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Trinity + 1: God in our Gardens (part 1)

18 June 2006
Ezekiel 17:22-24, Mark 4:26-34, Psalm 92: 1-7 It is good to acknowledge the Lord
The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.Isaiah 35.1

Midsummer's Day, which is almost upon us, and today's readings about growing mustard seeds and cedar twigs in a partnership between God and mankind remind us that one really is nearer God's heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth - clich├ęs are so often true, aren't they - and the word 'garden' derives from the Persian word for paradise, so this is not a new idea. Cardinal Newman clarified:
By a garden is meant mystically a place of spiritual repose, stillness, peace, refreshment, delight.

And a 20th century Thomas Moore included gardens in religion and art:

The many great gardens of the world, of literature and poetry, of painting and music, of religion and architecture, all make the point as clear as possible: The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden. If you don't want paradise, you are not human; and if you are not human, you don't have a soul.

For most people, a garden's foremost purpose is to give us pleasure:

God Almighty first planted a garden; and indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures. It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man, without which buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks.
Francis Bacon

But for the prophet Ezekiel 47.12, the point of gardening was strictly utilitarian:
And the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.

Admittedly, the pleasure has to be set against occasional disappointments and setbacks. In the first place, as Ogden Nash ruefully acknowledged:
My garden will never make me famous: I'm a horticultural ignoramus.

The best approach is to take it all philosophically, like May Sarton:

A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself. But everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.

For once George Bernard Shaw was uncontroversial when he said:

The best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there.

And Frankfort Moore added:

I think that if ever a mortal heard the voice of God, it would be in a garden at the cool of the day.
'A Garden of Peace'

Do you know the -only slightly tongue-in-cheek-Gardener's Prayer?

O Lord, grant that in some way it may rain every day,
Say from about midnight until three o'clock in the morning,
But, You see, it must be gentle and warm so that it can soak in.
Grant that at the same time it would not rain on
Campion, alyssum, lavender, and others which
You in Your infinite wisdom know are drought-loving plants
(I will write their names on a bit of paper if you like).
And grant that the sun may shine the whole day long,
But not everywhere (not, for instance, on the
Gentian, plantain lily, and rhododendron) and not too much;
That there may be plenty of dew and little wind,
Enough worms, no lice or snails, nor mildew,
And that once a week thin liquid manure may fall from heaven. Amen.

Karel Čapek

There has long been a debate over whether a garden is to be appreciated on aesthetic grounds as a work of art - Gertrude Jekyll described herself as painting living pictures and controlled very carefully the components of her gardens- or whether English gardens, in particular, are beautiful because they look like Nature, according to Immanuel Kant.

Of course, cottage gardens or so-called wild gardens are usually edited a great deal more than their owners admit: the most successful are only imitations of a wilderness. But whichever category of gardener you fall into:

A garden really lives only insofar as it is an expression of faith, the embodiment of a hope and a song of praise. Russell Page, 'The Education of a Gardener'.

And hard work is always needed, as Lou Erickson pointed out:

Gardening requires lots of water -- most of it in the form of perspiration.

With any luck, though, the perspiration will lead to inspiration. As Kenneth Druse said:

When gardeners garden, it is not just plants that grow, but the gardeners themselves.

And John Erskine claimed:

I have never had so many good ideas day after day as when I worked in the garden.

But perhaps the key requirement is hope for the future:

The most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are always optimistic, always enterprising, and never satisfied. They always look forward to doing something better than they have ever done before.
Vita Sackville-West

There is of course a cycle of gardening. At its winter nadir we can still dream, with Helen Hayes:

All through the long winter, I dream of my garden. On the first day of spring, I dig my fingers deep into the soft earth. I can feel its energy, and my spirits soar.

And at its midsummer zenith, we can rejoice with Andrew Marvell:

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Kipling well understood that, as Lawrence Dossey said: the garden is a metaphor for life, and gardening is a symbol of the spiritual path:

Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.

And some can pot begonias and some can bud a rose,
And some are hardly fit to trust with anything that grows;
But they can roll and trim the lawns and sift the sand and loam,
For the Glory of the Garden occupieth all who come.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:--"Oh, how beautiful!" and sitting in the shade,
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it's only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner in the Glory of the Garden.

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener's work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray
For the Glory of the Garden, that it may not pass away!