The Eucharist offers us many gifts: memorial, thanksgiving, empowerment by the Spirit. There are many ways to approach such an intimate act and find deeper communion with God.
A group of seminarians at Virginia Theological Seminary found increased intimacy with the Eucharist by growing wheat for the communion host. How many Biblical passages mention planting, harvesting, wheat, chaff, and fertile ground? The entire process became an extended lectio divina.
Planting the wheat taught us patience. Winter wheat needs to be planted weeks before the ground freezes so that the wheat can take root and survive the winter cold. Last fall, we recruited a group of children to help us plant the wheat next to their playground. It was a joy to see them excited about the planting.
The first year, we planted the wheat by scattering the seed. We were reminded of the parable of the sower.
We tried to prepare the soil ahead of time so that all of it would be ready to receive the wheat. We added compost and removed the weeds. And yet some grains landed too close to each other and choked each other, some landed in the shade which slowed or stopped their growth, and some landed among rocks or grew up with weeds.
Through the winter, wild geese or other animals found the small plants a fine meal. Seeing the wheat survive the snow and other potential hazards gave us an appreciation for each little plant. We could remember seeing each stalk grow inch by inch, as the spring crept along. Eight months we waited for the harvest.
Harvesting the wheat helped us appreciate the challenge of this process. The parable of separating the wheat from the chaff takes on a literal sense after actually separating the wheat berries from the chaff that clings to them—labor-intensive work!
We also experienced a subtle mental shift after grinding the grain. Instead of simply buying flour at the store, we were responsible for its transformation from wheat berry to a silky-fine powder with our grinder.
The second year of our wheat planting has begun. As an act of solidarity with subsistence farmers, we are trying a planting technique that is sustainable and greatly improves yield. The technique is called System of Root Intensification (SRI).
SRI was developed in Madagascar in the 1980s by a Jesuit priest who worked with subsistence farmers, trying different methods based on observation and plant biology. A small-scale farmer in northern India recently broke the world yield record for rice using this method, demonstrating that small-scale farmers using sustainable techniques can feed the world!
Another process that filled us with great joy was the ministry of baking the communion host with children who attend the beloved VTS Butterfly House Preschool and Daycare. Seeing the children take charge of the baking with confidence was a real gift.
Having planted, harvested, and ground the wheat before baking the communion host, we better appreciate how much work is involved. We feel more connected with farmers around the world.
The words “Give us this day our daily bread” have taken on many connotations when we are more involved in the process. The institution that our Lord gave us became imbued with all these many memories, joys, and trials.
If you would like to plant your own wheat, we have written instructions below. Happy harvesting!
Robin Denney, Taylor Poindexter, and Bryan Spoon are seminarians at VTS.
Either hard or soft winter wheat will need to be planted before the winter freeze. Virginia Tech has extensive information on planting times for the Mid-Atlantic region. For your region, you may need to look up which zone you are located in.
There are also several inexpensive books that explain growing and harvesting wheat. Planting the wheat with children is best. There are several ways to plant, either by scatter technique, in rows, or in small mounds with just several seeds. For more information on the SRI technique, check out this site.
A faster method of planting than SRI is planting in lines along a twine: Secure a piece of twine or rope where you want the row to be planted. After digging or rototilling the ground, drag your hand along the line to form a shallow furrow. Dribble seeds into the furrow, cover and tamp down. Once the seeds come up, thin them to the appropriate spacing. Check the spacing for your variety, but generally rows 1 foot apart and plants 5 inches apart will work.
In early- to mid-July the wheat should be ready to harvest. You will know that it is ready to harvest when the wheat stalks begin to bend. The stalks will have gone from green to brown or yellow. The wheat will also crunch in your teeth when it is ready to harvest.
After cutting and drying the stalks, the wheat berries can be beaten off of the stalks inside of a large bin to collect the berries. Pouring the berries from one bin into another behind a fan or strong wind will remove the chaff. The wheat berries can be stored in bins to dry before being ground.
There are many commercially available grinders. Some are hand-cranked while others are electric. We chose a Nutrimill Classic Grain Mill because of the high reviews.
Here is the communion host recipe that we use at Virginia Theological Seminary. Baking the bread with children or in a rota amongst other congregants or friends is a wonderful way to experience communion with others. Seeing the joy in the children of a job well done is a real gift.