Assisi elderberries

The berries are tiny, perfectly spherical black beads. They glisten and coruscate, drawing our eyes towards their multitudinous depth as we search for stray stalks or unruly greens. Sixteen hands are stained purple already as this search is conducted, as the harvest is prepared to be made into jam to eat with cheese.

These sixteen hands haven’t rested from their work for three and a half hours; yet, they are pleased.

Pleased to work, diving and revelling in the earthy, sweet-tangy smell of elderberry juice. Pleased to be a part of the production of something that began as a tree planted less than a hundred metres away. Pleased to be busy while mouths chatter, while opinions and hearts are shared.

There’s something so together about this work. We all sit around one table, all eight of us, and stroke the berries from their clustered stalks as one of the brothers had previously demonstrated.

‘Like stroking a beard,’ he had said, his eyes twinkling with laughter from above his own resplendent beard.

We smiled back and stroked the elderberry beards. Our conversations wandered, the brother’s Italian mixing with our English. Bridges built between two languages, two cultures.

No less striking than the togetherness of this work was the knowledge that these tiny, delicate berries came from the earth through no work of our own. From a seed their tree sprang up, taking root in the rocky and dusty Italian ground of a sun-soaked ditch’s side. It grew, enjoying the nearby lizards which alternately basked in hot sun and darted across dry stones. Waiting, it stretched out branches and put forth deep green leaves, smattered eventually with lacy yellow-white flowers – flat, upturned towards the sky, delicate. The flowers fell and rounded out into heavy clusters, rich and abundant bunches of berries weighing down slender branches.

All of this happened before our hands reached up to grasp and receive these gifts sprung up from the earth, to make these fruits our own. All of this was done through sun and water and earth: God spoke and it came to be. God spoke and the roots were put down, the branches were unfurled. Like water his words flowed out and sustained the elderberry tree as it stood alone; like grace his words came to our ears and invited us to ‘take, eat. I had provided for you from the earth.’

Our hands are grateful as they work, our sixteen hands taking and receiving the providence of God, the fruit of his words.

Into this idyllic process, this earthy and gritty taking and receiving and industrious thanksgiving, come words that cut like a knife.

‘In Nice…there was a terroristic attack, did you hear?’ One of the brothers walked in to share the news.
‘Eighty four dead – a, urrr…what is the word? Truck? Big trailer? Vehicle?’ We watched his hands mine. A lorry.
‘Yes, a lorry. On the 14th July it ran into a crowd, killing eighty four. Blessé (injured) one hundred.’

Stunned silence overtook us. Into the peace of the monastery came this careening lorry full of guns and grenades and hurt.

As the news weighed down our hearts, our sixteen hands kept stroking the elderberry beards, still gentle, still moving. What more could we do? Tragedy and death interrupted the interweaving of the creative words of God and our receiving hands – what more could we do but overcome this interruption, with a little hesitation at first, and still trust the goodness of God to bring up green things from the earth, to provide for us?

Father, what more can we a do in a world so hurt but trust you?

‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.’ ~ John 1:5


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