SHAWNEE — Shortly after sunrise prayer, the Rev. Simeon Spitz trades his monastic habit for a T-shirt, cowboy hat and blue jeans before he slips out the doors of St. Gregory’s Abbey.
Bushes filled with berries — a sea of green speckled with ruby, violet and ebony dots — beckon the Benedictine monk this sunny morn.
By day, Spitz plucks succulent blackberries from the bushes sprawled on abbey grounds.
By night, he transforms the fruit into sweet jam.
Laughing, the monk and recently ordained priest said he didn’t earn his masters in theology degree to reap this type of harvest.
And yet, the berries that he picks so faithfully have yielded certain rewards.
Spitz’s Honey Berry Jam, so-named because it includes honey — also harvested at the abbey — is sold at the abbey and the adjacent Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art.
The jam is a definite crowd pleaser; it has sold out in about two weeks each of the four years it has been offered.
Spitz, 30, said he initially made the jam for St. Gregory’s monastic community, but visitors sampled the fruity treat and wanted some for themselves.
They offered to give a donation in exchange for the jam and thus the monk’s annual jam sessions began.
He said he made and sold about 70 jars of jam the first year. The berry enterprise grew so much that 400 jars of jam were sold last year.
Spitz hoped to make 500 jars of jam this season.
“They (blackberries) are a project that I could do to help at the monastery to make a little revenue while I was going to school,” he said. “Plus, they are kind of fun.”
For the last few weeks, Spitz has visited the blackberry bushes he cultivates, armed with the tools of the trade — heavy gloves, a straw hat that he calls his “Atwood special” and plenty of patience.
“Patience — that’s the major ingredient because it takes patience not to pick them before they are ripe,” he said, eying the fruit.
Berries in various shades of pink, red and purple are bypassed by Spitz even though they sparkle temptingly in the sun.
Instead, the monk chooses the darkest berries he can find.
“Red berries would be tart but in a couple of days, they will be black and sweet,” he said.
And, he promised, the purple berries would turn darker still — and infinitely sweeter — by nightfall.
“Today’s purple berries are tonight’s black berries,” Spitz said as a mound of blackberries grew higher and higher in his bucket.
Though it is manual labor in the hot June sun, he said the time spent picking berries is fruitful for a monk. He’s just a few hundred yards from St. Gregory’s University’s historic Benedictine Tower, but picking the berries is a relatively quiet endeavor, offering the perfect atmosphere to commune with God in the midst of nature’s bounty.
“Tedium is actually the beauty of it because tedium allows time for prayer,” Spitz said.
He said he grew up on a farm in Canute and has found that growing the berries at the abbey has helped him experience that feeling of being connected to the land that he enjoyed as a youth.
“With so much of our world being artificial, we lose that sense of nature, that connectedness working with the soil,” he said. “If we believe that God reveals Himself in the cycle of seasons, then there’s something to be learned from that. You can’t make it rain. You can’t change the temperature outside. The berries become ripe when they become ripe. It reminds me that I’m not in control.”
Abbot Lawrence Stasyszen, the abbey’s spiritual leader, agreed with Spitz, saying that in many ways, physical labor and creativity provide the meeting point of spirit, mind and body. He said they help provide much-needed balance in the life of a monk.
“Monastic spirituality lends itself to attention to detail and the need to be patient in order for perfection to emerge,” he said. “While that should apply first and foremost to the monastic attitude toward spiritual growth, it flows over into a monk’s attention to the work he does.”
No one-monk operation
This blackberry-picking season, Spitz is a one-man show — but that won’t be for long.
He said he will have to summon help as early as next spring because more blackberries are being cultivated and it will be hard for him to pick them by himself.
As for the jam-making and bottling, he has had some aid over the years.
He said he came up with the idea for the jam after watching his grandmother Katie Willis make blackberry jam one day at her Grove home. Spitz said he knew he wanted to try out her recipe using the blackberries grown at the abbey.
He said he had her come to the abbey to help him with his first batch, but since then, he’s been making it by himself, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning because the process is labor intensive. Spitz said his recipe is a standard jam recipe, except for one ingredient that also comes from another hobby of his. The monk is a beekeeper and his jam recipe includes a generous helping of honey harvested from abbey’s honeybees, adding a special dose of sweetness.
Spitz said Stasyszen typically helps puts the lids on the filled jars of jam and, occasionally, the abbot can even be talked into making a blackberry cobbler.
He said other monks at the abbey often help with the labeling process as Spitz prepares the Honey Berry Jam for sale.
He said some of them tease him now and then by calling him the “berry rancher” but he knows their humor is all in fun and it doesn’t bother him.
Plus, Spitz said he knows they absolutely love eating the fruits of his labor.
St. Gregory’s Abbey blackberry jam is sold for $10 a jar at the abbey and Mabee-Gerrer Museum on the Gregory’s University campus at 1900 N MacArthur in Shawnee.
For more information, call the museum at 878-5300.
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