Gardening Teaches Humility and Prayer
March 15, 2017

“Do you think it is any less necessary to ask the gods for mercy where agricultural affairs are concerned? Sensible farmers, I can assure you, worship and pray to the gods about their fruits, grain, cattle, horses, sheep—yes, and all their property.”
Xenophon, The Estate Manager

Virgil speaks of it, and Cato, and Hesiod, in addition to Xenophon. Working the land calls for prayer.

So many of the most profound things in life call for this amazing combination: hard work, and prayer. The farmer knows that he cannot prosper without disciplined, persevering labor. And he knows just as well that his disciplined, persevering labor is far from sufficient.

So he prays, asking, as Xenophon suggests, for divine mercy. To ask for mercy is to ask for something that is not due. Indeed, when working the land, the very fruit of our labor always remains a gift.

There is a deservedly popular folk song written by Dave Mallet called “The Garden Song,” the refrain of which says:

Inch by Inch and row by row,
Someone bless these seeds I sow,
Someone warm them from below,
Till the rain comes tumblin’ down.

The gardener knows as he plants his seeds that great powers are at work: in the seed, in the soil, in the sky. And if he is like the sensible farmer of whom Xenophon speaks, he will see his absolute dependence, in his work, on powers that transcend him and his work.

The humble man is close to the earth, and the man close to the earth is humble. The word humble is from the word for soil–humus. But true humility never means aiming low. It means aiming high, with full understanding that we achieve what is great only by a power greater than our own, and by our being willing to plead, regularly, for assistance.

As we garden, we have a special opportunity to realize and practice these truths anew. Yes, those who depended for their very livelihood on what they grew, learned prayer and humility through a more pressing need. But ultimately, are we any less dependent than they were? Gardening can remind us, among other things, of this truth.

This is the second in a Series on Why Everyone Should Garden, according to the ancients.

Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) was a soldier, historian, and philosopher of Athens. Like Plato he wrote dialogues featuring Socrates as a great teacher. Among,  these dialogues is Oeconomicus, translated as The Estate Manager, in which we get an insight into the structure and principles of the ancient household.

Image: unknown early 20th century.

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  1. Your reflection applies as well when one considers children as the seeds in a garden. Parenting requires – demands – discipline and persevering labor, great humility, and unceasing prayer. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Very nice point Janice. Seeds and their care can be analogy for so many beautiful things in life, as you make clear.

  2. I’m loving this series, as I am once again getting ready to take a stab at gardening (this time in the Colorado prairie). I’ve never successfully grown anything of significance, but I keep trying!

    1. I don’t mean to be corny… but as far as I’m concerned, anything you grow yourself is something of significance. But nonetheless I know what you mean–perhaps this year it will even be significant in size…

  3. Thank you for posting this John

  4. Praying for the stones to be removed, mainly from my heart

  5. My husband and I have dilemma. We garden to grow our own healthy foods and also want to grow spiritually through it. My homeschooled son also likes to have class outdoors during the warmer months. However, we live in the suburbs of the Roanoke Valley, and the daily outdoor noise is becoming unbearable. I do not exaggerate when I say that during the spring/summer/fall there is lawn maintenance noise (mowers, leaf blowers, weed whackers, chainsaws, etc.) every day of the week, Sundays and holidays included. Gardening has become burdensome, to say the least. Yes, the obvious answer would be to move, but that is not a possibility right now. Perhaps we need to pray for divine mercy as Xenophon suggests. This noise is not healthy, for anyone. Do you have any advice?

    1. Carie, That is very hard to hear. I am glad to say–though very sad for you–that I cannot even imagine having that kind of noise. This might be too obvious, but what about early in the morning? Usually people don’t mow etc in the early hours of the day. Could that alleviate the situation somewhat? I will join you in asking for divine mercy. With best wishes.

      1. Thank you kindly for considering our situation, and I truly appreciate your prayers.

  6. Dr. Cuddeback, do you have any suggestions for a starting point on how to garden? I’d love to be able to sit down with a wise farmer for hours and days to learn how to garden (with the overarching purpose being for the development of virtue for myself, my wife, and my children), but absent there being one in my community circle, I’m not sure where to begin.