Archive for July 31st, 2017


Gardening as a Vocation

It dawned on me the other day how barren the gospels are when it comes to wintertime imagery.  As near as I can recall, Jesus never told a single parable about shoveling snow or about the Samaritan whose cart slid off the icy road and into the ditch.  Did Jesus not care about believers who would one day live in Minnesota or Switzerland?  Or did winter leave Jesus cold, and he preferred not to deal with it?  We’ll likely never know until we meet him in the kingdom of heaven, where wintry landscapes await those who love to ski and skate.

Summer is Jesus’ strong suit, however, and it explains why we have a lot of readings in the liturgy about farmers and gardeners at this time of year.  Just recently, in fact, we’ve heard about the seed that has fallen on good soil, on rock-strewn soil, or on the beaten path.  We’ve also conjured up the image of the field in which weeds threaten to choke out the stalks of grain.  All of it raises the question of what a farmer should do when faced with such labor-intensive challenges.

IMG_1922Some gardeners today instinctively reach for the herbicides, firm in the conviction that chemistry can solve most any problem.  Of course there can be a price to pay for this, but a clean and bounteous garden seems to justify it.

That may be well and good in the modern garden, but it can cause us to miss some of the nuance in the parables.  The fact is, many of us live in a binary world of our own making.  It’s a world in which divisions into good and evil, black and white, and flowers and weeds make it so much easier to explain away our own reality.  So it is that  the field with neat rows of grain with nary a weed in sight is not only the ideal, but it should be within the easy reach of anyone.  This kind of perfection is achievable and in fact expected of all.  But as an experienced farmer or gardener can testify, real life isn’t like that at all.

There are practical consequences that follow from this binary world-view, and my own myopia is a prime example.  I  can readily appreciate the image of a garden with flowers and weeds, and in that garden I’m always one of the prized plants.  Furthermore, I’m more than willing to point out the weeds around me who need to be pulled and tossed on the compost heap.

IMG_2042The same holds true for the seed that falls to the ground.  In my own mind there’s not a shred of doubt that I’m the fertile soil.  In fact, I give thanks regularly that I’m not like those stony-hearted people in whom the word of God takes no root.  If only they would respond as I have responded, then they and the world would be much better.

My exercise in self-delusion sails right by an obvious point contained in these parables.  These parables aren’t about other people, because they’re really about us.  In fact, on any given day I’m the entire garden — weeds and flowers and all.  There are in me blossoms to be cultivated, weeds to be pulled, and soil to be fertilized and watered.  Still other plants in me need pruning but not uprooting.  Like any garden, then, I am a work in progress, and I need cultivating on a daily basis if there is to be a good harvest.

IMG_2040That’s also the case when it comes to my receptivity to the seed that falls on my soil.  There are moments when I eagerly accept the word of God, but there are situations when I’m as resistent as granite pavement.  But I only fool myself when I presume that I’m always good soil — a flawless and fertile seed bed for all that the Lord showers upon me.

As any gardener can tell us, running a garden is no easy business.  There are flowers to nurture and weeds to pull, and it all requires vigilance and hard work.  That’s the point of these parables, and that’s the challenge of the monastic vocation and of the Christian vocation.  That’s why Jesus doesn’t con us with glossy images of the lush garden that requires little or no work.  Rather, Jesus reminds us of the care and watering and pruning and weeding that every successful garden requires.  That, by the way, is not meant as a recipe for discouragement.  Rather, as any gardener can testify, that’s the plan for creating a work of art.


+I’m not in the least hesitant to admit that this post grew out of a conversation that I had with Fr. Lew after he preached on this topic two Sundays ago.  Any good gardener borrows seeds and cuttings and rootstock from other gardens, so I’m grateful for the ideas I’ve borrowed from him.

+I am no stranger to gardening, but it has been many years since I hung up my pruning sheers.  Years ago I built three expansive flower beds in the back of Emmaus Hall at Saint John’s.  The maintenance person regularly had mowed the lawn almost to the ground in hopes that the summer sun would scald it and reduce the work.  Its restoration and the flower beds that I put in were a work of sheer joy that I enjoyed for several years, until my time became too limited.  Today the beds are grassed in, but many of the trees that I planted have matured into fine specimens.  In future posts I hope to share photos of those trees.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from The Cloisters Museum in New York.  The Cloisters Museum houses the medieval art collections of the Metropolitan Museum, and they are encased in architectural elements that were purchased in Europe and carted off to New York ages ago.  It’s an island of tranquility overlooking the Hudson River, and I first visited The Cloisters when I was in college.  The gardens there recreate medieval counterparts, where weeding for the monks must have been a real chore — and a delight.


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