I once watched a children’s presentation in a worship service that had a character who became impatient with the absence of visible growth in some seeds he had planted. He consults an agricultural expert and learns that he had perhaps not done the planting correctly and should have spaced the seeds out more. So he digs them up and replants, only to still see no progress. Another expert opines that the seeds grow best when they are planted right next to each other, a verdict which again inspires the farmer to dig the seeds up and crowd them together under the dirt. Days pass without any signs of green shoots. Exasperated, the farmer kneels down next to the planted patch of earth and shouts at the dirt, “Grow! Grow!” Still nothing.
While the absurdity of the farmer’s various efforts to make his seeds grow seems clear in the story, those same efforts show up in our efforts to grow spiritually—and may be equally absurd. All spiritual traditions do offer techniques for growth and practices that, if pursued diligently, will make us wiser/more peaceful/healthier/more loving/better in every way.
Yet a paradox is embedded in these practices: at some point, just as the farmer found his efforts ultimately did not make the seeds grow as he wanted, we may well discover that we are not being transformed into the spiritually evolved persons we had envisioned. This can be interpreted as a failure, and like the farmer we may be tempted to throw ourselves ever more relentlessly into growth efforts.
The alternative at such a point is the same alternative which seems readily apparent in the story, namely to just sit back, wait, and trust that in the darkness growth is happening, that the seeds come with the capacity to grow and may not require us to do much of anything. We can improve ourselves, often significantly, through spiritual practice. But part of spiritual growth—perhaps the greatest part—will happen outside our control, in the darkness of the soul, on a time and in a way we cannot determine. We do well to work on ourselves; we also do well to accept who we are, even be willing to wonder at the beauty and grace already present in the person we are today, right now, unfolding.