It was the garden that saved me.
Scott had said to me many times that I was welcome at the monastery as often as I wanted to come. I didn’t believe him. Some part of me knew, though, that if I were really to discern a vocation at Holy Cross I would have to act as if I believed I was welcome. For the eighteen months before I joined the community, I visited every month.
The monastery grounds captivated me the first time I saw them—the grand sweep of grassy hillside down to the tall sentinels of the woods and the majestic expanse of silver brown river, all crowned with steep green hills and the Gilded Age silhouette of the Vanderbilt Mansion.
All that space calmed my spirit and fired the engines of imagination. On those eighteen visits to the monastery, though, I felt my attention drawn inward, to the garden spaces closer to the buildings.
I had no experience of gardens. I knew them only through books as places where the spirit wanders with the feet, nose, and eye. The monastery gardens were sadly neglected, as full of debris from previous seasons as flowers. The only thing that seemed to have survived the neglect, even flourished on it, was huge patches of black-eyed Susan, its chromium yellow carrying the eye from one corner of the guesthouse to the edge of the southern lawn.
As I walked around the gardens, I imagined them restored to fullness of bloom, a kind of proxy, I see now, for my own spiritual restoration. Knowing nothing of gardening, I turned where I had always found answers: books. In the time approaching my entry to the monastery, I read a lot about gardens and gardening. In my tiny bedroom in Crown Heights, I stacked encyclopedias of perennials, lushly photographed flower bibles, thick tomes on roses, and minutely detailed stories of the English cottage garden. While I was away from the monastery, these books connected me to the community like a branch to the vine.
My dreams for the garden were dreams of myself and of my place at the monastery. They laid out a path for me to belong and to contribute my spiritual and creative energy. Even my untrained eye could see these gardens had good bones. Someone who knew what he was doing had laid in structures that continued to form and support the space—walls of flat bluestone, the outlines of oval beds, masses and masses of hosta and lily of the valley, and periwinkle coating the hillside down from the middle lot. I knew at the outset that the task was to restore what had once been, to uncover the years of neglect, peel back the layers of time, and then to contribute something new to the efforts of those who had gone before.
This project struck me as inherently monastic. It was this kind of work that drew me to monastic life: the sense that I would be joining a tradition that, at the local level, had persisted for 125 years and, beyond the local, was thousands of years old. My work was not to create from nothing, but to find my place in the continual renewal that Benedictines call stability and conversion of life.
So it was with my own spiritual life. I knew my foundations were sound, the necessary structures in place to grow in intimacy with God. I needed a little weeding, compost, and mulch, but I didn’t have to start from the beginning.
On a level deeper than language, though, I sensed that my relationship to the earth would heal me. It was communion with the spaciousness of meadow and river that had given my spirit air to breathe. I knew, beyond knowing, that in putting my hands in the dirt, in roaming the fields and the woods, in breathing the air of open spaces, I would come home to my body and that the strands of my life that had seemed so disparate would weave themselves together into patterns beyond my reckoning.
As much as my friendships have, the garden has taught me wholeness. We are not separate from the earth. Our clay bodies filled with the breath of God, we and the earth are one and the same flesh, dwelling inseparably one from the other. Which is to say the earth and I are both Word made Flesh. And as I learn to drop down into my unity with ground, water, and air, I begin to recognize that I am not separate from my Self, that I am one, whole, unified person: breath, body, spirit, voice, and heart.
In celebration of my upcoming ordination to the priesthood, the monastic community is raising money to support our grounds fund. To contribute, please click here.
While I can’t commit to writing weekly again, I do hope to return periodically to this blog to share the writing I’ve been working on. Thank you to all of you who have reached out to offer support and encouragement during my hiatus. You remain in my prayers, with gratitude.