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Somewhere the spiritual desert hides a well

31 July 2015

Down on the allotment, John Austen considers the vital importance of refreshment, and its possible sources


Frail earthen vessels? Rain barrels on an allotment

Frail earthen vessels? Rain barrels on an allotment

THE people of Israel, while in the wilderness, sometimes looked back to Egypt with nostalgia: “Think of it! . . . we had fish for the asking, cucumbers and watermelons, leeks and onions and garlic” (Numbers 11.05). Much more interesting than endless manna — but growing those crops was labour-intensive in Egypt, where “after sowing your seed, you irrigated it by foot, like a vegetable garden” (Deuteronomy 11.10).

Maybe this referred to carrying the water; maybe to operating water-wheels by foot; maybe to moving earth with your feet, to open and shut the irrigation trenches. Whatever the reference meant, it certainly involved very hard work — and in the Promised Land it would all be so much easier, with autumn and spring rains (Deuteronomy 11.14).

Water supply is a huge and contentious issue in many countries. Water on allotments can be a tricky problem, too, with bans on “uncontrolled or excessive watering”. Summer can be difficult, if it is dry, and you have planted particularly thirsty vegetables. That means a lot of watering; and the regulations in some places permit the use of hoses only to fill containers, not directly on to the ground. Some allotments allow no use of hoses at all.

Jeremiah was familiar with the business of storing water. Like every good preacher, he used illustrations that his audience would recognise: “Two sins my people have committed: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and they have hewn out for themselves cisterns, cracked cisterns that can hold no water”(Jeremiah 2.13).

On the allotment, rainwater is reckoned to be better for plants than water from the mains. The trick is to store it rather than let it go to waste. So we do need cisterns —though these days they are not “hewn out” but arrive ready-made in brightly coloured plastic. My large blue water-barrels certainly aren’t cracked; in fact, even in summer, there’s water inside. Rainwater is fed into the first barrels via gutterings on the shed and on the greenhouse, and sections of hosepipe link those barrels to others. A few heavy thunderstorms do wonders for the water levels, and the rain is saved instead of just draining away without trace and in the wrong places.

Spiritual aridity affects us all at some point; the well runs dry. So I ponder where I get my living water — the stuff that keeps me alive, and refreshes me. Do I go out and collect it, or does it come to where I am? One response is to buy the new book that has been well reviewed, or that everyone is talking about. That’s a bit like filling the can from the standpipe, and getting an instant supply. It can be very helpful; but, of course, many of us have a collection of books on prayer which we thought would solve the problem, but which somehow never got read…

Then there’s the big-name preacher, or the conference/convention. That can provide a really refreshing experience, with the benefit of interaction with other people, and worship or teaching that gives a real sense of renewal.

But perhaps there is enough within our own everyday lives to refresh our spiritual roots, so that we do not have to look elsewhere for it. That means using and reflecting on what happens to us, and not letting our experience go to waste. Some people do this with the Ignatian review of the day. A book such as Sleeping with Bread offers a deceptively simple way of review- ing the day, and seeing where God has been active in it. Some people keep a journal, so that deep thoughts or experiences are not lost — disappearing like water into the sand — but are held, and reflected on.

Just as the rainwater in the barrels on the allotment may dry up when we don’t have enough sudden downpours, so our own faith sometimes needs replenishing from elsewhere, too. We need to carve out cisterns that will hold water. We need to find ways of containing, saving, and conserving the richness of the experience of God which we encounter through our day, or in our life.

That will help get us through the drought, when, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, we cry:“O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.”


John Austen is a priest and spiritual director living in Birmingham.

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