What a garden can teach us: A lenten reflection

What a garden can teach us: A lenten reflection February 26, 2013
The spiritual side of gardening
Simon Howden, FreeDigitalPhotos

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.

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  • Joel, this is your best post yet! But, of course I always say that.

    You know, I watched you with that rake. I watched you with those clippers. I watched you stuffing the leaves down into that brown bag. And I watched you do the hard work with raw determination and belief that this had to be done. There must be a payoff somewhere. Now you’re seeing it.

    The hard work is done. All the dead stuff up and gone. All the promise coming forth. More hard work to come, more promise to seen.

    What a great lesson. Thank you for drawing the parallels. Now I guess I’d better get to work to see where the dead leaves, fallen branches and prickly, persistent pests are in my life and take them out with the garbage.

    Thank you.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Now if it were only that easy in the spiritual life. . . .

  • I don’t trust my ability to prune. I pretty much suck at it, especially in a metaphorical sense. Not that I haven’t been pruned. I may be the poster boy of prune. But I have to trust God with the act itself. Who wants to be edited, and by someone as precise and detailed as God? I happen to enjoy my excess, all my ranting hyperbole, the elevated view I nurture of myself. God has a different idea. And, I admit, a better one. Trusting him, for me, is the issue. Great article (from one fellow provocateur to another).

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks for that. I think that’s really true. He chastens those he loves.

  • R Franchek

    Some, but not all of the weeds in my garden have grown from seeds that have blown in from other yards. It was my fault that I let them grow so large that pulling them out also disrupts the roots of my flowers. Blaming my neighbors for not eradicating their weeds doesn’t help to get rid of mine. But it seems that there are more untended gardens spewing more weed seeds around me today than ever before. I look to my diligent neighbors with beautiful manicured gardens and I want to be like them. But I also know that from the distance that I am viewing their gardens, I see the beautiful flowers, but not the imperfections. So, instead of being envious, I’ll just continue to do careful weeding in my own garden.

    • Interesting observation. I wonder if we can be intentional to protect ourselves from unwanted seeds. If our livelihood depended upon our gardens, or if having a beautiful garden was top on our list of values, would we consider moving? Thanks for provoking thought.

      • R Franchek

        The weed growers are all around us today. It’s too easy to look at the weeds and say, “It really looks OK. It’s only natural. Besides everyone else has them. I don’t want to miss out.” Difficult to be a good gardener in this age. But still very rewarding.

  • Jennifer

    A beautiful post, Joel.

    Some other things I have learned from gardening:
    Instant results are not as rewarding as watching a slow unfolding of beauty.
    Manure, in the right time and place, can bring forth great growth.
    Trees grow buds, new leaves, blossom, burst into reds and yellow and then go bare – and yet are beautiful in each of these different manifestations. And each has a purpose.
    Sometimes if you are open to letting something sprout up where it was not intended you will realize that it’s in a perfect place after all.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Great observations. I can confirm the point about manure. That’s been true for me.