I spent some time this weekend gardening. Megan and I recently purchased a new house — actually, a very old one — and it was evident that the yard work had slipped. So after mustering up the resolve, we sallied forth with clippers and rakes in hand.
And what did we have to show for our efforts besides seven bags of leaves and clippings and one rather large pile of branches and scrub?
As I trimmed and pruned and cut and dug, I reflected on how gardening helps us better understand certain aspects of ourselves. In one area of the yard, for instance, I discovered a bed completely overgrown. As I pulled out the dead plants, the outline of the bed slowly emerged until at last it was clearly visible. Left unmaintained, however, there was little sight of the previous cultivation.
The well maintained heart
I saw the same thing in another part of the yard. A holly bush with its spiny leaves reached up and out, threatening to stick and jab my children as they ran past. Who would plant a holly right there? I thought.
As I started removing the bush I realized that I was not the first person to disapprove of the inconvenient placement. Underneath all the new foliage was a stump, level with the ground. Somebody had taken care of that holly bush years before. But here it was again.
The relationship to our spiritual lives is obvious. Gardening reminds us that much of life is maintenance. Whether of the soil or the soul, cultivation is not a one-time thing. It’s an ongoing labor, a continual process.
It’s not enough to have worked in one area and then let it slide. All the work will be for nothing. Untended, it’ll be overgrown by the same problems as before. I reflect on my prayer life, my ego, my anger, my difficulty in loving my neighbor. Without constant care, I’m sure to fail. I fail enough as it is already.
As Oscar Wilde said in De Profundis, “[E]very little action of the common day makes or unmakes character. . . .” These are the weeds that without our attention grow into thorny brambles.
Making room for better growth
After I was done trimming back, pulling down, and raking up, there were a lot of blank and empty spaces in the yard. The clearings brought to mind another thought, also triggered by the fact that Lent is upon us. Sometimes we have to go to work in our lives and strip them out to make room for new things to grow, to make room for things that are more beneficial, for things that are more beautiful.
Just because something is growing doesn’t mean it needs to stay there. This is the point of repentance, to uproot those things that grow all-too naturally within us and cultivate something new, something better.
I often think this is the point missed in conversations about whether our sin is excusable because we’re naturally given to it. I’m naturally lustful, but I know that God desires to redirect those impulses.
The whole lesson of repentance is that as gardeners of our own souls, we are not passive participants in the harvest. If we don’t like the fruit, we can cut down the plant. We are not left with the growth we’ve inherited, with the brush and the tangle native to our natures. By the power the Holy Spirit we can sculpt, we can trim, we can prune, we can make way for beautiful and worthy growth.
A garden is a good teacher. If heeded, our hearts soften as our hands toughen.
And elsewhere: Don’t miss Frank Viola’s new post, “Who Are You? Accepting Your True Identity.”