Mud: Our Alma-Pater


How does language convey so much in so few words? Take for instance the idiom “here’s to mud in your eye!” Often used in a toast to good health and prosperity, the ancient back story may be of Jesus using dirt and spittle to make mud that he put in the eyes of a man born blind from birth (John 9:1-7 ESV). Another time, he led a blind man outside the village of Bethsaida where he put saliva in his eyes (Mark 8:23-26). The man saw imperfectly at first, “men were as trees” in his vision. This was the condition of the disciples—their perception of Christ was only partial. It also symbolized general revelation in which humans catch a glimpse of reality through creation. A second touch from Christ restored the man to full sight—a special revelation akin to the one Peter received in the next verse in which he declared Jesus the Christ. No one had revealed that to him except the Father.

Both instances of healing involved a process. In John, sight began with the question of sin and we find Jesus using the term “work” four times in connection with the “glory” of God. “Having said these things he spit on the ground and made mud with his saliva.” The work is completed when water from the Pool of Siloam washes over the “work” of God. Jesus used the substance of which man is artfully made and of which he is covered, and to which he must return. Mud is opaque and one might make the argument that Jesus caused the man, at least initially, a second blindness when he applied it. It is a familiar pattern: things get worse before they get better.

A year before I married in 1990, conservative historian Paul Johnson wrote, “The most socially subversive institution of our time is the one-parent family,” subversive meaning the most destructive and revolutionary. A few years later, in 1992 the front page of the New York Times addressed the issue raised by the popular TV show Murphy Brown and Vice President Dan Quayle as to the validity of Johnson’s assertion and the “lifestyle choice” of fatherless homes. As the impact of single-parent families began to be quantifiable and scientifically studied, the harmful effects to children became abundantly clear. I was not only a true believer in these facts but an activist traveling the country teaching family reform seminars emphasizing the research.

For one who values objective reason, moral clarity, and personal responsibility, what came next after two children and a dozen years of marriage was devastating, not to mention deeply ironic. Like Oedipus, the thing I declared never to be, became me. Boethius’ Lady Fortune turns her wheel and off you go in a direction unplanned. From the comfort and security of the Shire a sudden turn thrusts you headlong into a dark, strange, and perilous realm. My husband, their father, abandoned me holding the hands of two future men that science, culture, psychology, sociology, and religion say are doomed. Worse still, I was standing in the waist-deep muddy bayou of Cypress Valley, Arkansas.

Doom is a primitive story though, one that began in a garden with a two-parent family, two boys, bodies bent to the earth, and a downward gaze. It was into this organic matter, this material terra that the first family thrust their hands and turned, planted, and pulled the glory of God — for pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua — Full are heaven and earth of thy glory. It was here we find one of the earliest of many human paradoxes: the earth God used as a self-identified Potter to create man in his own image is also known as dirt.

The Middle English word dirt means “excrement, dung, feces, any foul or filthy substance… mud”; from Old Norse, “to void excrement.” The same sense of the word is found in Proto-Germanic, Dutch, and Old High German. It was used “abusively of persons from 1300, then figurative of something worthless. It was first used to mean “gossip” by Earnest Hemingway in 1926. We all know what it means to go to a dirty movie, and we all know what it means to be dirty after working all day in the yard. One word with two distinct meanings. Context is everything. The nature of dirt turns out to be like the nature of man, we are glorious and dirty creatures simultaneously.

Dirt is the raw material for making, and making is an art. Art is literally a “skill as a result of learning or practice.” The root ar means “to fit together.” It is where we get the word arms, such as in weapons. It is also an educational term for “skill in scholarship and learning,” — thus we have the liberal arts and refer to a degree as a Bachelor of Arts.

Interestingly, it was to the first two parents that God promised to redeem them the same way he made them, by filling dirt with glory; the Incarnation was his own special master piece. While the origin story began with a separation of water in which dry land appeared, Christ used both water (his own spittle) and dirt in a type of reverse engineering that gave blind men sight. Jesus remarked that blindness is not due to sin, but for the glory of God (John 9:1-7). God can take the “excrement” of our lives to make something that brings glory to him.

Making in pottery begins by mixing water with earth. The potter uses the water washing over the clay to mould his vessel. It was here, in a red clay muddy bayou in Arkansas that God remade my little family. It is where he “fit together” with an artist touch my two future men, arming them in the masculine school of Matthew Crawford’s shop class as soul craft. It is where he taught me in the liberal arts and gave me sight—“a thousand sets of eyes” according to C.S. Lewis.

In “An Excellent Homestead,” Wendell Berry’s Marsh family finds a kinship between farming and pottery making:

Both are arts; the products of both come from the earth and wind up on the dinner table; both are learned slowly. In both, you are working now for what will be in twenty years. You can’t learn either one just by being told.

Even if I didn’t recognize it at the time, the small muddy town in Arkansas had the raw husbandry needed for making men from broken fatherless boys. It was an imperfect stand-in for a husband, for a father. But if the institutions that oversee our slow twelve-to-eighteen-year process of education are called our alma-mater (nourishing mother), why can’t the dirt-filled, dung-laden places that convey agrarian lessons taught over 20 years be our nourishing father (alma-pater)?

It can. And here’s to “mud in your eye!”


  1. This article is both uplifting and insightful. The transparent, autobiographical applications speak from the rural bayous of Arkansas to the concrete jungles of urban America. Through unveiling the connections of God’s creative act to the divinity of Christ to the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives today, Ms. Castle has masterfully woven a tapestry that sets the reader’s heart ablaze with appreciation for her style of writing and for her research, but more importantly a cry of agreement from our hearts. The beautiful truth of God’s master plan speaks through her words, and we are left breathless at the artistry of God. Soli deo gloria!

    • Prof. Winters — some things come easier in life when one has great instructors and cheerleaders to guide them along the way.

  2. Barbara has this God given talent for taking you down paths you didn’t know existed as she weaves the story you want to know. As all really great teachers, I know she is going to tell her own story, but in the process, I am going to learn so much more than I bargained for.

    • Judy, I believe your phrase “the story you want to know” is key because it speaks to what C.S. Lewis called “sehnsucht”, that deep longing we all share. That is, we have a “knowing” that this material world is not our home, but yet it points to something “other” – something both outside and inside of us (for the Kingdom of God is “within” you). Secondly, in addition to “longing” – stories reveal truths that cannot be revealed otherwise. Imagination is the condition for truth. C.S. Lewis described reason as “the natural organ of truth” but imagination as “the organ of meaning. Imagination … is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” This is why I am an advocate for literary apologetics and making the case for “the story you want to know” (thank you for your wording – I will use it from now on 🙂 One example of the power of story to reveal truth that cannot penetrate otherwise is King David and the Prophet Nathan. It was only by a story that David saw the true nature of his sin and not only did he see it, but he rightly judged, based on the story, what had to be done to bring justice. The guilty would pay by “four times over.” If you give close attention, David not only lost his infant son at that time, but he eventually lost four sons. It was only through narrative that David truly recognized “I have sinned against the Lord.” We should be telling good stories so that the listeners all “learn so much more than they bargain for.” Thank you for your comments that prod me to think this morning. This is also why we should spend more time sitting on the Front Porch, and weaving tales in the Barbershop (which today I think about the local McDonalds in my little town where the sage men meet for coffee each morning and “weave their nets” for the days fishing).

  3. How beautifully written, the hard truths of a real life and how our Heavenly Father uses every little piece to finish his master pieces (us). I will definitely be sharing this article!

    • Kari,

      “Hard truths” reminds me of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity when he states that God’s moral (or natural) law is “hard as nails” there is no “soft soap.” Beautiful imagery that it is “water” that washes over to soften the ground, –to soften the Potter’s clay for molding. This is why I focused on “mud” in my story because it is the combination of dirt and water that “changes us” — it reshapes us. Yes, it will eventually firm back up, but hopefully into something different, a “new creation.” And, even as the Marsh family recognized — something so different that it ends up on the dinner table, that is, it changes into nourishment. Stories are food that makes “the soul fat.” Thank you for your comments and for sharing this little bit of food for thought with others.

  4. Miss Castle,
    Colorfully cogent is the alliterative way I could describe your piece. I was, as my grandmother used to say, gob smacked at how beautifully it is written while also relaying deep and meaningful thinking. Besides, I’m a sucker for word studies. Reading your piece caused my mind to race. The Hebrew name for Adam and soil, being essentially the same word, for example. And the notion that we are made from soil and even contain many of the same microbial life as the soil. My mind flashed to the possibility that molecular things were happening with mud on a blind man’s eyes because his eyes were made of the same stuff. I would never discount that this was a miracle and achieved through the power of God, but it’s an interesting thing to consider. Your piece also made me think of the fact that stones (made of the same “stuff”) would actually praise God like a human could. In all, there is far more to soil than most people realize … except for the God-man, of course. Lovely piece.

    • Dan, thank you so much for your observations and your kind remarks….in my next piece “Haunted by Grace, a Little East of Eden,” — I actually bring in the idea of the stones “talking” as I continue the theme of raising the boys in a rural setting. As a student and teacher of literature you will appreciate my next article (I think) because I center it on Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It.” It is always good Dan to meet like-minded people.You are correct in that we have only touched the literal surface of what can be said about dirt. Someone contacted me this morning and is mailing me an appeal he made to the Vermont Senate to officially recognize their state sediment as “mud.” They would have none of it.

  5. I was drawn in to the story as it was told in a masterful way. Barbara is correct in that “Context is everything.” God can take the dirt which may be thrown at us through circumstances or the sinful choices of others and redeem it. The Potter is more than able to mold us into the image He desires for us if we look to Him. I wonder how the Lord looks at some of the connotations we have given to the word “dirt,” which originally referred to the ground which He created and out of which he created man. We do not need to give in to the views culture, sociology, or psychology but look to the Master Potter who redeems.

    • Mark, thank you for your comments. You said, “we do not need to give in to the views [of] culture, sociology, or psychology” — and this is true and what I mean many times when I use the word “transcend.” As a professor, you may, like me, have students that are attempting to “transcend” by asserting that there is nothing in this life or the material world that is “clean” or even “sacred.” Somewhere along the way they have taken out of context what it means when we say “good earth.” It is almost a type of gnosticism in which the things of this world are dirty in a pornographic sense. I spend a lot of time in arguing the point that Francis Schaeffer does so beautifully in How Then Shall We Live or The God Who is There. That is, that as Christians we should not separate the secular and the sacred. The whole earth is sacred — it all belongs to Him. He is Lord of all and it is “full of his glory.” As you say, he “redeems” and we should be mimicking Him (following Christ, doing the works of Christ) in reshaping culture. As you know – I encourage the arts to this end.

    • Barbara- Thank you for sharing how Christ can bring redemption through all the difficulties of life. The plethora of examples both fictional and non give so much insight and context; I am encouraged.

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