It was the spring of the year I was in Grade 2. My teacher, Mrs. Quale, who was herself an avid gardener, had helped us plant some seeds in cut down milk cartons. We set them on the windowsill of the classroom and for the next several weeks we diligently watered and anxiously watched and waited for them to sprout and grow. On the last day of school, I remember bringing home in triumph those two milk cartons. One of them contained a couple of tomato plants and the other some morning glories. Later that day my mother and I planted the morning glories in a small section of the garden, along the garage wall, and behind the rhubarb, where some chicken wire had been stapled to give the morning glories something to climb on. In another section of the yard we planted, staked and tied the tomato plants. I don’t remember what happened to the tomatoes but I do remember the delight I felt when those morning glories began to climb the garage wall, supported by that chicken wire, and then finally blossom with some of the most delicate blue flowers I had ever seen. To this day I think no garden is complete without at least some tomatoes, a patch of rhubarb and a few morning glories. Last summer the garden at Emery House contained some of each. Up by the parking lot, next to the asparagus is a wonderful bed of rhubarb, which thanks to a regular application of horse manure, just get better each year. In the vegetable garden, over by the chicken coop, I usually have at least a row of tomatoes. And at the gate into the vegetable garden I created some teepees out of bamboo poles for the morning glories. By the middle of the summer the poles were almost invisible and all you could see were great towers of green leafy vines wrapping around anything they could get hold of with some of the deepest purple flowers I have ever seen.
We begin tonight our Lenten sermon series, which is supporting the daily brief video on our website, which we are calling Growing a Rule of Life. We could, I suppose, just as easily have called this series Spiritual Lessons from the Garden because an enormous amount can be learned about God, prayer and the spiritual life in a garden, perhaps even more than can be learned from a book or, dare I say, a sermon series.
So what have I learned these past few years, not just about gardening, but about God; not just about plants, but about prayer; not just about nature, but about the spiritual life as I dug, planted, watered and finally harvested the garden at Emery House? And how might that experience of a garden help all of us think about life, and a rule of life, and our relationship with God?
One of the best things I did last year, was put a fence around the garden. Now it’s a pretty functional fence, just some 4 by 4 posts dug into the ground, braced by some 1 by 4 boards on which some chicken wire was stapled. It’s not the picket fence I had first imagined, but none the less it did exactly what I wanted. It kept the chickens and the geese and the ducks out and stopped them from eating everything in sight. But to my surprise, it did more than that. It gave definition to the garden. It gave boundaries and a border and a shape to the garden. No sooner had the fence gone up, than I felt a real sense of liberation. The fence didn’t fence me in. Oddly enough, it liberated me. I knew exactly where the garden began and ended. I knew what I had to work with. I knew what I had to do. Suddenly, as big as the garden was, I was no longer overwhelmed by it.
The purpose of a rule of life is like that fence around my garden. It’s not meant tofence us in. It’s not meant to constrain or limit us. It is meant to liberate us. It’s to give us a sense of boundaries and borders and shape. Most of us are overwhelmed by endless possibilities. I know I am. I long for the days when there were only two channels on the TV. What on earth am I supposed to do with 999 of them? Before the fence went in, I was overwhelmed by the garden. I wasn’t sure where it was supposed to start. It seemed never to end. That’s true for our spiritual life as well. There are endless possibilities of ways to pray, and books to read and religious experiences to have. It can all be overwhelming. When we put a fence around our spiritual life we are not saying that what is beyond the fence is bad or wrong. We are simply saying that here, at least for the time being, is where I am going to focus on God. That is not constraining, but liberating. Suddenly your spiritual life, like my garden, has a shape.
Once your spiritual life has a shape, you’ll want to think how to feed it. Any gardener will tell you that what you put into the garden, is even more important than what you take out, and I don’t mean what kinds of flowers or vegetables you intend to plant. What I mean is nutrition. In order to harvest a bumper crop of vegetables, or create that amazing display of flowers you need to feed the soil. Your spiritual life is no different. In order to have a rich and rewarding spiritual life, you need to feed it.
Now there are a variety of ways to feed a garden. Generally speaking, most of these fall into one of two methods: top down and bottom up. Any good gardener will employ both of these methods. Most of us are probably familiar with the top down method of feeding a garden. That’s where fertilizer, or compost, or manure or even grass clippings come into play. Into the top few inches of soil you dig in, or even just lay on whatever it is that you are using to enrich your soil. At Emery House we are lucky to have a supply of homemade kitchen compost and even luckier to have a ready supply of chicken manure. We also have a relationship with a local horse farm who keeps us supplied in manure from their horse barn. Properly cured the compost and manure are great additives to the soil and go a long way in keeping it healthy, rich and well fed and the garden producing.
The other way to feed the soil is from the bottom up. Over the years, every time you water, or it rains, as the water seeps deep down into the earth, it takes with it some of the nutrients the plants need to survive. Somehow all those nutrients need to be pulled back up to the surface where the tomatoes and beans and flowers can access them and turn the nutrients into nutritional food and beautiful flowers. The question though is how, and that’s where a little plant science comes in.
Some things that we plant in the garden have a very shallow root system. They access what they need to survive from the top several inches of the soil. Other things have an incredibly long and far reaching root system. They pull not only from the surface soil but also from the sub soil, the nutrients they need to survive and thrive. One of these plants is comfrey. Comfrey has a root system that when mature, can reach 15 feet down and if all its tiny roots were added together would add up to 100s of miles of roots. Through its root system the comfrey plant pulls from deep in the soil all kinds of nutrients that have leached down over the years, and pulls them to the surface and then into their leaves. The leaves of the comfrey plant are then used to top dress the soil as a compost, beginning the cycle all over again.
When we think of our spiritual life, and our rule of life, we need to think of ways that will feed us both from the top down and the bottom up. We need to find ways to pray and experiences to have that will bring to our lives both what we need from the outside, but that will also pull from deep within. Sometimes our spiritual life needs to be enriched by something from the outside. On other occasions what we need to discover or rediscover about God already lies deep within us and we simply need the time and the occasion to tap the depths of our own spiritual experiences in order to be fed by God.
Over time as a gardener gets to know their soil they discover that the soils in different parts of the garden are different, and that some things grow better here than there. They also discover that rotating crops over the years helps to restore and maintain the nutritional balance of the soil. One crop will remove from the soil what another crop restores. Thus over the years as the gardener rotates their crops the cycle of removing and replenishing nutrients in the soil will help to maintain healthy soil where a wide variety of plants will thrive. Vegetable gardeners, and increasingly commercial farmers, are rediscovering the value of crop rotation and crop variety as one of the ways to maintain healthy soil and abundant harvests.
This idea of crop rotation and crop varieties is not all that far-fetched when we think of our own spiritual lives or rule of life. If all we ever do is attend the Eucharist on Sunday and never read Scripture, pray, read a spiritual book, gaze at an icon, talk to someone about our faith in Jesus, put our faith into loving action through some kind of ministry, reconnect to God through art or nature then our faith will never grow into all that it could be. The purpose of a rule of life is not to open us up to endless possibilities but to ensure that there is enough disciplined variety to ensure a healthy environment for our faith to be fed and grow.
For the last number of years I have grown scarlet runner beans. It’s not that I especially like the beans. What I like are the flowers. I love the abundance of tiny red flowers that cover the plants. And what’s more, I love the hummingbirds that come to feed on them. It is quite a sight to see a row of bamboo teepees covered in tiny red flowers and three or four hummingbirds darting in and out feeding on the nectar they supply. Gardens are meant to be beautiful and by being beautiful they attract all kinds of beneficial insects and birds and animals which help to make the garden thrive.
We don’t often think of beauty as a necessary component of our spiritual life or rule of life but our life in God is meant to be beautiful so that we in turn can attract others to God. We all know those people whose very being radiates the beauty of God and because of that we are attracted to them and thus to God. Without beauty the garden of our life becomes dull and literally unattractive. If being a Christian makes a person so unattractive why bother, we think to ourselves. On the other hand if our life in God is so beautiful then others may be drawn, not to us, but rather to God then the saying beauty will save the world will indeed be true.
This Lent we are thinking about growing a rule of life and to do that we start, not by thinking about great spiritual ideals, but by reflecting on an actual garden and seeing what it might teach us.
I have learned a lot from the garden at Emery House. It has taught me as much or more about God and my life in God and the purpose of a rule of life as it has about growing tomatoes and beans and pumpkins and morning glories.
I know that a fence has real practical value. But I have discovered that fences, even fences in my spiritual life are about freedom and liberation, not about constraint. By narrowing the possibilities and focusing our vision we are no longer overwhelmed but can discover a real sense of liberation and freedom.
I know that plants need food. But I have discovered that just as we can feed a plant from the top down or the bottom up so our spiritual lives need to be fed in a variety of ways. Sometimes we need to absorb things from outside and at other times we need to look deep within to discover again that God loves us.
I have seen the importance of variety and rotation. I know that some things grow better here than there. But I have discovered that going for a walk, or gazing at an icon, or speaking to someone about who Jesus is for me, or putting my faith into loving action is as important to my spiritual wellbeing as attending the Eucharist Sunday by Sunday. One without any of the others will in the end deplete me.
But the thing that has surprised me the most is the importance of beauty. I love the garden, not because it gets me outside, although it does. I love the garden, not because it makes me exercise, although it does. I love the garden, not because it produces delicious food, although it does. I love the garden because it is beautiful. Like the hummingbirds I want to be there because it is beautiful. Our spiritual life, indeed our rule of life should help us all not be better people, or even more spiritual people, or heaven forbid, more productive people, but rather more beautiful people.
So as you think about growing your rule of life this Lent, plan your fences for greater freedom; remember the different ways to feed yourself, drawing both from outside and from deep within; experiment with variety and rotation to ensure a rich and rewarding spiritual life and above all don’t neglect beauty because after all, we all need hummingbirds in our lives.