I grew up in the suburbs, and gardening was not something my family devoted much time to. So when I got into elementary school and we had a class project of planting something — I think it was a bean or some other vegetable — I became fascinated with the mystery of life.
Each of the kids in my class a dixie cup filled with soil, into which we place our seed. We watered out little cup-gardens as the teacher instructed us, and then placed all the cups in the window sill so that the sunlight could do its bit.
Sure enough — within just a few days, little green proclamations of life were greeting us out of the cups. If I remember correctly, only one or two students had “duds.” The rest of us marveled at the miracle of life.
As far as I could tell, the entire affair was magic.
Over the years, I’ve done a little bit of gardening — not much, my wife has more of a green thumb than I do — and have taken care of a few houseplants along the way. I still feel a sense of awe when I see plants growing, thriving, blossoming, gracing our world and our lives with their beauty and silence.
The Fruit of the Spirit
Planting and growing metaphors abound in the spiritual life. Jesus, who lived among peasants and farmers in an agricultural society, told all sorts of plant-centric stories, from the parables of the sower to the workers in the vineyard. Sharing a new perspective or idea with somebody is planting a seed; inviting a person to make a commitment to the spiritual life is compared to harvesting.
Perhaps the most meaningful of plant metaphors comes when the Apostle Paul compares the characterisitics of a spiritual life — or of a life unconcerned with the Spirit — to “fruit.” He writes in Galatians 5:22-3:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
Here’s something I need to keep reminding myself: cultivating the fruit of the spirit is like cultivating any other plant or crop. I am asked to be a good “gardener” — plant the seeds, water the soil, remove the weeds. It’s a big and important job. But I am responsible for actually making the plant grow.
Planting a “Dream”
I suppose I am like many Americans — I have a “can-do” approach to life. As the child of the post-World War II white middle class, I was taught that the world was my oyster and that if I applied myself, worked hard, with a lot of perspiration and a little bit of luck I could achieve almost any goal. Over the years I have come to see that this — the myth of the American Dream — doesn’t always pan out, and if you’re not white, middle class or higher, male, straight, and/or Christian, the “dream” becomes far less attainable.
But even while I have learned to be more cynical about the map to success that I was shown as a child, I recognize that it still influences much about how I conduct my life. Including my spiritual life.
You see, the shadow side of the American Dream is this idea that your success (or failure) is all up to you. You decide if you’re going to be a millionaire or a hobo. Sure, I know on a rational level that’s simply not true, but deep down inside, it still impacts how I make choices.
So there is this idea that if I want to be a Christian, or a holy person, or an enlightened person, or a mystic — it’s all up to me. I get to choose, and I have to do what it takes to reach the goal.
Do you see what’s wrong with this picture?
Trusting the Blessings
If I apply the mentality of the American Dream to my spiritual, then everything becomes my responsibility, and my responsibility alone. The fruit of the spirit? If I want such fruit, I have to make it grow.
But that’s not how gardening works, now, is it?
The ingredient that is so important, and that apparently many of us have difficulty with, is trust. In order to harvest the fruit of the spirit, we have to be good gardeners, which includes not only doing all we need to do the support the fruit, but also trusting in God — who is the only one who makes the plants grow and the fruit to manifest.
In the spiritual life, what do we do to “cultivate” our “garden”? We invest our energy into learning the stories of faith, we immerse ourselves in a faith community, and — most relevant of all to followers of the contemplative way — we embrace silence, and stillness, and prayer that is basted in meditation and wordless waiting.
So we do all these things — and then we trust. From here on out, it’s God’s job to make the fruit appear.
There is a dance to the spiritual life. We do the things we need to do, to grow spiritually, to mature in our faith, and hopefully to be prepared to receive the graces of infused contemplation or even profound illumination.
And then… we wait. And we trust. And we recognize that the outcome of it all, being in God’s hands, may not look anything like what we envisioned.
That’s a bitter pill for us “can-do” types to swallow. And yet it carries a beautiful invitation: an invitation to trust. To rest in Divine mercy. To discover that our destiny is not all “up to us.” The spiritual life is a partnership: between you… and Love-with-a-capital-L. Love who is conscious. Love, who loves.