(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1062 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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.” The New 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.