Earlier this summer I took a two-part vegetable workshop at our local botanic garden. The class was fun and informative, and it was wonderful to spend time with other enthusiastic gardeners. But I left the workshop thinking, “Okay, great. But why would you worry so much over an eggplant when you could have peonies?” The part of me that is still stuck in the values of “the world”–acquisition, workaholism, perfectionism, earning one’s keep–tells me I ought to grow vegetables. They’re useful, after all. They feed people, reduce our food costs, and help the environment by limiting the amount of fossil fuels needed to support our food supply. Yes, a home vegetable garden does all of that and more. The truth is, though, that vegetables don’t make my heart sing. Flowers do.
My life as a gardener began before I planted my first bulb two autumns ago. In the 18 months before I entered the monastery, I came up to visit one weekend each month. During that year a half, as I walked the monastery grounds something in me stirred. I longed to get my hands in the dirt, to clear the accumulated weeds and debris from the flower beds, and to see them teeming with beautiful life, a botanic reflection of the prayer that has filled this property for over 100 years.
My gardening life has been and continues to be inextricably woven with my monastic life. I don’t know if the one would exist without the other. Much of my conversion has been founded on the growing understanding that beauty heals.
An accurate translation of the creation story in Genesis is that God created the world and called it “beautiful.” Our most natural state as human beings is to exist harmoniously with the rest of the created world as stewards and participants in the extraordinary beauty of all that God has made. More than that, we are given the unique role of helping to channel God’s work of creation, to sing the universe into being in harmony with God. When we allow ourselves to be channels of God’s creative energy (that is, grace) we become one with God’s Spirit. Such unity does not just make us more whole. It is wholeness itself.
Beauty is a kind of grace. It’s available to all, freely given, found absolutely everywhere, and far exceeds whatever effort we may put into its creation. If we have trouble finding beauty in the world, it’s because we lack the eyes to see it. When I allow myself to be poured out in the act of creation, I find that, paradoxically I am filled beyond my own capacity and ability. This is the profligacy of God’s love for us and all the world.
I plant flowers because I love everything about them. The utter implausibility and grace of economy of the tulip bulb astounds me as much as its perfect form and rich color when it blooms. I’m giddy as a child to plant bulbs in the fall and impatient throughout the winter waiting for their arrival. Despite my understanding of the life cycle of the bulb, they have never yet failed to leave me speechless in wonder when they bloom. And as soon as the tulip fades, there’s the iris and then the peony and then the rose and on and on until we reach the aster and the maple’s majestic blaze. Flower gardening leaves me grateful to be a participant in this extraordinary world that God continues to create and call beautiful. In the face of such profligate beauty, who cares about utility?
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