This morning, I looked out the dining room window at my rows of tiny carrots in the garden. The parable of the weeds and the crops jumped to mind. Remember how it goes? At night, the landowner’s enemy sowed weeds among the newly planted wheat. When the landowner’s servants discover this, they ask their master if they should uproot the sprouting weeds. The landowner forbids them, however, for fear of uprooting the good plants. Instead, the weeds and the wheat grow side by side until it is time to harvest the wheat for the barn and the weeds for the fire.
For weeks, this parable has been ready to hand as I watch the weeds proliferate in the rows. Carrot seeds are so tiny—way smaller than the fabled mustard seed—that even if I carefully uprooted only the obvious weeds, the disturbed earth could kill dozens of carrots before they had a chance. On the other hand, carrots, not growing as fast or as tall as wheat, cannot simply grow side by side with the weeds until harvest. If you let the weeds grow too tall or too thick, they shade out the carrots, which then die of nutrient and light deprivation. Today, I decided, the weeds had to go. The carrots are still small, but they are rooted enough that, with extreme caution, I could weed around them and save them.
If you stop and think about it, gardening—and in particular the act of weeding—is one of the most dominant metaphors in the Christian spiritual tradition. The Bible itself is packed with references: most of Christ’s parables have to do with seeds, weeds, soil quality, and good or bad fruit. And at the beginning of it all, God set Adam and Eve not in a field or forest, but in a garden, which he ordered them to tend and enjoy.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Mystics, scholastics, spiritual writers, and homilists down through the millennia constantly turn to the various elements of gardening to illustrate their points. The Curé of Ars, for instance, wrote that “our soul is like a garden in which the weeds are ever ready to choke the good plants and flowers that have been sown in it. If the gardener who has charge of this garden neglects it, if he is not continually using the spade and the hoe, the flowers and plants will soon disappear.” Many centuries before, St. Ambrose borrowed the prophet Isaiah’s garden imagery to recommend fasting: “If you offer fasting with humility and with mercy, your bones, as Isaiah said, shall be fat, and you shall be like a well-watered garden (cf. Isaiah 58:11).”
Gardening forces you into the rhythm of nature, which prepares you for many spiritual fruits. Traditionally, the liturgical calendar and the seasons mirror each other: not only do you fast and prepare for the Resurrection during Lent, but as a gardener, you spend your days in the cold soil preparing the barren, empty, dead landscape for the coming of spring. In most climates similar to those inhabited by the late antique and medieval Christians, Easter marks that first burst of life out of the death of winter. As a gardener, you have toiled and labored to prepare for that life. Similarly, death becomes more natural—part of life. My kids have learned this lesson perhaps too well: dead flowers excite them as they immediately begin dissecting the brown petals in search for seeds.
The physical labor of gardening is also a very useful supplement to the cultivation of virtue. From the most ancient days, Christian praxis has insisted upon concreteness: we baptize with real water, commune with real bread and wine which have been transubstantiated into real flesh and blood, we bless with real oil, water, salt, and incense. These elements are not simply fanciful metaphors: their concrete reality is a necessity for the spiritual reality.
Modern people, by contrast, struggle with the temptation toward abstraction: our friends are digital, our waves, hugs, and kisses are composed of pixelated icons, our metaphors are increasingly dead. Gardening forces you back into concreteness and to all of its physical requirements. You cannot simply send “good vibes” to your plants. To be a good gardener, you must get dirt under your fingernails, touch nasty, oozing slugs, tug hard at those entrenched weeds. You must be deeply attentive to the subtle hints—curled leaves, changes of color, slowed growth—that your plants reveal about their needs. In short, to be a good gardener means to work hard to attain the virtues of patience, constancy, prudence, self-control, and humility.
Patience: the chief virtue of the gardener. As I grow as a gardener, I discover that the seasons will not and cannot be rushed. If you plant your seeds in impatience, you will reap disaster. Fragile plants—like souls—have God-given needs which must be met. This is where humility enters: the gardener is the cultivator of plants, not their maker, just as we tend our (and our children’s) souls. There is only so much we can do to bend the nature of plants before we cause them extreme harm. The virtuous gardener is patient and observant, the humble cultivator of a creation ultimately made by another.
Constancy and self-control are kindred virtues for the gardener. As the Curé of Ars admonishes, “With a little vigilance and mortification, we succeed in repressing our passions, and we triumph over them when they are only springing up; but when they have taken deep root, nothing is more difficult; the thing is even impossible without a miracle.” The gardener is constant: constantly weeding, watering, watching. Gardening reminds me to go to confession, offering me a concrete, visceral reminder of what my soul’s garden might look like if I let it go too long without some spiritual weeding.
St. Teresa of Avila likened growing in prayer to the various ways to water a garden. Discipline is essential for those starting out: “Beginners in prayer, we can say, are those who draw water from the well. This involves a lot of work on their own part, as I have said. They must tire themselves in trying to recollect their senses.” As the gardener and the soul grow in strength, Teresa notes, deeper knowledge (and greater grace) takes over, and watering becomes easier and more fruitful.
Once upon a time, someone came upon St. Francis at work in his garden. “Francis, what would you do if you learned that today was your last day to live?” asked the passerby. “Finish hoeing my garden,” the saint replied.
If you have not already begun your garden, it is not too late to start!
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