The Gardening Animal

Published March 4, 2021

The Catholic Thing

Lent is a season of preparation. Our Lenten observances of prayer, penance, and almsgiving help clear away the attachments and vices we have accumulated, which would otherwise inhibit our spiritual growth. The work of Lent prepares us, body and soul, for the joys of Easter and the celebration of new life in the Resurrection.

In late winter and early spring, the work of keeping a garden mimics the spiritual labors of Lent. Old growth, dead or diseased, must be cut back and cleared away from the perennial beds to make room for new growth – growth that I cannot yet see but which I know (hope?) will show itself soon. And there are weeds, which by devilish industry continue to spread and grow while the rest of the garden takes its winter rest. These must be pulled out by the root.

Where I live in Northern Virginia, the first hints of spring are already beginning to show. A few daffodils and tulips are starting to press up through the sodden earth. The first crocuses and a few snowdrops are blooming. The lawn is matted, wet and muddy, especially where the children have been playing. The roses need pruning and the heavy soil in the vegetable garden needs turning. Most of the yard looks dead and lifeless and not a little shabby. By Easter, things will look different, a riot of life and color.

The parallels between the work of a gardener and a Lenten penitent, or between spring blooms and Easter joy, are not hard to see. But the analogy between gardening and the spiritual life is worth considering on a deeper level as well. At every stage of the history of salvation, often at the most critical moments, we find a garden.

The first and natural home of man is a garden, THE Garden: “The LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom he had formed.” It is worth noting: a garden is not a wilderness, unsullied by the hand of man, but a place that is ordered and tended. God himself does the planting. Paradise – the etymology of which suggests a walled garden – is a place of order and harmony between God and man, man and the Creation, over which we have been given dominion.

Our punishment for sin is the loss of Paradise, and of the proper relationship and order that existed in the Garden. By sin, we were estranged from our Creator and our relationship to creation became marked by toil and a desire for mastery. Cain became “a tiller of the soil,” but his offering was not pleasing to God. Man cooperates with nature to provide sustenance – every farmer knows his crop depends on soil, seed, and weather. After the Fall, that cooperation remains, but it is marred by strife and necessity. A farm, like the wild, may be beautiful and good, but it is not a garden.

Gardens reappear throughout Scripture. In the Song of Songs, for example, the garden is a place of intimacy between lover and beloved, and allegorically, between God and his espoused people, Israel. Again, the garden is a place where the right relationship between God and man is reflected in the order and beauty of the natural surroundings.

In the Gospels, the sin and disobedience of Adam, which lost us the Garden of Eden, is undone by the obedience of Christ to the will of the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. Christ is not driven out of Gethsemane, He is taken by force. And when Christ’s work of redemption is accomplished, St. John tells us where they laid his crucified body: “Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried.”

When Christ, the New Adam, rises on Easter, therefore, he rises from the earth of a garden. On that glorious morning, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb where she encounters the risen Christ. But she does not recognize Jesus at first; she mistakes him for the gardener.

We were made for a Garden; we were redeemed in a Garden by the Divine Gardener.

In all of this, the garden is more than an allegory for harmony with our Creator and his creation. Gardening is, or can be, a moral enterprise. A gardener requires knowledge of different plants, the soil, the sun and wind, the rain and weather. If he wishes to order his garden so that it is more beautiful, he must use that knowledge to work with nature, not against it.

Every garden is a school in teleology: the seed sprouts, not because the gardener made it sprout, but because that’s what seed do! The flower blooms to produce fruit, and fruit for the sake of seed! This is an elementary lesson, but one which, in this day and age, it is positively subversive: Nature has ends! Every gardener knows this, not as an abstract principle, but as plain fact.

I can hardly think of a more powerful antidote to our technocratic, utilitarian age than learning to work in accord with nature, rather than against it. We are not, as Descartes would have it, “masters and possessors of nature.” Recall Cicero’s definition of virtue: “Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature and moderation and reason.” On all counts, gardening is an excellent school for acquiring just such habits.

We can say many things of the human animal – it is rational, political, social, and so on. To these, perhaps, we should add one more: Man is the “gardening animal.” We’ll see if that sticks. I will be pondering these things long after Lent gives way to Easter.

Meanwhile, in my garden there is sunshine (for now) and fresh air, and weeds to pull.

© 2021 The Catholic Thing.

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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