You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons,
and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.
When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.
Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.
But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.
You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead
are standing about you and watching.
Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “He who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is nobler than he who ploughs the soil.
And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man, is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet.”
But I say, not in sleep but in the overwakefulness of noontide, that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass;
And he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.
Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.
– From The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
I should probably just leave Kahlil Gibran’s words to speak for themselves; to my mind they ring with a truth that deserves its own silence to savor.
And yet, I can’t not say something about them. The ideas Gibran expresses in this chapter from The Prophet have been both inspiration and measure for my life on our farm.
I began to farm largely because of my strongly held principles and ideals about ecological stewardship. But it didn’t take too long for the gritty realities of farming to sober up my idealism. I still have strong convictions, but I see how imperfectly I will ever live them out. In light of this, and guided by Gibran’s words, I have come to see that how love – not just romantic love, but a deep, abiding commitment – is the deepest wellspring of much of the labor our farm has required: love for God, for God’s Creation, for the family and friends and neighbors who have been part of our journey here. I can say, at least on my better days, that I built the house with affection, I sowed the seeds with tenderness and reaped with joy. Much of my work on the farm has indeed been love made visible, and for that I give thanks.
And yet I have also – too often – worked with distaste and indifference; I have baked the bitter bread and grudged the crushing of the grapes. As a part-time farmer, I often seem to be rushing, trying to get the farm work done in the nooks and crannies of time that compete with a full-time, off-farm job, spending time with my wife and children and other family members, and myriad other loves and responsibilities. But good farming is rarely done in a hurry, and rush is often a recipe for resentment.
Our children – twin girls who are seven and our four-year-old son – are often with me when I’m doing farm work. With them I see most clearly the times when I’m working badly. A few days ago I was racing to get over a hundred blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry plants set in a new patch. I rushed around madly, and then I turned around to see that one of our daughters, Eva, had wandered down to find me after having walked out of a bickering match with her sister. We worked out a system by which she could be of help, but not long after we got in the groove of our work, her sister showed up, and soon they were at each other again, competing for who did what, whose job was the most important, and so forth. With little patience for anything, much less for this kind of childishness, I found myself snapping at them, pushing them hard, tolerating no nonsense.
To be a child, though, is to be full of nonsense and playfulness. Their catfighting aside, I yearn for the carefree, unburdened way our children relate to life in general and our farm in specific. For them, most days, it is a place of adventure and imagination, of making forts in the woods, of hiding in the unmown hay. And while I want our children to learn how to be responsible and hard-working, I don’t want to squelch their enthusiasm. In fact, I hope to learn from them how to hold the work a little more loosely. Love is patient and kind, wrote St. Paul, and I suspect that good work has exactly the same qualities – that its means sing harmony with its ends.
Ultimately, I believe that good ecological stewardship has to be an invitation – into greater authenticity, more pleasure and fulfillment, and finally, into deep and abiding joy and gratitude. This may seem blasphemous in the face of so much suffering in the world today and the dark possibility of even more on the future horizon. But if it’s true that God calls each of us to do our best work in the world, Gibran is right that good work can and must only be done with love, for “when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.”