Cultivation, Christianity and Culture
Spring, and a Middle Aged Man’s thoughts turn to … gardening. Not that I am feeling sensitive about my age nor can I boast of being a great gardener. But it does seem true that Gardens can make us feel close to God. Certainly the British man or woman has always had a love of Gardening and in his or her Garden experiences many many religious feelings: creativity, rest, grace, beauty, joy, delight, peace and even transcendence. Within our culture the spirituality of Gardening may yet be a vehicle to discern the Divine.
Gardening involves planning and purpose. It involves discipline and work Yet it also involves an openness to what is beyond. It encourages us to take delight at the unexpected. It fosters patience and forbearance. It even provides us with illustration after illustration of spiritual truths – analogies and metaphors flow from the garden. Our Lord himself used agricultural and horticultural parables, and I for one am happy to follow his example. One contested theological concept today is that of sacrifice. This Easter season of death and new life can seem so difficult for a post-Modern culture to grasp. Yet the Gardener understands pruning. The gardener understands how seeds buried in the dark earth will lead to new life. The gardener will know the paradoxical growth that comes from uprooting weeds and cutting back the overgrown.
Gardens and spirituality certainly belong together. One of the gentle but powerful ecumenical initiatives which do most certainly seem of the Gospel has been the quiet garden movement. This deliberately encourages people to make use of garden spaces as places where they can simply be before God and before his creation and the creative co-operation of the human gardener with the Divine source of life. From country cottages to monasteries, many gardens in the UK and further afield have opened themselves to be places of prayer, contemplation and healing (www.quietgarden.co.uk) Our time at CASE has been a sequence of conversations, many of which have sown seeds in me (and who knows, we hope some may have sown seeds in others). Last summer I enjoyed immensely talking with Vigen Guroian, a theologian, ethicist and literary critic from the Armenian tradition. But what I enjoyed was chatting to him about gardens. His delightful book Inheriting Paradise is a short (always a good recommendation) but profound series of seasonal mediations from a Christian gardener.
But Gardens are also sacred spaces. I will not claim to understand, but I do feel something of genuine spiritual power in the Japanese Zen traditions of gardens created for meditation and enlightenment. Indeed I have been known to have a photograph of the famous
Zen garden at Ryoan- Ji as the wallpaper on my PC desktop. It is with some regret, but also a challenge, that I have to admit that I have seldom been so impressed with Christian attempts to do likewise. I admire the intentions, for instance, of the Tree Cathedral in Whipsnade, but I don’t find there (probably due my inadequacy) a spiritual charge. Please educate me if you can suggest examples of British Christian gardens which do communicate faith and reveal themselves as communicators of the Gospel to the same depths as the Japanese examples.
One of the plausible etymological sources of our word ‘culture’, is of course connected to cultivation. Culture is about the seeds of shared life: how we are nurtured as social persons who link to our traditions, arts, customs and symbol systems and which enable us to be rooted in time and place and identity. It is so natural to talk about culture using horticultural imagery.
Yet as every gardener knows, cultivation is not static. Conditions change, the weather changes, the soil can change. The plants themselves shape their surroundings. Alien plants seek to colonise and establish themselves. Christian culture is something we as Church have a duty to cultivate. Yet the soil and the climate may not always be conducive today. Nonetheless we must have solid hope that the Gospel seeds will set and grow here. And yes, the experience of Gardening, the images it provides and the spiritual experiences it provides may yet prove to be significant opportunities for us.