Gardening

Christ as the Gardener encountering Mary Magdalene by Abraham Janssens. Taken from http://3.bp.blogspot.com/

A re-ploughed re-post

I love to garden, though it has been years since I’ve made the time to do it right. But more generally, I love being outdoors.

Some of my earliest childhood memories include a rapt fascination with the natural world. My dad says I would sit in front of an ant hill for lengthy periods of time, when I was 4 or 5 years old, and stare in motionless attention for half to three quarters of an hour. I can still recall — and feel — the throbbing joy I would feel smelling the sweet scent of those hot pink Spring azaleas and watching the bumble bees dart from blossom to blossom siphoning out the nectar with frantic excitement.

I also remember that, when I was around age 7, I would regularly steal away into a small patch of dense woods near our house, thrilled at the prospect of hiding away in secret solitude. There, very many times, I sensed a warm and joyful presence that seemed to emanate (for lack of a better word) harmony from the otherwise unruly tangle of sights, sounds and smells. I am convinced now it was God I intuited. Here is a terribly blurry picture of an old photo of the woods near my childhood house:

Woods

I can’t help but quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge here to give voice to that world I once loved:

So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to thee.

We’re born in love with nature and are naturally gardeners. But just as life can beat wonder out of us, so it can suck away our first love. Pope St. John XXIII said in his Journal of a Soul,

We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to tend a blooming garden full of life.

The natural world, whether it be the cultivated garden or the wild meadow, enriches my capacity to imagine beauty. The kaleidoscope of colors, textures, tastes and fragrances overwhelms and uplifts my soul. For me, nature is awash in the lovely splendors of Paradise, caught between the beauty God first sang into being and the Final beauty that first sprang from the Garden Tomb outside Jerusalem. Yes, a radiant beauty and fragile splendor, but also a terrible beauty marked in its deepest heart by cycles of violent death and glorious rebirth. A paschal beauty.

The liber naturae, “book of nature” is itself a divinely inscribed scripture. Heaven’s iconostasis, an icon screen leaking rumors of heaven beyond.

Taken from catholictradition.org

I love to imagine theology as a blooming garden of language. Like an icon, it reveals the creating and redeeming God. Good theology is always beautiful theology. Not merely pretty, giving by its surface gleam a fleeting thrill. No. Theology is beautiful, written in its deepest structures with the goodness and truth of sacrificial love. Those who behold true beauty must, if they are to receive it, become sacrificial love.

The Cross is the highest revelation of beauty. Martin Luther said in 1515, “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

Theologians journey back to Gardens of Eden, Gethsemane, Golgotha. We are invited by the Spirit to inhabit the imagination of the Risen Gardener (John 20:15). Our minds are open to the rioting colors and fragrances, textures, tastes and sounds that overflow the realms of nature and grace and water the world’s deserts.

Beauty never exists for its own sake, but, like the flower that yearns to conceive and bear edible fruit, is by nature life giving.

Poetry is needed.

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.
– T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday, 1930

The cultivated garden is writ deep with the law of the gift. Plants sink hungry roots in fertile, sodden soil, spout leaves to receive the sun’s light, only then to offer these gifts received as gifts given. They transform what they receive into nourishing fruits. Such generosity! And seed-bearing fruit benefits both giver and receiver.

Think of bread. What an unspeakably selfless gift, wheat wholly renouncing itself to give life. Harvested, winnowed, crushed, kneaded, baked in fire only to rise again as food. A gift total, absolute. An entire existence dedicated to the good of the one who eats.

As this broken bread was scattered over the hills
and then, when gathered, became one mass,
so may Thy Church be gathered
from the ends of the earth into Thy Kingdom.
For Thine is the glory and the power
through Jesus Christ for evermore. — From “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” written c. 90 A.D.

O selfless wheat, you are nature’s sacrament, mystic sign of a Creator become Bread, crushed for the life of the world. O Christ, Wheat of God, given as food to us, the ones who crushed you.

Word-made-Flesh, the bread of nature
by His Word to Flesh He turns. — St. Thomas Aquinas, “Pange lingua”

“God is Bread,” “God is love.” Such dangerous food.  Eat my Flesh, eat this Bread. Those who eat this Bread will live forever…as food for others. A martyr’s love, whose shed blood is seeds for the life of the world.

“A journey to no end,” truly, for the endless God is love, is bread.

When we consent to join Christ gardening in his Garden, our lives yield super-abundant fruits. These 9 — charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, chastity — exist in us to nourish others. My joy is joyless if it is not your joy as well.

I rejoice in my sufferings for you. — Colossians 1:24

I remember years ago one of my daughters asked me, “Daddy, are you happy?” I said, “Yes, of course. Why do you ask?” They said, “When you’re happy I feel safe.”

The greatest joy that comes from fatherhood is to know what benefits me benefits them. If my happiness were just for me, how useless and dead it would be.

Thank you, God, for your lavish gardens. For the vocation to tend your gardens.

Let every Christian be a gardener so that he and she and the whole of creation, which groans in expectation of the Spirit’s final harvest, may inherit Paradise. If we Christian’s truly treasure the hope that one day we, like Adam and the penitent thief, will walk alongside the One who caused even the dead wood of the Cross to blossom with flowers, then we must also imitate the Master’s art and make the desolate earth grow green. — Vigen Guroian, “Inheriting Paradise”

Galilee in the Spring, from c2.staticflickr.com

10 comments on “Gardening

  1. queenie says:

    Love this. As a theologian AND a gardener. . . . Been doing battle with voles and deer lately. Will ponder that today as we unveil the latest attempt to deer- and vole-proof the beans. Many thanks.

  2. Dismas Dancing says:

    What magnificent metaphors, brother Tom! My Dad absolutely loved his gardens, tending them with love, affection, and sweaty toil. He could grow anything (a gift I, unfortunately, have not inherited). Because we needed to grow vegetables for sustenance and barter, keep chickens on hand for the same reasons, we (all of the children) had certain chores wherein each of us had a wonderful opportunity to learn much, not only about how to tend God’s gifts, but also about a man many still revere to this day for his huge “heart” and the kindness he offered everyone with whom he came in contact. From him, both the good and the beautiful were excellent gifts that never appeared to be in short supply (much like the widow’s oil and flour provided to Elijah). Your beautiful piece brought to my mind many sweet memories of a man I am privileged to call “Abba”, Daddy! I miss him much and pray that Our Lord will allow me to be like him in the cultivation of all that is good and beautiful in the garden patch in which He has placed me. I pray that I might “bear much fruit”, as did my Dad.

    Thanks, again, sir! May the good and beatiful surround you this day and always.

    DD

  3. Kathy Grobe says:

    Dear Friend: pardon me for being confused, but exactly which Pope John is the Good Pope John to whom you’re referring?

  4. Ona says:

    “I would regularly steal away into a small patch of dense woods near our house, thrilled at the prospect of hiding away in secret solitude. There, very many times, I sensed a warm and joyful presence that seemed to emanate (for lack of a better word) harmony from the otherwise unruly tangle of sights, sounds and smells. I am convinced now it was God I intuited.” – How neat to read this. I had the same inclination, and a particular spot among some boulders near a pond that was a favorite at one point. Only decades later – when God’s presence in my life had turned intense – did I wake up one morning in the vivid memory of that pond and realize that I must indeed been seeking and having moments of communion with God there, even if I didn’t have any context or words for it at the time.

  5. WoopieCushion says:

    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/mullarkey/2015/01/francis-political-illusion
    Judging by this beautiful post I imagine you are in closer communion of mind and heart with Pope Francis than the above author with regards to his future encyclical on the environment. Thank you for the anchor as we prepare for another polarized storm ahead.

    • Such an association thrills me, WC. Of course, creation is not at root a political problem but a terrible-fearful gift given by God for us to steward for the good of all, to His glory and for future generations to do the same. Sinful politics and economics cannot destroy creation itself, but it can render creation death-dealing for man and not life-giving. Hosea 4:2ff
      Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel;
      for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
      There is no faithfulness or kindness,
      and no knowledge of God in the land;
      there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery;
      they break all bounds and murder follows murder.
      Therefore the land mourns,
      and all who dwell in it languish,
      and also the beasts of the field,
      and the birds of the air;
      and even the fish of the sea are taken away.

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