Around the Feast of the Saints, celebrated by some churches on the Sunday after All Hallows Eve, I often think about my ancestors, and all those who have gone before me who have had an impact on my life in some way. At some point in this practice, I began to connect with my rootedness and ancestry in a very literal way. I have always felt very connected to the trees that surround our home and they have begun to symbolically embody the spirit of my deceased friends and family members. I find this notion comforting and being amongst the trees offers me a sense of protection on a number of levels.
I created a walking labyrinth for prayer and meditation on our property for this reason, locating it in a circle of incredibly tall cedar trees. The space is very womb-like and when I am in its center, I feel nurtured and safe.
A couple of days before All Hallows Eve this year, my newest grandchild was born. He came rushing into the world two months early and was delivered by emergency surgery to protect both his life and the life of my daughter-in-law who had a very serious medical condition. The intensity of this event, and the absolutely beautiful outcome, gave me pause to think about all those little souls who never made it onto this plane, as well as all my ancestors and friends who lived long and productive lives, or had their lives cut short, and are no longer here.
Standing in the forest amongst the tall timbers, nature reminds me how precious life really is. Things you expect to live on forever suddenly perish, and miracles happen and life begins anew. I am so grateful for life, each breath I draw, every step I take and for my ancestors, my children and my grandchildren.
My grandson is a sermon in a very tiny package, and he preaches to me each day, all three pounds, eight ounces of his precious body teaches me just how little I know about this world. My response to this is similar to what I suppose the Psalmist might have experienced as he or she took a pen to hand or musical instrument and voice, I can only sing praises to my God and Master.
A Psalm of the tallest trees
I sing to you my praises, O my Lord,
as I watch your tallest timbers quiver and bend.
They lean toward the ground, swaying ever so far.
As I marvel their strength to endure every gust,
I learn that it is you that have taught them this wind dance.
When I think that I know what my master has planned,
You topple your tallest trees, and upend someone’s home.
Roaring lion or howling gale storm; your mighty hand blesses.
I sing to you my praises, O my Lord,
as I witness parched desert dwellers, thirsty and tired
bend to drink from a dry stream bed. It is here that I learn
how you’ve taught the rocks to quench from just a trickle.
When I think I have figured out just how the stream flows,
then the banks of the little creek start to rage and flood
and a river takes its town; your mighty hand blesses.
I sing to you my praises, O my Lord,
when fear strikes my heart and mysteries abound,
for your lessons have taught me of your power and might.
And just when I am sure I know how vast you really are,
I watch as child is born, and you bend to kiss its cheek.
You breathe into its tiny lungs and make its eyes blink.
Ten little fingers curl round my heart and tug;
and I learn that what I know can never really be
much more than a little glimpse into your mastery.
Once in the garden, basking in the restorative glow, feeling nurtured and inspired, it is often difficult to drag oneself back into the world. Sometimes I feel a bit like Moses might have felt after his encounter with God on the mountain, unable to enter the everyday routine before shaking off the effects of the blazing glory of God’s being. They call it the “shekinah glory”, this highly illuminated, other-worldly, transfiguration. The English version of a feminine Hebrew word meaning dwelling or settling can also mean nesting, but in this instance it is a word we use to try to describe the divine presence of God. We cannot take in all that God is. We are told that God answered Moses’ request to let himself be seen by flashing him with his backside , anything else would have been more than a human, no matter how spiritually mature, could possibly handle.
Peter, James and John must have had this same “how do I come down off the mountaintop” feeling after being with Jesus . As a child, I really wanted to know what it would be like to catch a glimpse of shekinahness. That is my made-up word for what I guess we only come close to when we have some sort of up close and personal experience with something that touches us so deeply that we are never the same again. Maybe a runner has something akin to this after a 10k or a half marathon or a sports enthusiast or rock fan after enjoying the privileges of a backstage pass with their hero. I, like Peter, who wanted to pitch some tents on the mountain and just hang out for a while, have a tendency to want to hang on to any little bit of my mountaintop experiences. I have prayed for the effects of a retreat where I have had some sort of spiritual epiphany to stretch out a little longer. This is what happens to me in the garden, I want to stay, hang out with all the critters and smell the soggy soil some more.
Eventually, most of us will have to come in. Knowing this, I try to find ways to bring some token of my time in the garden with me. A votive if you will, brought from the other side of one of these thin spaces that will not only remind me of my time in the garden, but also somehow enrich someone else’s life. A gorgeous flower, some juicy ripe fruit, or even an interesting shaped rock. This helps me cross the threshold, and journey back to take up my space in the world. It reminds me that I am called to this ministry, of seeing a certain way, and then sharing it with others. That hospitality really is a gift, a fruit of the spirit, and my work in the world. As such, I am to do this work to the glory of the Lord, making it a sacred act.
There is a wonderful relic of Medieval art that you will find in some books of hours, those little prayer books which often were made for wealthy women and used to guide their prayers throughout the hours of the day, a way of marking time and seasons. Within the margins of these books were elaborate and highly detailed drawings representing the work of rural life commonly done in a given month. They were called “Labours of the Month” and often were set against the signs of the zodiac. These things happily co-existed within the realm of Christian art alongside Christ set inside a mandorla, a sort of heavenly frame and central to the whole configuration. You will find this same expression in large sculptural figures or stained glass in cathedrals, or marking the entrances of churches. For the Medieval or Renaissance Christian, this did not pose a theological problem. These charming images were easily recognized by a medieval agrarian society, but not so much today.
The principle remains the same, honoring the seasons, the times of day with our work, and with our bodies is a much more natural way to live. We would do well to follow the customs of our predecessors in this way. Forcing ourselves to work into the wee hours under artificial fluorescence, growing bionic vegetables with mechanical heat and light in chemically enhanced soils is a bit like trying to swim upstream. If we can allow ourselves to follow the seasonally ascribed activities found in these Labours of the Months, we might discover greater joy in our work.
This is how I find the sacred in the ordinary. Especially in the fall, during the abundance of the harvest, it is easy for me to understand the ways of my Midwestern ancestors who planned for cold hard winters by “putting up” the fruits of their harvest. If I really listen out there in the garden to what my body is telling me, I hear it saying, take, eat, this is a bountiful harvest for you, and for your neighbors. Make good food, share it, it is a sacred gift. This brings me out of the garden, into the kitchen, and the world where I can be God’s hands and feet. I am rested, rejuvenated and inspired, now I must go and be His servant in the world. Thanks be to God, and my garden.
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
“It was the sweetest, most mysterious-looking place
anyone could imagine.” – The Secret Garden, Frances Hodges Burnett, 1911
I came to the garden gate by my father’s side. When describing myself or what I do, I have a variety of answers I might give someone, but one of my most defining characteristics is a term I rarely share publicly – I am a Daddy’s girl, and proud to be my father’s child. My earliest recollection of being in the garden includes being in the company of my scientist/engineer father whose avocation was his botanical pursuits. At one time he maintained the largest collection of succulents in our region of Southern California.
I recall a special father-daughter project one summer creating an entry for the Orange County Fair’s horticulture show. I am not sure which one of us decided the best possible container for this little garden would be one of daddy’s old size 14 work boots, but that worn leather vessel and a coat of bronze spray paint was beautiful in my eyes. Together we carefully planted Crassula muscosa or “Watch Chain” and Fenestraria or “Baby Toes”, tenderly nurturing the garden for weeks. While I remember the trip to enter our work boot succulent garden in the fair, I don’t remember if it won any prizes, and it doesn’t really matter. I had a lot of brothers and was the only girl for the first thirteen years of my life so any time with my father in his garden was priceless. I would tag along as he watered and cared for each plant in the cool of the summer evenings. He addressed all specimens by their scientific name, planting those impossibly long entries into my memory for future recollection. Even now, when I least expect it, as I stand before some little botanical beauty in a nursery, it will call out its proper name as I futilely grope for its more familiar but long forgotten nickname.
I suppose I can thank my lucky genes for some of my passion for green growing flowering things as I come from a long line of plant lovers. My paternal grandfather and my uncle were orchardists raising red delicious apples and pears in Eastern Washington. My grandmother was still running up hills to show off some unusual native wildflowers well into her eightieth year.
A few years ago I was fortunate to be able to travel to Bedfordshire, England, to visit Chicksands Priory, the site of my families’ ancestral home for over 400 years which now houses the Royal Air Force. The manor was given to the Gilbertine Order of monks and nuns in 1180 and split into two monasteries, one of which was destroyed in the 16th century. The remaining monastery was bequeathed to my family in 1576 and my ancestors occupied it continuously until 1936 at which time it was given to the Crown for use as an RAF post. As one of the 25 remaining English monasteries, Chicksands represents the most complete medieval examples of monastic life. The plantation of oak and ash created by the Osborne’s is now maintained by the Forestry Commission.
Capability Brown (1716 – 1783) who has been called England’s greatest landscape designer was responsible for over 170 gardens in England including many famous castles. This ‘highly capable’ artist was the designer behind the acres of ponds, foot paths and a very special garden on the grounds of Chicksands. On my Bedfordshire visit I was treated to a private tour of this mysterious and wonderfully secretive walled space by the RAF officer who had taken on the abandoned and neglected garden. He was very proud of the restoration he had begun and obviously delighted that someone else took an interest in his work, particularly a decent of the original garden.
My copy of the children’s classic “The Secret Garden” still holds a highly elevated spot in my library; its tattered dust cover is evidence of the numerous times I have revisited this treasure. But even the many flights of fancy taken in response to Frances Hodgson Burnet’s description of Mary’s adventures at Misselthwaite Manor were surpassed by walking into the garden at Chicksands priory. It was for me as much a coming home as an introduction. I felt my roots naturally reaching deeper and deeper into the soil, spreading out to establish kinship with all the other Osborne’s who had at one time or another found restoration, healing and inspiration between those walls. Were any of the seventy-seven love letters composed by Dorothy Osborne* for Sir William Temple written from within the secrecy of this space? Being a part of that history in some remote way offered me momentary connection to this distant life and time.
We use tree language to talk about our families as readily as the ancient Celtic people who strongly believed their connection to trees went far beyond metaphoric or symbolic. This branch or that of our particular tree might have represented specific characteristics and would have been designated by the emblem of an oak or a yew.
The 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, one of my favorite garden lovers says this about our rootednes:
“Come, return to the root of the root of your Self.
You were born from a ray of God’s majesty
and have the blessings of a good star.
Why suffer at the hands of things that don’t exist?
Come, return to the root of the root of your Self.
You are a ruby embedded in granite.
How long will you pretend it’s not true?
We can see it in your eyes.
Come to the root of the root of your Self.” –Rumi
Are there literal or fictional landscapes that hold your imagination or soul? Where do you feel most rooted? What does being rooted mean for you? What is my genealogy?
* Dorothy Osborne, youngest of ten children, daughter of the Royalist nobleman Sir Peter Osborne had a clandestine courtship with Sir William Temple much to the chagrin of her their families. After turning down suitors including the son of Oliver Cromwell, Dorothy fell in love with William Temple in 1649 when they were nineteen. It wasn’t until December 25, 1654 after the passing of both fathers that their families sanctioned their marriage. Lady Temple was buried next to her husband at Westminster Abbey. The missives have been bound and are available for a romantic read here: http://librivox.org/love-letters-of-dorothy-osborne-by-dorothy-osborne/
“Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are” – Gretel Ehrlich
When I sit in the garden and prepare to draw a flower, I study it for a long while first. I notice the graceful turn of a petal, the interesting configuration of its reproductive parts and its beauty moves me to a place of great awe and wonderment. The flower begins to speak to me.
You must be able to sit for long periods of time very still and focused to paint with watercolors in the garden. It is not my nature to sit still naturally and yet I know how valuable it is for my spirit and my body to rest. A garden is an invitation to be still. But once engaged in the art of botanical drawing, it becomes easy to want to stay in the moment and not leave the garden.
Once you have entered into a conversation with a flower, a shift happens, opening you up to receive the wisdom each has to share with you. Suddenly you become aware of nature at its best, and sometimes it is brutal. You might happen upon the final throes of a battle between insects where one succumbs to the other. Listen long enough and you can hear the unfurling of a petal, or the lengthening of a stem. When you spend enough time in the garden, restoration and transformation are not only possible, but likely.
I believe Lewis Carroll, author of the children’s classic Alice in Wonderland, knew this secret well. The dialogue between several garden inhabitants and Alice would indicate that he had experienced the garden intimately:
“Daisy: What kind of garden do you come from?
Alice: Oh, I don’t come from any garden.
Daisy: Do you suppose she’s a wildflower?
The Rose: Just what species or, shall we say, genus are you, my dear?
Alice: Well, I guess you would call me… genus, humanus… Alice.
Daisy: Ever see an alice with a blossom like that?
Orchid: Come to think of it, did you ever see an alice?
Daisy: Yes, and did you notice her petals? What a peculiar color.
Orchid: [sniffing Alice’s hair] And no fragrance.
Daisy: [chuckling, as she lifts up one side of Alice’s dress] And just look at those stems.
The Rose: [as Alice slaps the Daisy’s leaves away] Rather scrawny, I’d say.
Bud: I think she’s pretty.
The Rose: Quiet, bud.”
If it is not possible for you to go to an actual garden for restoration and transformation, than perhaps a local park, or even your own home or office where you can sit quietly and observe nature through your window. Elisabeth Tova Bailey, author of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, a lovely book about keeping company with a snail she discovered in the midst of a place of incredible darkness during a life threatening illness is an example of what one can learn even at the edge of a potted plant.
I have prepared a video for you to get a taste of what it is like to spend time in your inner garden, tending what needs nurturing and becoming still enough to really hear – maybe even the sound of a snail chewing. So grab a cup of tea, find a comfortable chair, sit quietly, breathe deeply and spend the next 12 minutes viewing the garden of a contemplative. I pray that it will bring you peace.
“To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.” – Chinese proverb
I must confess that I have not yet learned to appreciate tea, or any warm beverage beyond hot chocolate for that matter. I live in the heart of a city known for its coffee and prefer my morning beverage to be one I can float marshmallows in. But if it means cradling the antique finery once belonging to my grandmother in my hands, I will learn to love it. I have a dear friend who gifts me lavishly each birthday and Christmas with incredible artistry in the form of teacups with matching porcelain spoons bearing garden and nature themes. Berries, dragonflies and frogs adorn these cups and saucers, their three-dimensional embellishments so delicate they seem impossible. My first inclination is to put them high upon a “safe” shelf to keep them forever. But there is no real pleasure in that. These treasures become a metaphor for a way of living, or not living as the case may be. Bringing out the really precious things and using them daily is another way of being here now, and fully engaging in life.
Lissi Kaplan, author of the book “The Power of a teacup: A Story of Art, Love and Sacred Gardens”* believes “we all have a garden inside us, a garden of many colors and shapes that needs to be watered and nurtured and loved”. She goes on to say that “the seeds of the garden are the possibilities and passions that are deep within and that need to open in order to take root and flourish and thrive.”
Time and Again
Sitting across the table from a friend or family member, sipping from a porcelain garden reconnects you with others who have done the very same thing in a kitchen years ago and far away. I believe a cup can hold the memories of ancestors and loved ones in a mystical way. When I wash an antique dish, for a moment, I am in the past and present simultaneously. I find myself rooted in timelessness, joining in the cherished memories of my heritage. People have repeated the simple act of serving tea to a friend countless times; and yet each poured cup is a unique thread intricately woven into the past and the future, creating a tapestry of intimate conversations, shared grief, laughter and celebration. I think stories live inside teacups, remaining there for the next generation of little girls and tea parties, mothers and daughters, sons and friends to add their contribution, who find their roots, germinating new seeds of possibility.
How do you celebrate the day?
What might you do for yourself that nourishes you and makes you feel loved?
Is your garden watered and nurtured?
* Kaplan, Lissi: The Power of a teacup: A Story of Art, Love and Sacred Gardens, Regan Books, 2003.