GOD 101: The Meaning of Mud, by Phyllis Tickle

As an author, editor, lecturer, and authority on religious books, Phyllis Tickle spends nearly half her time on the road, far beyond her backcountry home.  But her sense of life and purpose radiates from the place she nicknamed, “Lucy Goose Farm,” where she lives, plants, feeds, bakes, sews, and grows in Lucy, Tennessee. 

We came here twenty years ago from downtown Memphis – not to escape the city, but because we felt that we were the last generation to really know how to live on the land.  We have seven children, and we watched those kids try to understand life in terms of Little League and car pools, and everything was brick and concrete and asphalt in their lives.  So we came out here, and all our friends thought we were crazy.

We bought this place and said, “If we have it, we’re going to grow it or make it.”  And so we carried it to silly levels.  I made their clothes.  I made our bread.  Sam grew the broom corn that he made our brooms with.  We had chickens, and we sold the extra eggs down at the Lucy Market.  We did the whole bit.  And the kids – when the calves would begin to come, they’d pick the one they thought was the best and, with Daddy, would agree that, when came a hard freeze in January, that was the one that we’d slaughter.

Out here, living this way, even though it’s artificially contrived by parents who’re a little weird, the first thing you learn is that we’re not the measure of anything.  We’re never going to win out here.  Do you know what I mean?  Enlightenment and Western civilization in the last three hundred years has been built on the notion that man is the measure of all things.  That’s bull!  Man’s the measure of absolutely nothing.  But you forget that, when you’re in the city and everything is scaled to man.  Everything is to human size.

We’ve lived through two ice storms in our twenty years.  We’ve had three or four tornadoes.  We’ve been devastated.  We lose power regularly.  The well has gone out.  All of those things happen, and it’s life.  There’s a vitality here.  And there is an awareness that, because we’re not going to win, we don’t have to.  We don’t have to win.

When Sam and I die, we’ll be buried just on the other side of our property line, in the community cemetery.  Every time I leave this farm, I pass where I will be.  I have to tip my hat, so to speak, to that ground.  I, who have lived on Lucy’s soil, will become part of Lucy’s soil – so that other people can live on it.  And it’s a whole way of being exposed, being surrounded entirely by story and by sheer vitality.  In a city, half of what you see is inanimate.  It truly is not alive.  You can describe it in some way other than narrative.  It has no vitality of its own.  Here, everything is alive.  And because it’s so alive and so permanent, and because it really is going to win – it’s going to bury us.  Sam works seven or eight hours a day, in addition to a full medical practice, just keeping this place so it doesn’t bury us.  Some day, they’re going to find us under mounds of kudzu.

But the truth of it is that, while all of that’s happening, there’s also such enormous permanence here, such a consistency of the cycles, and a magnificence of all of the growth that’s happening here, that you are caught in majesty that doesn’t require anything of you except just a sense of, “Yeah, it’s here.  And God bless me for the time I’m part of it.  How wonderful to be part of it!”

The problem with a great deal of institutional religion right now in this country is that it is separated from vitality.  It is separated from the sense of constant livingness.  It becomes a theory, as do so many things in the city.  It becomes something that you can manipulate and becomes an object.

Out here, nothing is an object.  And the first thing you learn is that you can colive with these things, you can coexist with these things.  You can engage them in story.  You can’t engage them in fact.  You can engage them in terms of their changing cycles which, the more they change, are ever the same.  That’s basically theology.  I don’t think it’s any accident that every great religion has begun in a Garden of Eden – it’s not just Judeo-Christian tradition that began in a garden – because it is in the garden where the measure of all things is life itself.  If you want to call that God, so be it.  But the measure of all things is life, itself, in a garden.  And the intimacy is with everything – everything I touch here is alive.  Even the fence posts are in the process of rotting or being taken down by paper wasps or something.  Everything is alive.  Life pushes in our doors.  You know, the house is full of flowers and plants and mud that gets tracked in, and all of that.

Inhabiting a “Thin Place” 

The Celts call it the “thin place” (where the gap between the human and the divine is at its narrowest).  And I’m not sure that the Lucy Goose Farm is exactly a thin place, but the activities that happen here are “thin” activities.  As spirituality became very important in America over the last five years, I got more bread-making books to review than you would believe, because you can’t mix bread without being in what I would call a “thin” activity.  When your hands are in that dough and when you are stilled, when your attention is stilled to exactly what that yeast will and won’t let you do – and it’s different every time you put your hands in it – you’re in the kind of activity that says, “I am manipulating, I am shaping, I am dealing with life, and it deals back.”  It has its own will.  It has its own way of being.  And it becomes a kind of prayer, because you’re manipulating for the sake of your children.  Your mind is stilled.  Your hands are occupied.  And you’re aware of the wonder you cannot see – which is indeed happening beneath your hands.

There are activities one does that become a kind of physical mantra.  They’re repetitive things that allow the mind to be quiet and allow the soul to come out.  We, in this country, are kind of fearful about letting souls come out and about dealing with our spirits.  We’re getting over that.

From The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World, Bob Abernethy and William Bole

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