Planting seeds

In today’s Gospel reading at Mass, Jesus uses the parable of scattering seed on the land as an image to explain the kingdom of heaven. About nine or ten years ago, I did the 19th annotated version of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, a retreat in daily life that takes place over many months. For me, a common image that united all of the weeks of my experience was a tree. Adam and Eve ate from a forbidden tree, and in my prayers for Week One, I likewise imagined my own participation in sin. Jesus’ cross is a kind of a tree (Week Three) and my experience of Week Four or the Resurrection included the idea that God gives us back the Tree of Life, for sin and death are never the final word for God.

However, we spend a lot more of our lives in “ordinary time” than in the more intense life and death, or death and new life, kinds of moments. Week Two in the Exercises is about following Jesus, walking with God and choosing to give one’s life to God in the ordinary days of our lives. For me, the primary image that has lasted from my experience of Week two of the retreat has been planting seeds. I teach for a living, and now I also write. As a teacher, it is nearly impossible to know what effects one’s own actions will have on students. A student enthusiastic for a semester might enjoy a class but then there might not be much effect of this class on her life later, or a student who is seemingly reticent to talk or more distant might later find that a class had great meaning in the later course of her life. Teachers are also involved in a cooperative venture with the rest of the university community: we are one of many professors that work with students, and then there are staff, administrators, programs, service trips, extra curricular activities, and friendships that also shape and form our students.

In my own prayer, Jesus often had me plant acorns and other tree seeds in the ground, once near a flowing river that would water them well. In my prayer, however, I was blindfolded, and would never know which seeds grew and which ones never made it out of the ground. For me, this was a freeing, even liberating image. I learned that I did not have to know what the fruits or effects of my own every day work would be. All I have to do is to listen to and follow God’s call. That is enough. God will make it fruitful.

When I read Jesus’ words about the kingdom of heaven being like mustard seeds, or scattered seeds, I am reminded of that personal image from prayer. The kingdom of heaven does not come about through our own control or mastery. God’s kingdom comes from God’s actions, and we are invited to follow God, listen as well as we can, and then plant the seeds. God’s river will water the seeds, and rather than either resist or control, we can simply trust in following God and God’s lead.