by Catherine Doherty.
We have a farm at Madonna House called "St. Benedict’s Acres." This farm was born out of a dream—a dream dreamt in the Lord. In the steaming streets of Harlem, in the cold, windy streets of the Toronto slums, my mind would fly away to Russia, my native land, and I would think of the simple old ways farms were worked and of the good tiredness that came to all of us who worked on them.
Yes, lots of things came back to me, but from whence or where would I ever get a farm?
The Lord of Hosts has a way of making dreams come true.
I remember when we came to Combermere. I had ordered apple trees, and we planted them the day we arrived, on May 17, 1947. A vegetable garden followed, and later a few chickens.
Years passed by. The dream of a real farm was wrapped up and laid aside in my heart waiting for the hand of God to touch it; and so he did one day.
In 1955 a friend who had purchased some land nearby, allowed us to use it, such as it was, whatever was arable, and we purchased a few local cows—one or two or three.
Then, in May 1957, we bought a small farm.
Our farm was born very humbly and simply, in "blood and tears", in endless discussion, with much frustration, and also in much beauty and with much perseverance.
Let us look at this farm as I saw it in my heart and mind. Of course a farm can be looked at from a hundred angles, but to me it was always an apostolic angle, and I looked at farming as "apostolic farming."
Why? Because the word "apostle" means one who is sent—usually one who is sent to bring the Good News.
So when we say we are engaged in apostolic farming, we simply mean that we are engaged in farming because we want to spread the Good News by bringing God not only to the countryside but to all those who pass through Madonna House. We bring it by living the Gospel, and there is no better place to live the Gospel than on a farm.
But to bring the Good News it is not enough to be a farmer and to decide that one is an apostle and to train as an apostle. One must integrate this apostolic knowledge—the love in one’s heart—into one’s everyday acts. I envision the apostolic farming of Madonna House to be the exemplification of Christ in the art of farming.
First and foremost, I ask myself: why do we farm? And the answer comes very easily. Because we have to eat. We, too, those of us at Madonna House who are not farmers, have to be fed and the simplest way is to work for it. Work for it by the sweat of our brows as we are supposed to do, and to do it in the best and cheapest way we know how.
So our first reason for farming is simply utilitarian. Yet it embodies the very spirit of apostolicity, for it brings us face to face with the fact that we are poor, that we have to work for the things we need, or do without them, as much as we can.
And we work our farm with God’s money, for every cent that has gone into this farm of ours was donated to us by somebody else.
Fundamentally, like most farmers of this district, we got ourselves a poor farm. This isn’t bad because it made us one with the poor around and about us.
True, you could, if you had the money, buy a good farm, and buy all the machinery, fertilizer and what-not and have a luxurious farm. People would say your farm is a dream and every farmer around here or in Pakistan or anywhere else wouldn’t dare to dream.
So we were glad we had a poor farm, for apostolic farming, which stems from love, is ingenious. It creates from nothing. It goes to study how to do a thing more cheaply than cheap.
It digs deep, and it looks at itself constantly asking itself, "Am I doing my work well? Am I doing it efficiently and without waste? Or am I wasting God’s time, which is the most precious commodity I have?
Then there is the apostolic approach to tools—even a sacramental approach to tools and goods. Animals, rakes, machinery become holy things. For men who deal with them just stand in awe at the bounty of God to us and see these things as if they were all immensely valuable, which, of course, they are.
Apostolic farming must be love that spills itself onto the earth not only to cherish it, work it, get the best out of it without harming it, but also to love it as God loves it.
There is no denying that apostolic farming is a very slow process, and that it teaches farmers many lessons that are not learned in spiritual books. It strips them naked of many pre-conceived notions and makes them whole again. For he who works with the earth gets healed of his wounds.
For in a strange way the farmer is somehow deeply reconciled with God again and walks at eventide with him while they both look over the creation of their hands.
Today we are farming in Madonna House. Tomorrow we are farming in South America or Africa, where we have just our two hands and primitive tools.
We slowly first do things the way the local people do them. We do them with great respect for the people and deep concentration and observation. Later we might introduce some of our ways, but gently, with simple means, being careful not to offend, not to show off, etc.
Apostolic farming goes deep. It doesn’t use only its educated brain. It humbly goes to the elders and to the farmers who have been farming for many years and are not yet elders, and sit at their feet as it were, and listen, gently, courteously, respectfully, for they have the knowledge of centuries behind them.
Some part of that knowledge will be useful. We can discuss it and appraise it in the light of some new discoveries.
To have a closed mind, to think that there is only one way of doing a thing, to argue in order to have one’s own way—all this is tragic for apostolic farming.
If you haven’t the guts to endure trial and error constantly, to face endless failures in a small way, realizing that failures are stepping stones to success, if you haven’t the desire to start over again realizing that farming, like everything else with God, is always "starting all over again"—then there is no apostolic farming.
An apostolic farmer must be alert to everything. So much depends on this alertness of love, on this self-forgetfulness, on this getting away from centering on one’s own problems. The creatures of God with which the farm deal, both plants and animals as well as the people it feeds, need his constant attention.
I see apostolic farming providing real knowledge, in which book-knowledge has been weighed, tried, changed, re-adapted or accepted. This requires vision and lack of fear. It requires the ability to "take the rap." It requires maturity of mind and heart.
Apostolic farming demands the whole of a man or woman. It is the best way to die to self because the demands of nature, of animals, are there to remind him like no bell in any monastery can remind him, of the duty of the moment.
If you miss a day, there will be no hay. If you plow a little too late, there will be no harvest. If you seed one hour too late and a storm comes, then all your work will be undone.
Nowhere do men and women come closer to God than in the country, in the rural areas, and nowhere are they closer to him than when they till the earth and look after the flock.
How Christ loved to use the parables of sheep; he used them constantly. Tenderness to animals was in his voice, in a sense Tenderness to the earth and all growing things was there, too. Have we got that love? Have we got that understanding?
Nothing apostolic is ever "beneath" anyone. This is impossible because every apostolic action has an eternal value. Tossing garbage cans and manure around have the same value as writing a thesis or working in any other occupation that appears to be "cleaner."
Everything the farmer deals with is clean and everything has a purpose. The manure is going to give us food next year. The hog will be eaten.
Apostolic farming must be approached with great humility. The learned man—the really learned one—knows that he knows nothing or very little.
The apostolic farmer has for his teacher God and the nature God has created. He learns at the source of all schooling.
This is where everything has begun. This is where all knowledge comes from originally, whence man was finally able to conquer the earth and allow it to yield his food. From there he can learn an awful lot about a lot of things.
The apostolic farmer is reverent with himself and with growing things, for he deals with the mystery of life.
We had a movie which showed us the whole process of growth, and someone said he didn’t understand what happened in that little kernel of a seed. Frankly and simply, what happened was God.
There are in the world two people who really touch God. The priest touches God in his very essence. The farmer touches God in his creation as it came from his hands.
The apostolic farmer talks to God about the needs of the animals he deals with, about the seeds he has to plant. He hears the voice of God.
The apostolic farmer is a man of vision because he forever has before him the unlimited horizon of the earth. He gets up on a hill and he sees more earth, more fields, and more trees, and he remembers that only God can make a tree.
The apostolic farmer is a man of prayer. He knows his limitations, and it is on his knees that he begs God for light, for ingenuity, for vision, so that he can produce something out of nothing. For well he understands that alone he can never do it, but with God all things are possible.
Deep are the roots of the apostolic farmer! Deep is the idea of apostolic farming!
But its roots, deep as they are, like its fruits, are always God’s, and they are fertilized with the things of God which are death to self, poverty, obedience, knowledge of the value of time, veneration for all creatures. Even the tools of farming should be as holy to the apostolic farmer as the vessels of the altar.
Yes, these are the things I think about when I think about farming.
Excerpted and adapted from Apostolic Farming, a book put together from a talk given by Catherine Doherty in January 1959, less than two years after our farm was purchased. Apostolic Farming is available from MH Publications.
If you enjoy our articles, we ask you to please consider subscribing to the print edition of Restoration; it's only $10 a year, and will help us stay in print. Thanks, and God bless you!