I think of Assisi. In two months’ time I’ll be back there, having visited for the past two years on retreat with friends from College. I think of the relaxing afternoons reading books and chatting; I think of the ice creams up in Assisi town and the peaceful interiors of churches and chapels. I think of the hot Italian sun blazing down and blessing us – and in a moment I remember the feeling of muscles working the vines, taming the grapevines so that the sun can bless the grapes as well.
An essential part of our annual Assisi trip is to join in the work of the monastery: to rest and pray, yes, but also to get our hands a little dirty by harvesting elderberries, or raking hay from fields, or taming the forty grapevines. It’s hard work, and towards the end of a hot morning twisting scratchy, tall, sweet-smelling vines around taut wire frames, you feel like you just want to stop. But you keep going, because the sun needs to bless the grapes too, because you know that with the taming of these vines fruit will swell into abundance. Fruit that will be pressed into bottles, made into wine.
I think of Ruth, too, from the Bible. I’ve been reading her story recently, a story slipped into the Old Testament between Judges and the Samuels. Four chapters of quiet glory.
Ruth was a Moabite, brought up outside the family of God. She married into Naomi’s family – married one of Naomi’s two sons. Naomi was from Bethlehem, but her and her husband had moved to Moab to avoid famine.
In a heart-wrenching three sentences, we learn that Naomi’s husband and two sons die. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law are left in Moab, three single women in a man’s world. And so Naomi and Ruth, on the strength of a whisper from God, take the ten-day trip back to Bethlehem.
In chapter two of Ruth’s story, we learn that Ruth goes out to the fields to gather grain. Ruth and Naomi need something to eat, to give them life – so Ruth goes, gathering and gleaning the ears of grain that the harvesters leave behind them. I’ve never gleaned grain before, but I guess it’s hot work, hard work, a back-breaking task under the blazing sun. It cost Ruth much to be there – her energy, her comfort, even her safety – but she knew that it would bear fruit for her and Naomi. She believed that her costly work would break out into abundance.
And it did – in more ways than she would ever have imagined. Not only did she take home more than enough food for herself and Naomi; she also met the man she married, and she later gave birth to the grandfather of David, an ancestor of Jesus.
The point is this: that perseverance is costly, but that cost breaks out into abundance. Ruth bent down day-after-day, for the whole of the harvest, to gather grain to bless her mother-in-law. I help to tame vines in Assisi for five days a year, to help the sun bless the grapes so that they can be made into wine. We all have much more everyday things that we struggle to persevere with – but cost breaks out into abundance. Perseverance swells into fruit.
And do you know why? There is a clue in Ruth’s story. While she is gleaning, the owner of the field comes out to speak to her. In startling graciousness he says to her – Ruth – the poor foreigner and grieving widow:
No matter what the cost, to endure under God’s wings is to know blessing. To persevere with His strength supporting us – as it always does – is to see fruit grow.