Soil for Spirituality: Eugene Peterson on the Right Conditions for Spiritual Growth [Under the Unpredictable Plant 3]

I recently re-read Eugene Peterson’s classic book on pastoral ministry based in the life of Jonah, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992). There is so much in this book, but I am merely sharing a few pieces that have stuck out powerfully to me in this particular season of time.

Picking up on Peterson’s earlier discussion of askesis he offers a view of spiritual growth through the lens of organic farming. I find Peterson’s outworking of this all very helpful because he recognizes the conditions in which we live our lives as intimately tied to spiritual growth.

Earlier I used the words organic and soil as metaphors for the development of a customized askesis. These metaphors from organic gardening are apt. They are also useful for guarding against the proliferation of mechanical and imposed schemes of spirituality that promise so much and ruin so many.

I use the image of soil to represent the place in which I cultivate the life of prayer which then develops into my vocational spirituality. When analyzed, this soil is seen to comprise many elements: actual congregation, family background, personal education, individual temperament, regional climate, local politics, mass culture. The soil conditions in Vermont are different from those in Texas. Any attempt to grow crops that is not mindful of soil will not be successful.

Any attempt to cultivate a spirituality copied from something grown on someone else’s soil is as misguided as planting orange groves in Minnesota. Careful and detailed attention must be given to the conditions, inner and outer, historical and current, in which I, not you, exist. Nothing comes to grief more swiftly than an imitative spirituality that disregards conditions. Spirituality cannot be imposed, it must be grown. Prayer is not a scarecrow put together from old scraps of lumber and cast-off clothing and then pushed into the soil; it is seed that germinates in the soil, sensitive to everything that is there — nitrogen and potash, earthworms and potato bugs, rain and sun, April and October, rabbit teeth and human hands. Most of what goes on is invisible and inaccessible to human control. Everything is connected, proportions are important, size is critical. Anyone who works this soil of spirituality for very long becomes wary of artificial additives. Pesticides and fertilizers that perform miraculously for a season are often ruinous over a lifetime. Tools must be used according to what the plant and soil need, not according to what we are good at doing: enthusiasm with a shovel will destroy a tender tomato plant when all that was needed was the deft application of a hoe to loosen the soil. Knowledge of the tools (disciplines) is necessary, but the knowledge will surely be destructive if not incorporated into a practiced familiarity with the actual soil conditions and a studied reverence in which vegetables, fruits, souls, and bodies actually grow.

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 108-110

Other posts in this series:

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