need a farm to do that. All one needs is a place within which to learn to exercise care and commitment. He knows it won’t be easy, especially in cultures characterized by speed, rootlessness, and a spectator approach to life.

From an agrarian point of view, one of humanity’s most important postures is looking down. Though plenty of spiritualities encourage people to look up and away to a better world beyond the blue, looking away causes us to forget that in fact the ground beneath our feet nurtures us. Scripture made the point inescapable (Gen. 2:7, 3:19): to say the word human (adam) is to be reminded of the ground (adamah) from which we come, by which we are fed, and to which, upon death, we return. To ignore the soil or, even worse, to despise it, is to cut oneself off from the love of God and the power of life that circulates through it.

As people have moved out of agrarian ways of life, soil has mostly disappeared from their imaginations. If it registers at all, it is often as “dirt” – the substance to avoid because it makes one “dirty.” This is a tragedy, because soil is indescribably complex and miraculous in its ability to create the conditions for life. In his early essay “A Native Hill,” Berry described it this way:

The most exemplary nature is that of the topsoil. It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. Death is the bridge or the tunnel by which its past enters its future.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this characterization as a poetic flight of speech. Hans Jenny, one of the great soil scientists of the twentieth century, noted that sixty years of study only reinforced his realization that soil is fundamentally a mystery. The border between life and death, the biotic and the abiotic, is nearly impossible to draw. Soil is constantly receiving massive quantities of plant and animal corpses, and so should be a stinking mass of death. But it isn’t. Somehow death, by circulating through soil, is transformed into the fertility and fecundity of life.

Soil, we could say, is the first earthly site of hospitality, because it makes room for death, welcomes and receives it, so that new life will germinate and grow. The more primordial power of hospitality, however, is God’s. For good reason, the Garden of Eden story presents God as the one who creates by kissing soil, breathing into it the life that is you and me and all the plants and animals. In this gesture, God communicates that the divine nature is never to be far away or aloof. God is near, and stays intimately close as the breath within our own breath and as animate soil that circulates throughout all our eating. God’s creating, creative power is a hospitable power that constantly makes room for everything else to be and to flourish. God is the primordial host who prepares the beautiful, fragrant, and delectable feast at which all creatures are fed and find their true home.

Ángel Bracho, The Wheat Ear, detail

Ángel Bracho, The Wheat Ear, detail Artwork by Ángel Bracho
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In his book Life in the Soil, the biologist James Nardi takes readers on a fascinating journey into soil. By following the routes of roots, he notes that after just four months, a single rye plant will send down 15 million roots totaling 380 miles. These roots make surface contact with an area of approximately 2500 square feet. If one adds to the equation the innumerable, miniscule hairs that attach to roots, then the length of the overall root system extends to 7000 miles in length and 7000 square feet in surface area.

Above ground a plant may appear to be a solitary, self-standing thing. But the roots reveal a different story. Plants crave contact and (chemical) communication. To be healthy, they need a dense network of nurturing relationships. A healthy plant, however, doesn’t simply take from the soil and all the microbes alive within it. The plant receives sunshine and transforms its energy into food, especially sugars, that it sends down through the roots to feed the fungi and other microscopic creatures that make their home near the roots. The more the roots grow, the more hospitable the soil becomes, further aiding the fertility of life. The vitality and vigor of plants, not to mention the tastiness of their fruit, depend on maximizing the flow of hospitality that circulates through sunshine, stems, roots, and soil. The destruction of life begins with the erosion, denuding, and poisoning of soil.

Agrarians believe that few tasks are more fundamental than for people to become hospitable to the soil that is hospitable to them. The work of making room for others, noting their need and potential, and committing to care for them, is the indispensable work. It is here, in the giving and receiving of nurture, that we learn the meaning and the point of life. If you want to experience life’s abundance and potential joy, give yourself away. This is what the gospel teaches. It is what God has been doing since the beginning. It is what the soil witnesses to every day.


Ángel Bracho, The Wheat Ear, detail

from “Enriching the Earth”

Wendell Berry

To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass
to grow and die. I have plowed in the seeds
of winter grains and of various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal
and the decay of the growth of past season
and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark. I am slowly falling
into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness
and a delight to the air, and my days
do not wholly pass. It is the mind’s service,
for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest
and most mute is at last raised up into song.

Source: Wendell Berry, Farming: A Hand Book (Counterpoint, 2011).

Contributed By Norman Wirzba Norman Wirzba

Norman Wirzba is Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Theology at Duke University, and the author of several books on topics from environmental ethics to sustainable agriculture.

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