I plucked The Lilies of the Field off of a public library shelf back in March. It’s dust cover attracted me, then the memory of the movie by the same name that starred Sidney Poitier. The movie is a classic that I enjoy anew each time I see it. It never occurred to me that it was adapted from a book. The book followed me home and then languished in my book bag, on my night stand, atop a coffee table and on the front seat of the car. I renewed it online (isn’t it wonderful to be able to do that?) and I brought it with up to Minnesota last week.
What better weekend to read Lilies of the Field than Easter weekend?
William E. Barrett’s book, a novella, tells the story of a black itinerant worker, traveling across the southwest in his station wagon. He comes across a small group of women putting up fence posts and soon discovers that they are German Catholic nuns who immigrated from Communist Germany. The Mother Superior, Mother Maria Marthe, believes that Homer Smith (Schmidt in her German accent) was sent by God to build a chapel in the desert. Schmidt is the answer to their prayers.
Homer agrees to repair the convent roof. He has no intention of building a chapel. Mother Marthe has her own intentions, however, and Schmidt soon finds himself taking the nuns into town for Sunday mass, excavating a burned out home site, and building a chapel. He is never paid for his work but is fed, eating his meals with the small group of nuns. He helps them learn English and they sing in the evening as he plays his guitar. The music, always a great stabilizer of differences, is sung in English and Latin and Spanish. Together, they sing Catholic and Baptist hymns along with Negro spirituals and they find a common bond in a mix of cultures and religions.
The townspeople slowly come to help as well, donating bricks and slowly working alongside Homer as he builds a chapel in the desert. He makes some money at a side job and is able to buy materials and food to share with the sisters. He even buys them a scavenged bathtub. They, in turn, share the crops they harvest.
At fifty years, this tender story touches gently upon issues of race and religion that remain in our culture today. It also touches upon the power of faith in the impossibilities of life.
The title comes from Gospel, the Book of Matthew:
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?’ (Matthew 6:28-30)
Reading this short book of about 170 pages was like picking a lily out of the fields.