Come to the Garden

Lisa Martin

It's a 0 degree day in January and I've finished inputting the 2017 Prairie Retreat Calendar on the sisters' website at  I'm dreaming of the sunny days I've spent at Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat and want to share the post below with you now so that you too might feel the warmth. Do enjoy and plan to visit The Prairie in 2017.  Happy New Year!  -Lisa

Come to the Garden by Patricia Monahan, CSJ

August 5th I returned home  from Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat (OLPR) near Wheatland, Iowa, a sponsored ministry of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. Refreshed and energized at The Prairie, nourished in body and spirit, I have been inspired by this wondrous “holy communion”…pond and pollen gardens welcoming a chorus of winged ones, humming birds darting bloom to blossom savoring earth’s sweetness, a monarch caterpillar munching upon its preferred milkweed unaware of the miracle within. Vast distant hillsides folding one upon another carpeted in fields of corn, wheat, soybean and so much more meets these city eyes. Any wonder this away time is a retreat entitled, “Retreating into the Universe Story?” 

I ask director/gardener/chef, Sister Kathleen Storms, SSND, “How may I help?” She responds, “Come to the garden!” After a midday meal of delectable organic heirloom veggies, freshly baked prairie bread and wild blackberries with ice cream, we don our sun hats, natural bug repellent, buckets, belts, and tools and head out to the garden behind the house. As we make our way along the stone steps and down an incline she points out the pollinator strip gardens. “When I arrived at The Prairie five years ago there were mostly lovely manicured lawns along with some meadows and decorative gardens.To grow and prosper, a garden need pollinators,” Kathleen began. Although I once taught the parts of plants and the process of pollination to fourth graders, Kathleen’s knowledge and enthusiasm delighted me.  We learn from the Universe Story that pollination is an ecosystem that evolved 130 million years ago for the benefit of flowering plants and their pollinators.  This interdependence is a vital stage in the life cycle of all flowering plants and is essential for seed and fruit production in flowers.  Besides providing food for plants, native pollinators provide food and cover for wildlife, as well as prevents erosion.  Realizing this, Kathleen secured a government grant for pollinator strips to attract, bees, honeybees, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, bats and birds, including the lovely hummingbird.   Many species migrate thousands of miles searching for blooming plants along the way. For example, monarch butterfly caterpillars eat only the milkweed plant and they find it here at this prairie retreat. Sadly, due to development, agribusiness, and changes in land use, many nectar corridors have disappeared. OLPR is a welcoming rest and feeding stop for our winged neighbors along their long journey.

Our conversation was a perfect introduction to the garden. Behold, a profuse and beautiful array of green leaves covering a black chain link fence of about an eight yard square. Amazingly abundant – all sprung from heirloom seeds! Three kinds of beans, a variety of tomato types, squash, rhubarb, peppers, broccoli, beets, eggplant, cucumbers, zucchini, garlicand even grape vines laden with ripening fruit. Kathleen knows this garden personally. “Zucchini doesn’t like wet feet so they have faded back in the rains. Beans keep producing as long as they are picked. Once they sense their work is completed, they stop producing. Grape vines reach out to one another,” as she points to a branch reaching across a row. Today we are harvesting beans, tomatoes, peppers, and a stalk of rhubarb for me to taste as a sauce. Heated and perspiring from high humidity, we head back to the kitchen with our treasures. 

By the end of the week we will have preserved seven mason jars of beans, five jars of pickles, and a dozen bags of sliced apples. All will nourish those who attend future retreats and programs. Kathleen shared that last year OLPR served over 5,300 meals at a fraction of the cost of purchased veggies.  Most of the expense is for free range organically raised chicken, beef, and pork, as required.  No growth hormones or antibiotics… animals humanely raised and slaughtered with gratitude for the nourishing gift of their lives from local farmers. Small farmers squeezed out by agribusiness have banded together in support of one another. Needless to say, the garden became a vital part of my retreat experience. Eating delicious vegetarian meals prepared lovingly by Kathleen and shared by retreatants was a communal celebration of life for each one of us.

After lunch one day, Sister Marcia Eckerman, CHM, Prairie Retreat Assistant, asked, “Pat, would you like a ride in the golf cart around the grounds?” “Yes,” I replied enthusiastically. We met at 3 PM and headed off from the statue of St. Joseph, the Journeyer, into the Universe Path.  Over hill and dale we trace the 13.7 billion year journey of the Universe stopping at markers along the way–the primordial flaring forth, elements, first stars, galaxies, Sun, the solar system, Earth awakening into life–oceans, simple celled- multi-celled life emerges, photosynthesis, land plants, insects, mammals, birds, flowers, humans. The journey allures one deeper and deeper into Mystery at the heart of the Universe. I recall the words of  my mentor and friend, Thomas Berry, “We are actually in a mystical rapport with the budding trees, the song birds, the graciousness of the sun, the amazing diversity of it all, but we need to acknowledge the sacredness of relationship, our communion with earth, the universe, and the Divine.”

Along the way we stop to gather wild blackberries as we admire prairie grasses waving in the breeze, the colorful profusion of meadow wildflowers, pausing eventually at the pond for a frog greeting or perhaps the appearance of a resident turtle. We sit silently. I ponder Meister Eckhart’s words, “Nothing in the universe resembles God more than silence.” So true! Silence enhances presence one with the other and mutual indwelling occurs.Thank you, Marcia, for this gift of sharing.

“I speak of Earth as subject, not as object,” Thomas Berry writes in his essay, The Spirituality of Earth.  He is speaking of the maternal principle from which the earliest humans emerged into consciousness some 2.6 million years ago.  Humans are Earthlings! (proud of it)  “Earth is our origin, our nourishment, our support, our guide,” Thomas continues. “Our spirituality itself is Earth-derived. Humans are a dimension of Earth.  Earth acts in all that acts upon Earth, spiritual energy emerges in complex planetary functions. Each form of life is integral with every other life form.” 

The title “Mother Earth” seems especially poignant in this prairie garden setting.  When I received the brochure announcing this retreat, I was irresistibly drawn to it. A cosmic moment of grace I like to think. Since making the Story of the Universe my own in the eighties, I’ve come to realize the depth of this intimate relationship and appreciate the Divine Presence throughout creation.  I’ve traveled a long way from New York to hear once again in the depth of my spirit, “My love, my dove, my beautiful one…Come to the Garden.”

Patricia Monahan, CSJ

Resource: Thomas Berry, “The Spirituality of Earth,” 1988 – given to me by himself with the note “Pat, may all your dreams be integral with the dream of the Earth”.