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Reviewed by Cindy Crosby

Back to the Garden

Digging in the dirt as spiritual formation.

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What is a garden, anyway?

Edwardian Gertrude Jekyll saw her garden as a picture to be painted with living plants. Joy Morton of Morton Salt fame gardened with trees, amusing himself with discovering how many different types he could grow at his Chicago–area estate, now the 1700–acre Morton Arboretum.

My backyard neighbor, the retired sixty–something Jim, believes that gardening is all about growing as many vegetables as possible—and sharing them. His quarter–acre is full of raised boxes of earth in which he squeezes tomato plants, a patch of green beans, onions, squash, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, radishes, and an abundance of herbs and flowers. I'm likely to find a fistful of baby zucchini left on the steps in July, or a basket of ripe tomatoes on my porch in August.

For Jerry, a renowned natural landscaper whose backyard also bumps up against my own, gardening is all about diversity. He plants native flowers, trees, and grasses, and can effortlessly spout off the Latin names of the more than 350 varieties in his yard. Every spring Jerry burns his yard to stimulate the new growth of prairie plants and wildflowers …

… Which incites the wrath of my other next–door neighbors, who call the fire department when Jerry burns his yard each spring. Their idea of a garden involves Kentucky bluegrass Chem–lawned to blinding greenness, wood chips and concrete statuary, and a team of immigrant landscapers with power machinery swooping into the yard at regular intervals. Nary a dandelion dares raise its fairy–like sphere on that swath of pristine emerald. For them, gardening is a statement about conforming and keeping up appearances.

At the intersection of all this is my yard, where the garden is a sort of experimental retreat. Time spent watching dragonflies light on the arrowhead leaves in my tiny pond is time set apart for solitude. Planting prairie plants is contemplation. Reading on the porch behind a screen of old roses is occasion for self–examination. And whacking our dandelion–riddled lawn with my push mower is sweaty meditation.

"Gardens are like people's lives: they aim at different goals, all more or less legitimate," wrote master essayist Henry Mitchell, who penned the weekly "Earthman" gardening column in the Washington Post. With his words in mind I began turning the pages of a lovely slim volume, The Fragrance of God, by the Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian (Inheriting Paradise).

For Guroian, the making of gardens is inseparable from the spiritual journey. The act of gardening brings him closer to God. "I spend more time on my knees in the garden than in holy sanctuary," he writes. The garden is full of symbols of the Divine, which "testify not only to [God's] existence but also to the goodness of his Creation." And the beauty of the garden, Guroian suggests, can transform us. When we learn and name things we didn't know, we exercise gratitude to the One who made them. (Judging by the number of field guides on my shelf, I'm exercising a lot of thanksgiving). Certainly, anyone who ever babied along their peonies, then watched them come to glorious full bloom the day of the first spring hailstorm, will agree that gardening teaches us humility.

Guroian's meditations begin in autumn, move through the cycle of the seasons, and end at the start of winter. The garden location changes as he moves from Reisterstown, Maryland, to Culpepper, Virginia. This is not so much a book describing the detailed glories of his personal gardens, however, as it is a theological take on gardening as an act of spiritual formation. No plant lists, no rapturous descriptions.  In fact, one leaves the book without a clear visual image of what Guroian's two gardens looked like, although there are some lovely descriptions (daffodils spilling down a bank like a tipped–over can of yellow paint, as one example). What one does discover here is a reasoned yet passionate window into why gardening is true soul–work.

Guroian finds the nose an indispensable companion for the spiritual journey. The garden is a place of sensory delight, a place where childhood memories come rushing back with the sniff of an old rose. Guroian argues with medieval theologians who spoke of sight as the mystical sense, and gently insists that smell is the most mystical sense. "The garden has persuaded me of this," he writes. Catholics, Episcopalians, and the Orthodox perhaps know most readily the connection between the sweet odors of incense as an invitation to the Divine; those of us who live where lilacs bloom in the spring might also be easily agreeable to his notion.

As he explores gardening and the spiritual life, Guroian mines the wisdom of the church fathers and mothers, including Origen of Alexandria, St. Ephrem of Syria, St. Bonaventure, Dame Julian of Norwich, and Dionysius the Pseudo–Areopagite. This adds to the pleasure of reading for those of us so inclined. Gardening, after all, is as old as time.

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