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Why Your Soul Care is Organic (But Not An Accident)
When we use the word “organic” we often mean unintentional. But growth doesn’t just happen, at least not without some work.
“You may need this,” my friend said. He pressed a book into my hand.
My friend was about to go on a journey to Honduras, where he and his wife would run the operations of an orphanage for kids with HIV. The community, Montaña de Luz, was formed after Hurricane Mitch forced Hondurans inland to resettle and HIV became rampant.
The book was about organic gardening.
My dear friend, among other things, was a gardener supreme and the book was to help me start my own functioning organic garden. I had read the work of Wendell Berry and was preparing for the birth of my daughter. I was then ready to see new life bursting forth everywhere. Whether new life was in the delicate pink hands of my daughter, or in the lush leaves of cucumbers and tomatoes, it didn’t matter. Things were growing.
So, I practiced organic gardening for a while. I made some progress, and I failed in colossal ways as well. But I was surprised how much life emerged from the little plot in my backyard.
I hear people – specifically churches and church leaders – use the word “organic” to apply to a whole host of different things. Organic numerical growth, organic spiritual growth, organic relational growth: it all feels a bit tired honestly because I know what’s behind the word.
When we use the word “organic” we often mean unintentional.
The belief is that things will just “happen” if we put people in the same room or content in the hands of the people. Growth will happen. Community will happen.
This belief is prevalent when we feel stalled and stuck in our own personal growth. We believe if we could just read the right thing, pray the right way, engage with the right practice, that growth will simply happen.
But the secret of organic gardening, as I soon found out, is that there is nothing unintentional or accidental about organic anything.
Growth doesn’t just happen, at least not without some work.
Too often the busyness we allow to reign in our lives makes organic soul health very appealing. I don’t have the time to devote to soul health, we think, so letting it happen “organically” seems like a great idea.
It is only a matter of time before we realize that organic growth will not happen despite our rhythms, habits, and choices.
Organic gardening requires far more planning, intention, and thoughtfulness than other forms because you are not using easy answers to common problems. The vision is not simply healthy plants, but healthy plants produced by healthy processes.
I find a strong parallel between organic gardening and the way soul health and spiritual growth truly thrive.
The way we go about tending to the most important thing about us – our soul – is so much like the way we use natural means to care for plant life. In fact, the same metaphors and images of gardening move easily into the conversation about soul health and flourishing.
Organic growth requires a plan: specific, intentional, and graceful steps that open our lives up to more and more of the Spirit every day.
I see 3 images from organic gardening that help us think about our soul health and flourishing in new ways...
1. The soil. The soil. The soil.
Soil is often assumed. When we think about growing plants we think about seeds, fertilizer, sun, and water. But without the soil – without good soil – none of the other elements matter. Soil must be cared for and cultivated. Rocks need to be removed, healthy elements like sand and bone or blood meal need to be added, and the soil needs to be broken and tilled.
The plan for soil is to protect it and to add things that are beneficial. In other words, how we grow is intimately tied to what we’re growing in.
What are the specific elements we add to the “soil” of our lives? What things do we allow to run free through our mind, heart, hands, and relationships and do they lead us to “life and life to the full?” (John 10:10)
I found several years ago that my times of prayer were hindered by what I was eating. How? The better I ate, the less drowsiness I experienced when I was trying to quiet myself and listen to Spirit. Changing what I ate from fried, heavy foods to foods that my body needed made it easier to focus without drifting.
Is eating well essential to praying? Maybe. The soil of my life needed the element of healthier eating so I could have healthier conversations with the Divine. When we consider the elements outside of us that affect what goes on within us, that is how we pay attention to the soil of our soul.
2. Removing, not killing.
Organic gardening isn’t about killing pests, necessarily, but about removing them. There is something about that adversity that a toxic chemical can erase, but what do you lose? We can destroy plants by destroying the elements that destroy the plants. That’s a little confusing, but I think you get it.
In other words, it is much easier to spray pesticide than it is to do daily checks of each plant picking off the creepy crawlies that threaten the verdant leaves.
There are toxic ways to deal with the obstacles to our souls, but the better part would be to figure out how we embrace them for what they are before removing them from our lives.
Paul talks about how suffering produces character and character produces hope and hope never disappoints. (Romans 5:3-5) In other words the threats – the pests, if you will – are key to our growth and flourishing.
Our plan for soul health should include a way to embrace the struggles and trials and learn to transform them into character which then becomes the kind of hope that helps us live and lead from a place of resiliency and overflow.
A spiritual director is the kind of person that helps us remove obstacles to the life with God we’re designed to live. Spiritual directors offer non-anxious spaces for us to listen to what God is up to in our everyday life. Especially in times of spiritual confusion, crisis, or dryness a director can help us hold in tension the desire to move past these times of suffering and the need for our struggles to be embraced so that they can shape us.
For an hour a month, we can bring our obstacles to someone who helps us be gentle with ourselves. A spiritual director reminds us that we are God’s beloved kids in whom God is well pleased, and if that is true then Spirit can lead us into and through times of difficulty in ways that transform – rather than destroy – us.
3. We all need a trellis.
Structure is important. Green beans need a framework to grow on, and so do roses. Zucchini need space, corn needs the tassels trimmed, and tomatoes need the bottom branches “suckered.” Organic gardening is about giving plants space and structure that allows them to do exactly what they are built to do – grow.
A structure is just as important for our souls, not as a heavy demand but as a guideline that we can return to when life gets difficult, and we start leaning in different directions. Our souls are designed to grow, built from the beginning to be transformed into the image of Jesus in our own lives (Romans 8:29). The way we grow into soul health is by making intentional plans and choices that allow ourselves to grow.
The ancient spiritual masters like St. Benedict called this structure “a rule of life.” The word “rule” is from the Latin word regula which literally means “guide” or “trellis.” Far from being a rule that we are enslaved to, the trellis is what gives us life and helps encourage and guide our growth.
Many times this rule – or what I would call “a framework for soul health” – captures daily, weekly, monthly, and annual practices around which we shape the rest of our days.
For many years, my practice has been to get up at 4 AM to start my day. Now to be clear, I do not love getting up at 4 AM. It does not fill me with joy and in fact it is usually 4:30 or so before I realize that I got up at 4 AM.
However, for me to have the quiet space to read and reflect, to stretch my aging body, and to prepare a few thoughts for the day I need to claim time that has no other claims on it. So, the alarm goes off early.
But it isn’t only about getting up. It starts the night before. Just like an organic gardener must prep the soil before ever planting a seed, I must set up my coffee the night before and say “No” to one more episode of our favorite streaming show so I can get to bed in time.
The power of the trellis is that it allows us to say “yes” and “no” to things that give or take away our soul health. Of course, there are seasons of life when living by a rule like this isn’t possible. That is the other beautiful benefit of a trellis – when things get out of hand, we have practical and defined choices that help us get back to opening space for Spirit to give us life.
Final Thoughts: This Wild, Chosen Life
I currently live in a suburb and due to demands of work and life I don’t grow food anymore. But the books are still on my shelf. However, I went to visit my friend in Honduras in 2007 and I saw his garden. It was wild, unkempt, but vibrant with peppers, squash, and watermelons.
Then I went to the orphanage where I saw wild, unkempt, kids who were vital and alive because they were receiving the HIV treatments they needed. Why? Because someone had a plan and created a place where life could flourish. Just like the wild garden in my friend’s backyard.
What is your plan for flourishing? Where is God’s Spirit leaning into you, inviting you to make significant choices towards how your life may flourish in the future?
Not sure where to begin?
A soul care plan is a digital interactive workbook that guides you on a prayerful journey where you'll consider the five areas of human flourishing in your own life.
Casey Tygrett leads the spiritual direction team at Soul Care as well as providing resources and guidance to those taking a sabbatical. Casey is a pastor and the author of three books, including The Gift of Restlessness: A Spirituality For Unsettled Seasons and Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions. Casey and his family live in Chicago, IL. (www.caseytygrett.com)