It was 73 degrees in Middleton on Monday, April 8, 2019. Since Monday is a day of leisure for the sisters, I spent a large part of the day outside. I raked up the sticks dropped by the oaks during the winter in the front yard at Bingen House and listened to the birds. This will be the last week of free meals for the birds. The squirrels have learned how to climb down onto the feeder from the roof of the house, hang from the upper perches by their back feet and eat their fill from the lower seed slots. I chase them off, but they are back in minutes to resume their acrobatic meal.
After lunch, I went to the garden where Sister Denise West, and later Sister Paz Vital, met me. The previous Monday, I had raked the stubble off the asparagus patch and piled it up for burning. The following Saturday, Sister Denise and I burned the pile. So now the patch was ready for a new layer of wood chips. We spent the afternoon hauling wood chips from the large piles by the lower garden. I was surprised to find that about 10 inches down the chips were still frozen solid. That’s just a reminder that spring is only beginning. In fact, as I write this, snow is predicted later in the week.
Manual labor is built into Benedictine life. I love working outside in the yard and the garden. I learned my love of outdoor work from my mother who still takes care of her yard at 88. Whenever the weather was halfway decent, she would shoo us outside to find something to do saying, “It’s too nice a day to be inside. Go outside and play.” And we did. She was the one who did most of the yard work, so when I was old enough, I would help her rake or pick up sticks or plant and weed the garden. It was my job in high school to trim the bushes that surrounded the back yard. Only once did I cut the extension cord with the electric trimmers!
When we weren’t working or playing in the yard, I would take a book and climb the old boxelder tree near the garage, sit in its branches and read until dinner time.
Sister Meg Funk, from Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana, has written: “Work is a back door to pure prayer. For a proficient practitioner who is working mindfully, there is no distinction between work and prayer.” I’m not sure if I’m a “proficient practitioner” yet, but when I work outside, I feel one with my surroundings. My mind is quiet, and I’m not thinking about other things. I’m present, attending to the warmth of the sun on my skin and sensing my muscles as I lift the bucket of woodchips to spread on the warming earth. It feels like prayer.
On Sunday at the Eucharist we sang “O Christ Surround Me” as the communion hymn. I looked around the Assembly room at the people present and knew Christ was surrounding me. As I stood in the middle of the asparagus garden and looked around, the hymn came to my mind again, and I knew Christ was surrounding me in the garden. I think Sister Meg is right; there is no distinction between work and prayer. I’m blest to be able to work in the garden and deepen my prayer.