Apr/May 2011 Nonfiction


by Sister Elizabeth Wagner

Photo by Mary Shutak-Jenkins

Photo by Mary Shutak-Jenkins

It was the worst gardening year in memory. After a fairly normal spring, in mid-June the heavens opened and dropped down rain for weeks at a time. Bean and sunflower seeds, planted just before the deluge, rotted in the ground. Parsley took nearly a month to germinate. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and melons, heat lovers all, sulked and refused to grow. The few days without rain were cloudy, cool, and humid. Nothing ever dried out.

Under these conditions, the shadow of blight grew ever larger and more menacing. Potatoes were stricken all over Maine, ours included. We yanked them out ruthlessly, so as not to spread the menace to other crops. I used copper spray, an organic fungicide, on the tomatoes and other nightshades, and even extended it to the basil. It fended off the blight, but the poor struggling plants urgently needed heat and sunlight, and there was precious little of either. Peaches are exceedingly marginal here in central Maine, so to have any crop at all is considered amazing. Yet in the midst of this awful summer, they were loaded with tiny green baby peaches. To get a good crop, they needed thinning. But I was busy, and besides, I didn't really believe they'd grow and ripen, so I ignored them.

Finally in mid-August we had a week of relative warmth and sun. By now those baby peaches were nearly full-size. With sun and heat, they began to lose their greenness and turn that beautiful reddish yellow which can only be called peach. We grew interested. In this worst of all years, was it possible that we were about to have a bumper crop of peaches?

Well, we did. They ripened slowly, over the course of about six weeks. First the Reliance tree, then the Red Haven; every single peach ripened. We picked bushels and bushels, all from only two trees. We gave them to our friends. We ate them daily. We froze them to make jam during the slow winter months. And we gave lots to a friend to make peach wine.

We marveled at the crop, and so did our friends. "Peaches in Maine," they all said, "who would have believed it!" We could hardly believe it ourselves, and we reveled in their rich abundance.

Abundance of any sort seems downright unbelievable in an economy based on scarcity, on possessiveness, and on acquisition. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, tells us that "scarcity is the fundamental economic problem of having seemingly unlimited human needs and wants, in a world of limited resources. It states that society has insufficient productive resources to fulfill all human wants and needs. Alternatively, scarcity implies that not all of society's goals can be pursued at the same time; trade-offs are made of one good against others" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scarcity).

That's a good, succinct statement of what seems to be the eternal human condition. We are made up of unlimited needs, wants, and desires, and there's simply not enough of anything to go around. I certainly wanted a productive garden, but that want was impossible to fulfill in this worst of all gardening years. I have many other needs and lots of wants and wishes too. So does everyone else. We are all familiar with the gradual accumulation, over the years, of all the material goods we want or need or think we want or need. Once upon a time, houses didn't even have closets. Now our supersized closets are stuffed to the brims, and we rent storage space to hold the overflow. We have yard sales, year after year, just to get rid of older items, to make room for new items. Many of these older items are not old or used at all. We acquired them and then we didn't need them, or we forgot about them, or they weren't what we wanted after all. So out they go and in comes some more, and in the process we never lose the hankering for more and more and more.

Worse, our economy seems to be built upon encouraging this tendency. Growth is everything, and consumption, we are told, drives this economic machine. Advertising drills into our heads the importance of owning everything we see and even everything we imagine as well. Nowhere is there a suggestion that perhaps we already have enough, and maybe even more than enough.

So focused are we on wealth and acquisition, that we shiver at the thought of not having enough. We find it hard to imagine that someone might want less, not more. In such an intellectual and imaginative climate, our fears drive us to focus on the scarcity that seems to surround us. Abundance seems a mere dream, a chimera.

Yet this is not the vision of the Scriptures. In Genesis, we find ourselves set down in the midst of a garden, and in it grew "every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food" (Gen 2:9, NRSV). All of this was for free. The clear implication is that this garden, Eden, is a garden of abundance. Unfortunately, we got booted out of this garden of abundance into the mundane world of work and worry and scarcity. But the vision of abundance, and the hope for it, persisted. After the fall, and the tower, and the flood, and the call of Abraham, and Egypt, and the Passover, and the forty years in the desert, we find God eventually leading the Israelites into the promised land, the land "flowing with milk and honey." Surely that is an image of abundance! But the promised land quickly lost its charm for the chosen people, and time after time they abandoned the God who had given them so much. Eventually they lost the promised land and were sent into exile. God sent prophets, who promised an eventual return and new abundance. Isaiah sings of the promise of God, that God's people will be treated like an infant, nursing at God's abundant breasts; and that God will "extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream" (Is 66:12).

In the New Testament, Jesus speaks of abundance and promises it. "Ask, and it will be given you," he says. "Search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child ask for bread, will give a stone? ... how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Mt 7:7-11).

Jesus offers a vision of the future. As in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is a vision of an abundant banquet, rich in food, wine, friends, and joy. It is offered to everyone and it is free. Like the peaches, ripening in rich abundance in the midst of a year of garden scarcity, it is the promise of rich abundance, above and beyond all our expectations.

Jesus not only promised this abundance for the future, he actually offered it to his followers in the midst of his teaching and travels. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes recounts his ability to provide plentiful nourishment for hordes of followers out of the scarcity of the deserted place. To make sure we get the point, the Gospels underline it for us: There were seven (or twelve, depending on the version) baskets full left over. Paradoxically, out of the dire scarcity of the moment, Jesus not only promises abundance, he provides it, and with plenty to spare.

The New Testament epistles are filled with images of abundance. But it is clearly not an abundance of material goods and wealth. Rather, this refers again and again to the abundance of God's love and mercy, God's grace and glory. Paul's letter to the Romans speaks of the "abundance of grace" (Rom 5:17). In Philippians, Paul speaks of the riches of God's glory in Christ (Phil 4:19). In Christ, we are told, "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Col 1:19), surely an image of the overflowing abundance found in God. Again, "Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2:3). In these instances, and throughout the Christian Scriptures, the many words and images of abundance refer not to material wealth and plenty, but to the spiritual realities promised and given by Jesus.

And further, "God chose to make known how great... are the riches of his glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col 1:27). "We hold this treasure in earthen vessels" (2Cor 4:7). This abundance, these riches, this treasure is "Christ in you, the hope of glory." Christ in us! We say this so glibly, unaware of the abundant treasure we ourselves hold within and amongst us. "He whom heaven and earth cannot contain, was contained in your womb, O Virgin Mary" we sing to Our Lady. This same One whom heaven and earth cannot contain, is contained within us spiritually. "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" asks Paul (1Cor 3:16). Yet so often, so very, very often, we don't even notice. We ignore the abundant treasure that is ours, and we focus only on our poverty, our neediness, our want, and our limitless desires.

These earthen vessels, these bodies made of the clay of the earth, these minds and psyches so filled with wounds and emptiness, are so often oblivious of the treasure they hold. We think of ourselves sometimes as I thought of the weather that summer "the most miserable garden year ever." Our self-loathing sets itself up as a form of spirituality and encourages us to focus on all that is negative. Yet what is this treasure that we hold within? It is nothing less than the Christ, "in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell." It is an abundance of grace, the riches of God's glory, mercy, and love. It is as though all this is shut up within, and we don't even have the key. Worse, we forget that we don't even need a key! As though, in the midst of a miserable summer, we cannot even look up at the tree and see those glorious, delicious peaches, waiting to be picked.

Jesus and the early evangelists focused our attention on the abundance of God's gifts and graces which fill us and surround us. Yet our world continually reinforces the opposite image—that of scarcity. The world focuses our attention on all that we do not have. In doing so, it abets and increases our own woundedness and distrust, which also concentrates on all we lack and want, and which attends to all we think we need, yet don't have. Economics and our psyches, the external world and the internal, converge to bring us down and pull our attention away from all that is positive. We completely forget the treasure that is within, the giftedness that we have and are, and the abundance of gifts that surround us.

This focus on our poverty, both spiritual and material, is so misdirected. We think of abundance wrongly. We confuse it with material wealth. We also confuse it with freedom from the aching wound of unfulfilled want. Abundance is an attitude of heart, and openness to receive the gifts—the many, many gifts—which God gives us moment by moment. Most especially, it is the willingness to receive the most abundant gift of all; the indwelling of God's own self through the Gift of the Spirit.

Perhaps abundance is more about gratitude and receptivity to the Spirit than about possessions and wealth. And gratitude and receptivity to God's Spirit are nearly always within our grasp. As an e-mail from an Orthodox monastery recently put it, "Abundance is a blessing, but it is also a choice, and not just dependent on outward circumstances" (E-mail from stisaac@skete.com on July 29, 2010).

What a revolutionary way to think about abundance! It is a choice, not merely a condition over which we have little control. It is not dependent on having everything we want, whenever we want it. Nor is it dependent on our becoming at last the perfect person, never failing or at fault in anything. Rather, we are already gifted abundantly, here and now, not just in some future time. Yes, even here and now. Like the abundance of green leaves and new growth, blossoming out from the scarcity and dreariness of late winter. Like the peaches, in the midst of the most miserable summer ever.

But how do we choose to live with an attitude of abundance? Perhaps, as that same e-mail suggests, it is through gratitude for all we are and have. Gratitude manifests itself in an attitude of thanksgiving in our prayer. Gratitude spills over into generosity in our relationships with others. Material generosity, surely, in whatever way is open to us. And also generosity of heart: an attitude of openness, tolerance, patience, forbearance, kindness, forgiveness, and love toward others. An abundance of mind that is not quick to take offence, but rather quick to forgive and overlook others' faults and failings. An abundance of heart that is open to receive what others have to say, even when we'd rather not hear it. An abundance of body that is unflagging in helpfulness to any who are in need, and yet is disciplined to hold back that helpfulness when others need to do things for themselves.

We have all been blessed in various ways. Some of us have been blessed with faith, some with our health, some with family or friends, and some with material goods. Most of all we are blessed with the abiding presence of God, who is with us in all things, guiding us from the Spirit within, and from the events and people around us. We have all been blessed in so many ways. Let us learn to share our gifts and to shower this Spirit generously on all whom we meet. If we do this, then as Jesus says, "A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap" (Lk 6:38).


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