grandmother oak

My favorite place to sit in the monastery is the little cloister, where I can pray with the white oak at the heart of our grounds. This oak is nearly 300 years old. It had been growing in the same spot for over 100 years when our community first moved to this property, and we constructed our buildings around it. When what is now the guesthouse was the monastery and the only building in the complex, the high altar faced the oak. When we constructed the Middle House and St. Augustine’s Church in 1920, we built the new buildings so that they enclosed the oak on three sides and provided a space to meditate with it. I have yet to meet a visitor to the monastery who doesn’t immediately sense the spiritual power of this incredible tree.

 

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As I have reflected on and prayed with our oak, I have taken to calling her the grandmother oak. I cannot help anthropomorphizing. Our oak reminds me very much of my grandmother: wise, stable, strong, flexible, beautiful in her age. Her very strength and stature provide sustenance for so much other life. The squirrels eat her acorns; moss grows on her gnarled limbs; and the swallows build nests in her leafy top. I have learned a great deal from this tree about what it means to be stable in a monastic community and a Christian life. Grandmother oak has also helped me lately with my grief.

On Christmas Eve last year my grandmother died. The timing of her death was poignant and appropriate. As the world waited in vigil for the birth of Jesus, I waited in vigil by my grandmother’s bed for her rebirth and homecoming. My grandmother, who had been a powerful force for good in my life, was returning to her God, her 85 years’ labor over.

 

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She was a woman of quiet faith. I asked her about a year before she died if she prayed. She looked at me like I’d asked the dumbest question imaginable. “Of course I do,” she said. “Oh,” I said. “You never mention it.” “What’s there to say?” she asked. “It’s between me and God.” That was her: unshakable, matter-of-fact, deeply faithful.

When I remember my grandmother, the impression I have is of a woman whose strength lay primarily in her solidity and stability. She was not inflexible, but she didn’t bend with every wind that blew her way, either of spirituality or of taste or of culture. She grew with the times, but she retained what today seems an almost old-fashioned view of life, a view whose simplicity belies its depth.

In a book she gave me when I was a child, she wrote this about her ideals:

Most of all, I have tried to be truthful, even though sometimes the truth hurts. Family has always been extremely important to me. I have tried to maintain strong family ties to all our family members. I have tried to live a Christian life which I think is the most important thing a person can do. I have tried to live a life that would make my family proud of me and that makes me feel good about myself.

My grandmother rarely called attention to herself. She didn’t need to. She lived with such integrity that it ultimately didn’t much matter to her what other people thought of her. Once she had a sense of what was right, she was unwavering in her commitment to that good. It amazed me that at 80 years old, after a lifetime as a Southern Baptist, she became an Episcopalian. As she said at the time, she couldn’t bear to be a member of a church so hateful toward gay and lesbian people. The example of her integrity has profoundly impacted the way I try to live my own life.

 

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In many ways, I can see seeds of my monastic vocation in my grandmother’s quiet approach to her faith and her life. She embodied stability, one of the components of the Benedictine vow. Like our own grandmother oak, we monks seek to grow in one place for the rest of our lives. This place is not primarily physical. Rather, it is the spiritual space of our life in the monastic community, bounded both by our threefold vow (obedience, stability, and conversion of life) and our relationship with Christ. We don’t seek rigidity, but nor are we swayed by every fad that comes along, spiritual or temporal.

Stability lends a kind of gravitas to one’s life. By gravitas I mean not heaviness, but rather seriousness, a commitment to encountering the Truth and to allowing one’s life to be changed and molded by that encounter. Stability allows the monk to point toward the truly important things in life, which is to say, to the rushing of Christ’s love and life into the world. Stability is ultimately a way of allowing the Truth to claim one’s life totally.

I pray that over the course of my life as a monk I will become more and more like my grandmother, like our oak. I pray that I will become a strong and stable pillar and a channel of Christ’s redeeming love. I pray we all will.

In loving memory of Mary Carolyn Evans Owen, 8 October 1930 – 24 December 2015.

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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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a great cloud of witnesses

One of the aspects of gardening I love best is the congregation of stories and histories that comes together in any one garden. The history of the land itself joins with that of the gardener as well as the stories and interests of plant breeders and purveyors. There is a great cloud of witnesses in any garden.

This cloud of witnesses is especially numerous and palpable in our gardens here at the monastery. We have lived on this property since 1902. In those 114 years many monks have had their hands in the dirt of our gardens. Though no trace of them remains today, in the earlier days of the monastery we had large vegetable and fruit gardens. A 1904 article in the New York Times claims that “the fathers themselves will help till the soil and reap the harvests” from the 2,500 grape vines and hundreds of fruit trees that were planted on the property. No one living seems to know whether we ever actually did harvest those grapes.

Harvest or no, our property still bears the marks of those who have watered its ground with their sweat. The magnificent copper beech that dominates the guesthouse lawn testifies to Br. Will Brown’s vision of simple elegance. The daffodil lawn still glows in the spring, reminding us of our former brother Kevin’s passion for naturalizing bulbs. And the iris garden behind the enclosure, as full of weeds now as iris, highlights the vision of a unnamed gardening forebears. All around us the voices of our ancestors invite us to join in the song of their creative praise.

The unsung heroes of our monastery gardens, however, are the hundreds–perhaps thousands–of volunteers who have watered our grounds with their sweat over the last century and a bit.

 

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the small cloister before renovation

 

It has been my primary goal in my work as groundskeeper to renovate our garden spaces and retune our collective ears to the voices of those who have worked this land before us. These workers include not just brothers but also hundreds of volunteers, associates, and friends whose vision and labor has gone into making our grounds beautiful and productive over the years. In the last two years most of our gardening work at the monastery has been largely the work of uncovering. We have cleared away weeds and debris, cut back encroaching brush, pruned dead tree limbs, and excavated crumbling flower beds. Beneath all the clutter that nature had accumulated, we have found beautiful plants, yearning for a little space to spread themselves out and flourish once more. They just needed a little attention.

 

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the small cloister after renovation

 

This work of renovation extends, too, to the choice of new introductions to our gardens. I am captivated by historic and heirloom cultivars, many of which have their own histories and stories to add to our chorus. Take my favorite daylily, ‘Theron,’ for instance. This beauty dates back to 1934, when A.B. Stout introduced it as the first red daylily. It’s so rarely grown now that you almost never see it, yet its simple, straightforward beauty is remarkable. Plants like these remind me that my work as a gardener is as much about preserving beauty as it is about creating it. Knowing the histories of the plants that fill our flower beds also gives those plants a personality and brings them to life beyond their short bloom time and connects us to the community of people around the world working to preserve heirloom plants and their histories.

 

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‘Theron’ daylily, 1934

 

Much like the monastic life itself, our gardens are much the more beautiful for the hundreds or thousands of lives that have been lived, at least in part, in proximity to their blooms.

 

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anointing and anointed

During last week’s garden retreat, one of our volunteers asked me about the social aspects of gardening. The question gave me pause. I am, largely, a solitary gardener. As such, I’m in tune with the many ways that gardening bolsters my prayer life and aids in my conversion. I also give space in my reflections to the role of gardening in healing both my own wounded places and those of the wider world. But I rarely have the experience of gardening as corporate prayer.

 

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We were clearing brambles to make room for roses, lilacs, and blueberries.

 

This volunteer and his wife, who was also on the retreat, shared with our group the importance of gardening to their married life and the many ways that working the soil together draws them closer. Others on our retreat named similar experiences. Two of our group were a mother-daughter team who had come on the retreat together as a way of sharing a time of contemplative garden work. Another retreatant shared his experience gardening with indigenous people using ancient techniques, and another about gardening with juvenile convicts.

 

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These stories enriched our time together by illuminating the sacramental force of our garden work. And they reminded me that we do not garden for or with ourselves alone. Gardening is a way of channeling our creativity, which is to say a way of inviting the Holy Spirit to flow through our bodies and to guide our hands in bringing forth beauty from the created world. This experience of openness to the Spirit is extremely intimate, and it deepens our awareness of the fundamental unity of body, mind, and spirit. When we share that experience with another or others, it nourishes a kind of intimacy that words alone cannot touch. At the same time, we grow together in relationship with one another and with God.

The healing that comes from this kind of intimacy with one another, ourselves, the land itself, and God is subtle and not immediately apparent. And yet, over time, our communal working and praying attunes us to the quiet movement of the Spirit within and among us, knitting us more and more fully together.

 

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We also prepared the folly to be planted this fall.

 

This conjoining of our spirits with another through the Holy Spirit was obvious on the last morning of our retreat. The seven of us gathered under our grandmother oak in the small cloister. Holding hands, we spoke aloud our thanks, hopes, praise, and awe for the work of God unfolding in and through us. We then laid hands on one another as we anointed each other’s hands with holy oil, much as we had anointed the soil with our sweat in the previous three days.

 

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Looking into the tears in one volunteer’s eyes I could see my own soul reflected there, my own gratitude and my own need for the grace that God so freely gives to us all. Hearing the tremble of another guest’s voice as she spoke aloud her praise for the beauty of God’s creation, I could hear my own awe and reverence. I believe we were all more whole after our few days together.

As our guesthouse prepares to close for August, I offer my thanks for the support of all those who have labored to bring forth beauty on our grounds over the years, and especially to this year’s garden volunteers: Wendy, Mike, Yanick, Randy, Kelly, Jacob, Robin, Robin (there were two!), Puck, Steve, Beth (twice!), Brenda, Lorraine, Hannah, Tessa, Bo, Sunny, Stuart, Meg, and Ken.

If you’re interested in joining future garden volunteer retreats, please check our retreat listings.

 

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midwives of the creation

The garden teaches us wholeness. We are not separate from the earth. Molded from nothing and filled with the breath of God, we and the earth are both a part of the body of Christ. When we walk on the ground, we are walking on Christ’s back. When we breathe the air around us, we are inhaling Christ’s breath. We are, in every moment of every day, in perfect unity with the God who created us and who sustains us moment by moment with the divine life and love.

Gardening is itself a prayer. There are moments in the garden where everything in creation seems to be in sync. The gentle play of light on the tulip illuminates the web of soft undertones on its pinky white skin, and that same skin shines with an iridescence that cries out in praise to the Creator. At such moments, I feel humbled and awed to have been chosen to participate in the revelation of such aching beauty.

As every gardener knows, there are also moments of agony and longing in the garden. And not only when the deer eat the buds off of the roses just before their first bloom. There are also the long, dormant months of winter when the ground is frozen, the landscape bare, and the only sustenance of color comes from stacks of seed catalogues and memories of spring. At such moments I am as much a gardener as I ever was. My winter garden is a garden of hope and longing, and I remember that longing is a true and deep kind of love.

Such moments as these remind me that the earth and I are not separate at all. Rather, the earth is as much a vehicle for conversion and redemption as are my relationships with my brothers in the monastery. In the garden I am revealed to myself. My humble desire to praise the creator with the work of my hands and my self-serving, iron-hard will to have my way at all costs grow together like so much wheat and weeds.

In his beautiful book of gardening meditations, Inheriting Paradise, Vigen Guroian tells the story of the Armenian genocide during World War I. A group of Armenian men were sent on a forced march to their death. During this march a priest named Ashod leads the men in swallowing the dry, parched earth as their Eucharist. Guroian sees in this story a reminder that “we belong to the earth and that our redemption includes the earth from which we and all the creatures have come, by which we are sustained, and through which God continues to act for our salvation.” (p. 12)

So it is with our work in the garden. We gardeners are privileged to participate in the great sacrament, Being itself. We are midwives of the unfolding creation. In allowing us this privilege, God reveals to us at deeper and deeper levels our unity with ourselves, one another, the whole creation, and, of course, God. Christ invites us into the heavenly garden, and we can see, if only for a moment, the shining oneness of all things. Such moments are deeply healing. They are why I garden.

 

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consider the bees

 

It seems appropriate that this, the first, entry on the Holy Cross grounds blog should feature our bees and be published on St. Benedict’s Day. The bee is a potent symbol of monastic life bearing many spiritual lessons, and our bees also live at the heart of what we’re trying to do with our monastery grounds.

Yesterday, due to the hard work of our two bee colonies, the support of all who have donated to the beekeeping fund, and the volunteer efforts of many who have helped to plant pollinator-friendly flowers on our grounds, we harvested fifty pounds of honey. Taking a look at the numbers gives you a sense of what exactly we’re talking about here. Our fifty pounds of honey comes in 65 little bear bottles (soon available for sale in our gift shop) and represents approximately 150,000 flowers foraged since the early spring. And all that from just two colonies.

To harvest the honey, our beekeepers suited up and headed into the bee yard where we removed the top box (called a ‘super’–and let me tell you, it was super-heavy with honey) from each colony. We took the supers inside where we uncapped the frames using a serrated knife, after which we slotted the uncapped frames into the honey extractor. Using centrifugal force the extractor draws the honey out of the frames, through a spout, and into a filter that removes wax and other debris from the hive. Then we filled our bear bottles from the spout on the filtered bucket.

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What’s amazing is how distinct the honey itself is. Even from frame to frame we noticed a difference in taste. The honey from some frames was light and floral, from others rich and fruity, all depending on which flowers had been harvested and when to fill that particular frame. (Notice the difference in the color of the comb on the frames in the picture below.)

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Brother John joined our regular beekeepers Brother Bernard, Brother Will, and Yanick Savain in the harvest. As we were working John asked Bernard about the importance of individual bees to the colony. Bernard told him that the entire colony is really one organism, even though it may contain as many as 40,000 individual bees. The spiritual significance of this statement struck me. What a gorgeous metaphor for the Body of Christ.

Particularly as we face into our country’s racism, violence, and ideological division, laid bare by all the killings this last week, it’s important that we begin to see that we are already one body, a body with Christ’s heart as its heart, pumping the blood of life, even to the furthest extremity. To speak of me or you, of us or them, is as silly as to talk of the life of one bee. Violence toward anyone is really violence toward ourselves.

Many of us understand this concept intellectually, but we rarely get it at the heart level. I am convinced that our difficulty understanding our unity with one another arises primarily out of our difficulty seeing our own fundamental wholeness and unity. We think of wholeness as something that will happen one day when we’ve reached some kind of longed-for perfection. Not so. Wholeness underlies the entire creation. It already is in this very moment, and we all already have it and are it. We all already, right now, are one with God in Christ, which means we are all already one with one another in Christ.

We would do well to consider the bees of the hive, how they work with one heart and one mind, never doubting their unity. The good news of Christ is that the reign of God is now, within and among us. The table is laid, and it’s loaded down with honey. All we have to do is taste.

Happy feast day.

 

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