Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: CULTIVATING SOIL AND SOUL – Michael Woods, S.J. [Vol. 3, #14]

“There are no Unsacred Places”

A Review of
Cultivating Soil and Soul:
Twentieth-Century Catholic Agrarians
Embrace the Liturgical Movement

by Michael J. Woods, SJ

Reviewed by Ragan Sutterfield.


Cultivating Soil and Soul:
Twentieth-Century Catholic Agrarians
Embrace the Liturgical Movement

by Michael J. Woods, SJ

Paperback: Liturgical Press, 2010.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]

CULTIVATING SOIL AND SOUL“Good liturgy and sound agrarianism share a common bond” writes Michael J. Woods, SJ in Cultivating Soil and Soul.  Both are sacramental arts—both hold true to the idea that Wendell Berry expressed so well in his poem “How to Be a Poet”:

There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Good liturgy helps us name all that is sacred—to incorporate daily life into the holy.  The liturgical stance is one that repeats Berry’s poem with different objects: There is no unsacred work, there is only sacred work and desecrated work; there are no unsacred people, there are only sacred people and desecrated people.

It is the good work of the church to continually work to name and acknowledge the sacred—to liberate the desecrated and reveal the once “unsacred.”  Of course this is a continuous work that must be begun again and again.  There is always a tendency to specialize the sacred, to limit its scope and place by making it the domain of experts and institutions.  We must continually question those institutions and invite them again and again to do the work to which they were called—revealing the sacred everywhere it truly is.


It was exactly this sort of work that the Roman Catholic liturgical movement of the early 20th century took up.  Following the teaching of Prosper of Aquitaine (ca. fifth century) the liturgical movement followed the maxim “lex orandi lex credendi—the law of prayer grounds the law of belief.”  In other words it is the worship of the church that should ground the church’s beliefs and practices.  More importantly it points to the idea that how a church worships changes how a church lives.

Cultivating Soil and Soul centers on the ways in which two Roman Catholic priests, Virgil Michael and Edwin O’Hara working in the first half of the twentieth century took many lessons from the liturgical movement and tried to form the life of the rural church to name properly the sacredness in all of their lives.  The result was the National Catholic Rural Life Conference—an organization that produced some of the church’s best thinking on living the Christian life in the full abundance of creation.

Long before the new agrarian movement the NCRLC maintained at its first convention in 1923 that “land (especially soil) was ‘the greatest material gift from God’ and possessed a sacramental quality to it.  The NCRLC later [1940] declared soil stewardship the ‘11th Commandment.’”

This understanding was born out of the efforts of Michael and O’Hara to honor the sacredness of daily life in rural parishes, and once they had named the sacred it was easy to begin to see the places and ways of desecration that were already spreading in the early part of the 20th Century through industrialization.  As Woods writes, “Fr. Edwin O’Hara witnessed firsthand the disintegration that was occurring in the American countryside, especially but not exclusively among Catholics.  This compelled him to found the NCRLC in 1923…As a priest he not only cared for the faithful’s religious life but their socioeconomic (agricultural), educational, and cultural life.”

The NCLRC sought to make a strong link between the land and the work of farmers on the land and the very center of liturgical life—the paschal mystery.  They argued that, “Not only does liturgy depend on the land for its sacramental materials but the whole sacramental economy has unfolded through creation, took on a new intensity in the Word made flesh, and was consummated in Christ’s paschal mystery, ‘for us and our salvation.’”

Woods argues that the work of the NCLRC in the first half of the 20th century is complimented by the work of agrarians like Wendell Berry.  “Berry’s thought on culture, while not strictly liturgical, provides keen insight into the demands for a true flourishing of communities,” argues Woods.

The final chapter of the book “Weaving Together Liturgy, Culture, and Justice” may in fact have the most interest for general readers for it is here that Woods really delves into the connection of contemporary agrarian challenges and the wisdom coming from the NCRLC of Edwin O’Hara.  The first several chapters of the book is more a history, the last chapter more a manifesto calling Christians  to seek “a more profound, organic approach…that will make the liturgy truly inculturated, honoring all that is good in it, and allowing it to become and integral source of justice.”

Woods provides some helpful examples of liturgies that were born out of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference as well as some helpful profiles of individuals who were a part of the movement.  Their witness is one we should all hear as we seek once again to rescue the sacred from both apathy and destruction.  Michael Woods’ book is an excellent call to this new work.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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