Being in the garden is both a contemplative practice and an experience of what it means to be in a liminal place. If you are not already familiar with that term, in its psychological or spiritual definition, it refers to the transformational places we find ourselves where we feel as though we are on the threshold, the in-between spaces, either consciously or subconsciously spanning a gap. The word has dropped into modern vernacular and lost some of its power, diluting the beautiful concept of thin spaces that the Celts intimately understood and honored in literature and spirituality.
Rest and transformation are by-products of spending even a few minutes quietly taking in the beauty and awe one finds in the garden. Another aspect of the garden is the harvesting of its fruits, both figuratively and literally. Thought of in this way, the garden then becomes a place of intimate appreciation of nature enchanting the spirit, an enclosure for meditation and prayer and a place where we do the work of the harvest. The sacred everyday becomes a very real experience if for a moment the gardener finds themselves in the liminal space, the thin place somewhere between prayer and work.
Behind the secluded walls of the medieval monastery were gardens, cultivated for medicinal, spiritual and culinary delight of the monks. Inspired by the early church fathers who were some of the very first gardeners, monks would engage in the everyday activities of tending, raking, tilling, planting and watering. The rewards of their toiling often went far beyond the obvious bountiful table to rich layers of learnings that became the focus of more prayer and meditation. St. Benedict’s wisdom as laid out in his governing rule for monastic life stated that “if it can be done, the monastery should be established that all necessary things such as water, mill, garden and various workshops may be within the enclosure, so that there is no necessity for the monks to go outside of it, since that is not at all profitable for their souls.” The desert cave dwelling St. Jerome instructed fellow monks to “hoe your ground, set out cabbages, and convey water to the conduit.” Manual labor was part of the monk’s life in the same way that prayer was. Time spent in cultivation of herbs, orchards and vineyards was considered an honorable calling. The flowers grown in the medieval rose gardens were used on the altars and garlands made of rosemary, violets and lavender decorated the church.
In our Christian worldview, man has been charged with restoring the divine order, and when we work in harmony with nature, it flourishes. There are many who feel that man can only interfere with nature, creating chaos and destruction, disturbing the ecological balance and thereby are responsible for all manner of ills from ugliness to global warming. Can man be a “sympathetic farmer”, prayerfully engaging in the work of the garden as a medieval monk might have without creating unbalance? I believe so. Imagine what it would be like to evoke heaven in your own vegetable plot.
I suppose that being Lutheran, it is no surprise that I find myself inclined toward a certain sort of dualism. After all, Martin Luther whose view of the world separated body and spirit, engaged in self-flagellation. There is a very delicate dance between the Buddhist idea of “non-violence” and the “out-of-body”, harmful and very violent way of beating the ground into submission that I have not yet mastered in my own garden. I know can make the distinction intellectually, but I repeatedly forget that to do no harm to extends to my own body as well. When the work of the garden shifts from and honorable calling to a task that must be accomplished by a specific time, with a defined outcome, then I have lost the point entirely. The activity is no longer sacred, it is profane.
I created you for this invitation
You came to test your strength
I asked nothing of you
Your presence is my filling up
You journey far to match wisdom with the ancient ones
Yet I bring the silence of the womb
Search not a distant truth
I have painted your lessons on dragonfly wings
My beauty is at your feet
Come to this place
I am in my deepest revealing here
New forever and again
– Laurie Kathleen Clark 2011
How does the work of the garden become a sacred act for you?
Heart pounding faster, sweat beads glistening, “won’t be long now, the task is nearly half-finished. Just a little faster, stretch and reach just oh so much further” the voice inside barks its commands. “Push harder, stretch all six feet of your elongated limbs and body, extend that rake to your fullest extension and now pull, drag that pile of leaves and moss from clear across the opposite corner and twist and contort your body”, mind on the next step not attending to this one at all, “What’s that you say, maybe you’ve tweaked something”, “oh not to worry” chides the voice, “you are super human, or so you say”.
Look up . . . NOW
I Am Here
Now look into the forest, for the light.
Now look down. See it? There. Tiny blue stars. How many petals?
Can you stop?
Can you put the rake down and walk away?
But Listen and I will show you how
Rake here, just in this place, just for now, No hurry. Stay in your body.
Can you leave this undone? Can this be finished yet not complete?
And so it goes, one small pile at a time, checking in,
do you know you have worn a hole right through your hand?
. . .and those welts on your forearms, you’re allergic to those pine needles don’t you know?
. . . . and no, it is not okay. You dishonor the gift of a body that I gave you. It is my temple.
But one more thought of company and how perfect all must be and I will take the rake from your hands. . . . you know I will.
You are done.
“No, I’m not!”
Have you asked how I want to be?
I prefer my branches not pruned so bare
and my blades of grass are blanketed in moss for a reason.
If you will listen, I will tell you how I want to be.
I whispered your name and you thought I said “mow”
I rustled the leaves and asked you to see,
but you heard me say rake
I pushed up more bulbs and lit the trees with blossoms
All these for you
But you see only spent leaves my storm-tossed boughs
Sit here now, on this newly raked lawn
Close your eyes
“What’s that whirring?” mind now quiet can hear deep from within the forest.
Turn your head
Open your Eyes
I have brought you this gift, hand over your rake.
It’s the very first hummingbird of spring! A dragonfly meant for you.
“Ahhh, yes Lord, my newly opened eyes have seen
what I might have otherwise missed,
blessed lesson at the end of a lawn rake.”
– Laurie Kathleen Clark 2010