a spirituality of weeding

There is no way to escape it. Gardening is weeding.

Thomas Keller, the famous chef behind The French Laundry and Per Se, has said that if one doesn’t enjoy, or at least appreciate, the act of cutting vegetables, then one will never enjoy cooking. So it is with weeding, I’m afraid.

I say “I’m afraid,” because I really dread weeding. Of all gardening activities, it is my least favorite, the one I avoid until there is nothing else left on my to-do list. When I start, I find it actually does have a contemplative dimension to it. Like the life of conversion, if I look at the whole of our flower beds and the thousands–nay, millions–of weeds trying to out-compete the asters and iris, I feel completely overwhelmed, immobilized by the enormity of the task. But if I can focus on the weed right in front of me, and if I can ignore the high probability that next week another weed will have taken its place (despite all the mulch), the task becomes a kind of meditation.

The spirituality of weeding is one of imperfection. There is no possible way to rid the garden of weeds, no matter how much effort I put into it. Especially at this time of the year, with heavy rains followed by warm days full of sunshine, the weeds take over. I am forced at such times to confront my assumption that the garden is only beautiful if it is perfect. Really, the assumption that I need to confront is that I am only beautiful if I am perfect.

In his book on humility, A Guide to Living in the Truth, Michael Casey writes of the importance of patience to the spiritual life:

One of the qualities we find emphasized in the ancient accounts of the martyrs was their joy. There is no question of finding pleasure in pain. Rather, it is the joy that comes when everything is lost but love perdures. We always suspect that love attaches itself to our good qualities and we fear that it will be lost if they decline. In the days of our abundance we can never experience the unconditional quality of divine love. We secretly believe that something good in us attracts the love of God. It is often hard to go on believing when we discover how unlovable we are. But how great is the joy that follows the discovery that God’s love precedes and prescinds from any human love. We are not defeated; Christ’s love for us ensures the ultimate victory. (p. 123)

It is not my perfect goodness or my eradication of the spiritual weeds of greed, judgment, self-righteousness, and all the other shortcomings that plague me that earns me God’s love. Nor does my effort to create the perfect spiritual landscape somehow make me more worthy of God’s loving care than I would be without that effort. This kind of outlook, subtle as it can sometimes be, makes an idol of spiritual work. I earn God’s love from my own strength rather than relying on and celebrating God’s grace working in and through me.

If I take the garden as my evidence, I might even conclude that the distinction between weed and flower is one that I make from the limitation of my human estimation. God pours the rain down on the aster and the mugwort, just alike.

I’m not quite ready to let the mugwort take over the gardens. But, perhaps I would do well to listen to the wisdom of one of our garden volunteers who recently told me that she loves to weed because she sees in flowers the face of God. By weeding she is giving God’s face room to shine and breathe. Perhaps clearing that kind of spiritual space is the only task with which I need concern myself. I don’t have to worry about getting rid of all the weeds. I can simply pull up, for now, and with God’s help, whatever crowds out the glory of God’s light shining from my face, understanding that some other weed will soon take the place of the one I’ve just pulled, and trusting that, in the end, God will take care of the rest.


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