My Place in the Sun, April 12: Gardening the Soul

My place in the sun

Although the cold weather, piercing winds and even snow are lingering longer than we would like, the calendar says it is spring! The advertising theme for this week’s Catholic Sun — home and lawn care — is fitting for the season of new life and growth. The topic reminded me of gardens, not the ones we tend with care in our backyards, but the gardens in Sacred Scripture and the garden of our souls.

   Adam and Eve lived in a garden. “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and placed in it the human creature he had formed” (Gn 2:8). The Greek name for the Garden of Eden is “paradise,” meaning “beautiful garden.” During Holy Week, we joined Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Here Jesus prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will but as you will” (Mt 26: 39). As Jesus was dying on the cross, He made a promise to a dying, repentant thief: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). On Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene visits the garden where Jesus’ tomb is located, encounters the risen Lord and joyfully proclaims, “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:18).

   Gardens remind us how generous God is, blessing us with the beauty of creation. Gardens call to mind choices we must make about caring for creation, listening to God’s words, and following His will. Gardens are sacred places of redemption and joyful places of rejoicing.

   Gardening is hard work. Seeds need good, fertile ground in which to grow. The soil needs to be “worked” and “nourished.” Seeds require care — protection from insects and encroaching weeds — in order to produce the desired fruit. If you are a gardener you know first-hand that bountiful gardens depend on some elements beyond your control: sunlight and just the right temperatures, rainfall — not too little or too much and at the right time. It occurs to me that gardening and our spiritual life have much in common. Both require our time, effort, and work. Both require reliance on God’s action, His generosity, and grace.

   St. Teresa of Avila used the metaphor of watering a garden when she spoke about the spiritual life and growth in prayer. Sometimes we have to be actively engaged in drawing water for the garden. We know our hearts are restless. Like the Samaritan Woman, we are looking for the one who can satisfy our desire for living water. We recognize our thirst and draw water from the well through the faithful reception of the sacraments, prayer, listening to God’s word, and practicing it.

   Growth also occurs when we recognize and enjoy the flowing water that is available to us. There is comfort, security, and confidence knowing that God’s grace comes to us freely in an unending flow of mercy and love. We rest joyfully and comfortably in God’s presence, knowing that we are not producing this joy. It is a gift.

   The flowing water of God’s grace supports the call to discipleship involving self-denial and carrying the cross. The world finds these attitudes inimical to happiness, yet the saints show us there is no other way. Drinking from the stream of God’s grace the disciple becomes a missionary. In the words of Pope Francis, a “missionary disciple” goes forth to spread the Gospel and plant seeds of transformation in his or her family, neighborhood and place of work, thus contributing to the transformation of society and the world.

   Pope Francis envisions the Church as an “evangelizing community” that “cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds.” It finds a way “to let the word take flesh in a particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however imperfect or incomplete these may appear. . . . An evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates at every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization” (cf. The Joy of the Gospel, 24).

   We tend to the garden of our souls by our efforts to draw near to the Lord and by reliance on divine grace. We do this for our own salvation and the salvation of the world. Growth in holiness is not an exclusively private endeavor — an isolated, personal goal. No, as we grow in holiness, the Church, the Body of Christ, is built up and its mission is proclaimed.

   As I complete my article for this week, it is Saturday evening. On Monday, April 9, Pope Francis’ exhortation on holiness will be released. I am sure Gaudete et Exsultate, (“Rejoice and be Glad”), with the subtitle On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World, will offer us guidance and encouragement for our journey of life and faith. [Editor’s note: See the cover of this week’s issue for an in-depth look at the pope’s exhortation.]

   If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.