Charles L. O’Donnell
The seed, Lord, falls on stony ground
Which sun and rain can never bless—
Until the soil is broken found—
With harvest fruitfulness.
Plow then the rock, and plow again,
That so some blade of good may start,
After the searching share of pain
Has cut a furrow through my heart.
This prayer-poem by the Catholic poet-priest Charles L. O’Donnell takes up an agricultural metaphor that will be familiar to readers of scripture: the heart as soil bed, cultivated by Farmer God. In the Bible, God’s people are sometimes described as hard-hearted, resistant to God’s will and therefore incapable of flourishing. But graciously, God promises to break through that hardness and make their hearts soft, lush, and plantable (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26).
Consider the resonance of O’Donnell’s Process with Jesus’s parable of the sower:
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds . . . fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. . . . This is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. (Matthew 13:3–5, 20)
God’s work as Plowman is to give us the depth and quality of soil that’s needed for the seeds of the gospel to take root and grow in us. It’s a process for sure—preparing the ground to receive new life. And it will hurt, as plowing involves cutting and crushing. But although the blade of God seems destructive, tearing up our old habits and attachments, it is actually constructive, ultimately giving way to vegetation. The “blade of good” in line 6 refers not to the harsh steel of the furrowing device but to the leaf of grass that arises as a result.
The speaker of the poem recognizes the spiritual barrenness caused by his obduracy and begs God to steer his plow blade into his heart, making possible “harvest fruitfulness” and blessing.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
D I G D E E P E R
For commentary on a thematically similar poem, see
Excerpts from ‘The Everlasting Mercy’ by John Masefield.
Cover art: John Constable (British, 1776–1837), Spring Ploughing, 1821. Oil on panel, 36.2 × 19 cm.
Charles Leo O’Donnell
Charles Leo O’Donnell (1884–1934) was born in Greenfield, Indiana, the son of Irish immigrants. He studied Anglo-Saxon literature at Harvard, then went on to receive his doctorate at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. In 1910 he received ordination into the Congregation of Holy Cross (CSC) and forthwith began a professorship in the English department of the University of Notre Dame, later serving as university president. Between those two assignments he served as a military chaplain in the US Army during World War I.
In addition to his academic obligations, O’Donnell maintained a private writing practice, majoring on religious poetry. He published three collections during his lifetime: The Dead Musician, and Other Poems (1916); Cloister, and Other Poems (1922); and The Rime of the Rood, and Other Poems (1928).
Victoria Emily Jones
Victoria Emily Jones lives in the Baltimore area of the United States, where she works as an editorial freelancer and blogs at ArtandTheology.org. Her interest is in how the arts—visual, literary, musical, and performing—can stimulate renewed theological engagement with the Bible. A contributing writer for ArtWay, Transpositions, and the International Mission Board, she is in the process of developing an online biblical art gallery.
You can find her on Twitter @artandtheology.