It is canning time again at the monastery. Thanks to the great generosity of some Knights of Columbus members from Caldwell, Idaho we have boxes and boxes and boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables to eat, can and enjoy. We are also harvesting from our garden, this week is green beans and cucumbers. The old kitchen is a hive of activity, wonderful sights and smells as many people help out to make the work load lighter.
On special days there is an overlap between canning and baking. We bake all our own bread, fifty loaves a week of brown and white bread in our bakery. So sometimes there is an interesting overlap of smells. Beets and bread anyone?
This commitment to growing, canning, food preservation, baking and similar aspects of self-sufficiency are central to who we are as Benedictine monastics. In an era of agribusiness and huge factory farms it seems unlikely that home canned beets or homemade bread is cost efficient. But there is a much deeper value at play than simple economics.
All that we produce is a witness of a much deeper sense of connection. We know where the bread we eat came from. We picked the raspberries that went on the raspberry jam that went on the bread. We helped to prepare the beans and beets and canned the tomatoes, pears and peaches. We grew the squash and lettuce. We actively participated in much of what we eat, we know where it came from, who grew and harvested it.
We live in a world in which this kind of connection has become a rare thing. We hear the stories of children who don’t know where food comes from except from a grocery store. How many adults have actually seen their food come from anywhere but the grocery store? This disconnect in our society goes much deeper than food. Many of us do not know our neighbors, our families are distant, work is a temporary commitment.
In a world that is disconnected, alienated and disenfranchised, monastics try to witness a new/older reality. Benedict enjoined his monks to be self-sufficient, to have everything they need in one place. While we cannot do that anymore we can still live a life that emphasizes the value of deep connections. As monastics we see these connections and the fragility of connections in ways that most society does not.
When we grow our own food we are reminded that we are at the mercy of nature. The rain doesn’t come or comes in the wrong amount or at the wrong times, we won’t have the home grown food we enjoy. We witness our connection to the earth, our dependence on the earth, and in some very slight way know the joy and suffering of those who do not have the local supermarket as a backup for crop failure.
Coming together to harvest and preserve food is a reminder of those who work in difficult, underpaid jobs to provide the food we take for granted. As we work together we know that we cannot take our food for granted, that it does not appear magically on the table but as the fruit of much work and God’s bounty. When we work together we remember that we are community, we are committed to one another in good times and bad, with the ones we like and the ones we don’t. We are connected, we are committed for life in an impermanent world.
It doesn’t look like much at first, the piles of beans and cucumbers, the boxes of peaches to be canned, the bread cooling on racks on bake day. But there are deep lessons that come from the gift of the most simple things. In the beans we come to know how deeply we are blessed, how intimately we are connected with all things and are reminded of the call to serve those without.