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.
16 Replies to “the grounding of my spirit”
Joy! Joy, to read a post from you again.
A friend of mine just today shared an excerpt from a poem by Walt Whitman. One of the lines was, “dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” And this bit from Whitman resonated, for me, with your line: “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 that in turn takes me to my spring season with garden beds and the goats in our meadow. Right now, the tall grasses, waiting to be cut for hay, are ocean-like in their richness and motion. And the goats walk in that ocean of grass, the little ones leaping up into view like flying fish; their elders moving more slowly, top-lines and heads visible above the waving green. Every morning I am out there with my husband, around 6:30 or 7:00, filling my lungs and soul with the cool freshness. We heave the chickens’ meadow tractor forward a length; refresh their water and grain. I find myself talking nonsense to the goats as they clamber onto milking stands, and affectionately chide the babies for stepping into old Dora’s food dish. We repeat the cycle in the evening light, golden with day’s end.
In the front garden bed, there is a wall of dark blue-purple of Siberian Irises, backed by peonies about to explode in magenta. Alyssum and dianthus lend modest color at the beds’ edges.
I share all of this by way of saying that I resonate thankfully with your offering here. For years I left all of this work and presence in the life of the garden beds and meadow to my husband and children, while I cooked and studied and feverishly prepared lessons and doggedly marked papers. Now I am outside with the goats and garden beds every day, and they are healing indeed. I am clinging with all my childish self’s whole heart, to the teaching that God made the earth, and fashioned the first humans from that earth. And that God declared it good.
[And, sending prayers for Presence and blessing on your very-soon ordination.]
Thank you for writing again.
I am grateful as I enfold you in love.
Much love to you, dear friend!
Oh, Wendy, what a delightful response! Thank you! I love that Whitman quotation. I’m going to have to spend more time with him. He’s been coming up a lot lately.
Your garden sounds terrific. If you fancy a visitor sometime, I’d love to come see your goats. In the meantime, I’ll keep the picture close to my mind’s and heart’s eye.
You should have seen the smile that lit my face when the words Grounding in the Spirit” scrolled up in my Inbox. Sending prayers for your ordination.
Thank you so much! Glad to help with the smiling. 😀
Nice to have you back in the blog-o-sphere, Br. Aidan.
I was just a HCM a few weeks back (during your gardening week)… and MY the gardens are looking lovely!
I’ve learned a lot by reading your blog regarding your authentic spiritual struggles, questions, thoughts, development, and insights. I guess I figure “if a *professional monk* has struggles and questions ….needs renewal and development… well, it’s understandable that I should have those as well.” It takes courage to lead “an examined life” and I greatly appreciate and respect your willingness to do that. It’s an inspiration.
So… Thanks again.
Thanks, Peter. I’m very happy with how the gardens are looking this year. I really see all the work paying off. And the rain and sunshine help a lot, too. As for being a “professional”–I think of myself more as an “amateur,” literally one who does something for the love of it. I think all humans have struggles and questions. I hope that by being honest about my own, I can help others to give themselves permission to struggle and question, too.
SO SO happy to see words from you, Aidan!!!! You have brightened my day!
Thanks, Gina! I’m glad to have helped you smile!
You grabbed me with the first line…again! It’s so good to read your thoughts and feelings once more and to see how all is so beautifully woven together–your knitting, quilting, shirt-making, gardening, praying, writing, refraining from writing. Prayers for you in these days coming up to your ordination, and especially on The Day. Your happiness reaches out to draw others in to share it. Such a good quality for a monk! Loving greetings to you and all the Brothers, Ann OSH
Thank you so much, Ann!
Dear “Father” Aidan,
I don’t know how I missed this one, considering I wait with baited breath to get another.
All the descriptions and analogies are wonderful as was your Ordination. I was so honored to be there. You are certainly in the right place, at the Monastery, giving so much love to those of us lucky enough to know you in person or online or in a retreat. The gardens are such a beautiful extension of your love and attention and caring for everything. As is your knitting and sewing. Thank you for your love.
I am so grateful to have found your “voice” Aiden! Thank you for writing! I follow you on IG and have watched a couple of your Podcasts. But your writing… oh how rich and authentic. Thank you.💗
Thanks so much, Jennifer!
Yes, Jennifer. We are all so blessed to have Aidan in our lives!