The Lilies of the Field

by William E. Barrett
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Last Updated on September 26, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532

The Lilies of the Field by William Edmund Barrett is about an African American man, German nuns, and their shared goal of making a church in the middle of a desert. The main character, Homer Smith, is a member of the Southern Baptist church and hates being micromanaged. He loves doing what he wants. Therefore, he constantly travels. Having recently left the army, Homer purchases a station wagon in Seattle. He remodels the car for sleeping and sets out across the country. During this trip, he finds a group of nuns making a fence for their church in a valley of the Rocky Mountains. Homer notes that the nuns are attempting to build this fence quite clumsily. Upon meeting them, Homer helps the nuns repair the roof of their chapel. However, there is a communication barrier, because the nuns are German and hardly know English. He anticipates being paid by the nuns in the morning, yet they refuse. The Reverend Mother seems to think Homer has been sent by God to help build their church.

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Though still wishing for pay, the Reverend Mother does not seem impressed by the gesture and expects him to help until the chapel is complete. At first, Homer is hesitant because he is not a Catholic. However, he feels a strong conviction to help them. He drives them into the Spanish-speaking town of Piedras to attend Mass. He discovers that the townspeople are largely of the belief that the nuns won’t be able to complete their mission. Homer encounters a man named Orville Livingstone who operates a construction business. To make some money for himself and the nuns, Homer begins working with Livingstone part-time. He shares with the nuns the food that he has and teaches them English. Homer wonders why he is drawn toward helping the nuns. He feels independent because he does the work out of his own free will, but he wants monetary compensation. Despite his expectations, the payment he receives is not monetary. Nonetheless, he dedicates himself fully to building the church.

The nuns begin to refer to Homer as “Schmidt” (like Smith). They develop a close relationship as the church project continues. The weather gets warm, though, and makes it too hot to work on building the church. Homer takes a break and begins to work elsewhere to make some money. This job is still in the construction world. He brings materials back to the nuns that he thinks they can use to improve their day-to-day routine. They are surprised to see him return, and suddenly the townspeople are chipping in to help the nuns. At first, Homer is reluctant to let other people in on this “personal” project. Nevertheless, the church gets built with the help of the town. Mother Maria wants Homer to attend the very first Mass and be recognized for his work. Homer does not feel inclined to go; he knows he will not be coming back. He quietly leaves in the night.

Homer, or “Schmidt,” becomes a legendary figure. People come from far and wide to visit the church, and Sister Albertine paints a portrait of Saint Benedict the Moor who looks very similar to Homer.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1531

First published: 1962

Edition(s) used: The Lilies of the Field. New York: Warner Books, 1995

Genre(s): Novella

Subgenre(s): Legends

Core issue(s): African Americans; conscience; faith; humility; racism; trust in God

Principal characters

Homer Smith, a twenty-four-year-old African American exploring the West in his station wagon after his discharge from the army

Mother Maria Marthe, a nun from East Germany, the mother superior of a small community of nuns

Sister Albertine,

Sister Elisabeth,

Sister Gertrud, and

Sister Agnes, nuns under the supervision of Mother Maria Marthe

Gus Ritter, the deceased owner of the farm bequeathed to Mother Maria Marthe’s religious order

Orville Livingston, owner of the Livingston Construction Company, the executor of Gus Ritter’s estate

Overview

The Lilies of the Field is an account of the legendary accomplishments of Homer Smith, instrumental in helping five refugee nuns realize their dream. Legends often get embellished and assume a life of their own, so the narrator sets the record straight by re-creating the past—how Smith, a twenty-four-year-old African American from South Carolina, just released from the army, meets the nuns. An impetuous, kind but headstrong man, he equips a station wagon for travel on the West Coast. A skilled man, he travels around, living frugally and working only when he feels the need. One day in May as he is driving by a valley in the Rocky Mountains, his curiosity is aroused by the sight of four women, attired in bulky clothes and head scarves, putting up a fence. Wondering if they need his help, he stops to offer his services.

Smith finds that the women speak German and have a limited knowledge of English. He is greeted by an elderly woman, who introduces herself and her fellow nuns. Mother Maria Marthe thanks God for sending her a big, strong man to help. Smith refutes this by saying he was not sent by anyone but stopped of his own will, yet the mother superior remains firm in her conviction that he is the answer to her prayers.

Smith assumes he will be helping the nuns put up the fence, but the mother superior assigns him the task of repairing the roof. To his surprise, Smith finds that the nuns already possess the shingles and needed tools, suggesting that they had intended to fix the roof themselves. At midday, he is asked to join the nuns for their frugal meal of bread, cheese, and milk, and after the day ends, it is assumed that he will be staying for supper. Smith plans on leaving after repairing the roof, but the evening he spends with the nuns helping them learn English softens his heart toward them.

The next morning Mother Maria Marthe takes Smith to the foundation of the old burnt house, shows him a good drawing of a church, not very different from the Baptist churches Smith has attended and declares, “Ve build a shapel.” When Smith realizes that “ve” includes him, he makes it clear once again that he has neither the expertise nor any desire to build a chapel. However, he offers to clear the foundation before leaving.

In the evening, as Smith is called to join the nuns for dinner, he asks the mother for his wages. Noticing her difficulty in understanding him, he turns to the Bible and points to Luke 10:7: “And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire.” The nun, grasping his intent, points to Proverbs 1:14: “Cast in thy lot among us: let us all have one purse.” When Smith insists that he be paid his wages, Mother Maria Marthe refers him to Matthew 6:28-29, “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you. That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Silenced, but by no means convinced, Smith is determined to go on his way.

Nevertheless, the next morning when the nuns expect Smith to drive the nuns to a nearby town to attend the Sunday Mass, he finds it difficult to decline. Being a Baptist himself, he has no interest in attending the Mass, so while the nuns are at the church, he enjoys a hearty breakfast and learns of the community’s pessimistic attitude toward what they consider the futile efforts of the nuns. However, his nascent empathy vanishes when the priest reiterates the mother superior’s belief that with the God-sent help, her chapel would be built. Smith resents being treated as God’s gift to the nuns and retorts that he has no intention of fulfilling their expectations.

Despite his continuing resistance, Smith is moved by the faith of these simple nuns. He has always worked for others and has no idea of how to proceed. Yet the idea keeps him preoccupied, primarily for the challenge it offers him. However, in the absence of bricks and other materials, there is little to be done.

The events that follow lead to Smith’s accepting the challenge. When he drives the mother superior to Orville Livingston to request bricks, Livingston not only is unwilling to help the nuns any further but also is even less inclined to change his mind when he finds that a black man is expected to build the chapel. This condescending, racist attitude fuels Smith’s determination to prove his ability. He offers to work for Livingston for two days a week and uses the money earned to buy food and construction materials to begin his project. He builds the foundation on the days he is not working for Livingston, though the lack of resources limits his progress. In despair, he drives away from the farm.

Initially, Smith revels in the town life: working, sleeping, eating at his will, but he cannot get the mother superior’s dream out of his mind. After a few weeks, he returns to the farm bearing the gift of an old tub for the nuns and some windows for the chapel, items recovered from a demolition job in the city.

The nuns express no surprise at his return. Once the work begins and people see his commitment, the entire community pitches in. Many obstacles impede progress on the chapel, yet Smith does not give up. Eventually, Livingston, impressed by Smith, sends a load of fine bricks, and soon the chapel is completed.

The night before the first Mass is to be held at the new chapel, Smith leaves with a sense of having completed his mission. The narrator provides the subsequent developments. The unique appearance of the chapel and the history of its construction draw a stream of visitors and the resulting fame brings money, allowing the nuns to realize their ambition to run a school for Spanish boys on the premises. The chapel, situated at the center of the buildings, honors Saint Benedict the Moor, and an oil painting of Smith by Sister Albertine hangs on the wall at the back.

Christian Themes

The Lilies of the Field is primarily about the power of prayer and faith and the need for humility in accomplishing one’s goals. It was a daunting task for five German-speaking nuns to escape from communist Eastern Europe, come to a strange land, and dream of their own chapel and some day a school for poor Spanish boys. Not only did they lack material resources but also they had no one who believed in their dreams. Yet, Mother Maria Marthe never doubts that God will help them. Thus the power of faith is at the heart of the narrative.

Homer Smith also learns the lesson of humility. Initially, his attitude of self-sufficiency and independence, a defense mechanism for dealing with the racist attitudes prevalent during the period, makes him reject the help of the community. He has skills and is proud of his intellect and ability to survive. Even after he is certain that the nuns are totally oblivious to the color of his skin, he bristles at the slightest provocation. Gradually, he undergoes a spiritual regeneration, realizes that ignorance breeds superstitions and misunderstandings, and sees the importance of humility in his life. He accepts the fact that building God’s house leaves no room for individual glorification but offers an opportunity to bring the community of worshipers closer. Smith’s odyssey teaches him to be a better human being and accept his role of being an instrument of divine will.

Sources for Further Study

  • Kelly, M. E. Review of The Lilies of the Field. Kirkus (February 1, 1962): 128. Basically, a brief summary of the plot.
  • Levin, Martin. Review of The Lilies of the Field. The New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1962, 23. An explication of William Barrett’s attempt to show “the basic goodness” in all people.
  • “William E. Barrett Dies at Eighty-Five: Author of Lilies of the Field.” TheNew York Times, September 17, 1986, C22. This obituary of Barrett sums up his life and works.
  • “William E(dmund) Barrett.” Contemporary Authors Online. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2006. Biography of the author that lists his works and briefly describes his life.

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