Holy ground

Gardens don’t hold grudges. That’s one of their nicest qualities. No matter how many weeks (or months) of neglect my backyard has endured, I always feel welcome when I put on the gloves and venture outside.

I was reminded of this one evening, after the dinner dishes were cleared up. Led by a sense of carpe diem, I escaped into the backyard. It had been a while; the ground was rife with weeds.

I’d bought some coleus and impatiens to plant, so I began raking up the molding leaves that covered the flowerbeds. Black beetles scuttled out as I disturbed their homes. The smell of soil filled my nose and the weeds uprooted themselves obligingly from the soft ground. The sun was almost gone, below the horizon.

I’d planned just to prepare the soil and then go inside, but I ended up planting all of the flowers. Even though it was getting hard to see, the peacefulness of the evening drew me in. I pinched the bottom of the crinkly plastic cartons and eased the small plants out carefully, afraid to break them at the stems. The tiny flowers looked vulnerable and insignificant. As I planted them a careful foot apart from each other, they made a very unspectacular display. But I knew that with weeding, water, and Miracle-Gro, it would just be a matter of time before they began elbowing their neighbors, a cheerful coexistence of blooms. As always when I work in the garden, I felt hopeful. At home. Grounded.

I’m hesitant to extrapolate a spiritual message from this experience. Gardening as a metaphor for faith is hardly original; any writer who makes that connection is treading on well-worn ground. But there’s a good reason for that. There’s such a profound, elemental connection between tending a garden and tending one’s spiritual life. After all, gardening is about encouraging the things that sustain and nurture life, and removing the things that don’t. That’s exactly what I try to do with my faith life: assess what brings me closer to God (daily prayer, gratitude, mindfulness) and find ways to do them more often.

The problem with such stock-taking, though, is that it takes effort, and it takes a quiet mind. I’m so busy juggling motherhood, marriage, teaching, writing, housework, and the occasional pursuit of exercise, that days can pass without any conscious spiritual reflection on my part. Every now and then, though, the craving for spiritual renewal hits me like a thunderbolt. Only then do I realize, with what feels like surprise, that I need some quiet time to help keep me blooming.

That’s why I stayed out in the yard that night, working even after the sun had gone down. Kneeling on the overgrown lawn, pressing soil around the tiny new plants, it felt like a benediction. I was praying without words, satisfying a hunger I hadn’t realized I’d had. And I was relearning a lesson I’ve learned thousands of times: every now and then, we all need to hit pause, breathe deeply, and return to what grounds us.

 This article first appeared in Catholic San Francisco.

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