While visiting the Chicago Botanic Garden, my husband and I spent the better part of a day strolling from an English walled garden to a Japanese garden to a wildflower field to a wetlands preserve. We noticed how our relationship to the landscape changed in response to the colors, fragrances, and sounds of the varying ecosystems.
Since “Gardener” is one of my favorite metaphors for God, I couldn’t help thinking about all the expertise, wisdom, patience, loving attention, and hard work needed to keep such splendid gardens well tended. As well as having many mansions, God’s household must include many exquisite botanical worlds.
Teresa of Avila’s writings, especially in The Interior Castle, have opened for me gates to some imaginary gardens, which offer a surprising variety of ways to be present to God and to receive God’s tender care. As I receive this kind of gardening hospitality, I find that these are also places from which I can offer caring attention to others who come to me for spiritual direction.
Gardeners pay attention to their living charges, notice patterns in their growth processes, are willing to watch and wait for development, and celebrate with them the beauty of holiness. I never seem to exhaust the fruitfulness of this metaphor for pastoral work. The more I explore it, the more it becomes congruent with and finds expression in my outdoor gardening.
The highly abstracted and heavily pruned style of the Japanese garden does not keep my attention for very long. Although the vistas are lovely and peaceful, they suggest a distant paradise, almost unattainable. I prefer something more tangibly close, less controlled. My front yard garden has some intentional design and symmetry. While it is hardly tidy by suburban standards, it’s intended for the neighbors to enjoy as they drive by or for their children to help me with when they see me working there.
My backyard is more of a wildlife preserve. It supports rabbits, chipmunks, possums, cardinals, and robins. The lawn is giving way to violets and creeping bluebell. The raised rock garden in an uneven oval gives some definition to the space, holding brightly colored annuals that I can see from my kitchen window. But beyond that the perennial flowers and shrubs are encouraged to grow wherever they do best.
Of course, I tend the garden more than it may seem to the casual visitor: watering, weeding, watching. Sometimes I introduce new plants. But often I find the greatest beauty in the unexpected juxtaposition of things planted by squirrels or scattered by the wind.
My center of gravity is slowly shifting from front-yard theology to backyard theology—from a desire to order the garden with a specific composition in mind, to a willingness to yield more to the garden’s natural ecology, moving things only when they seem to need it in order to grow well.
Although I was raised in the highly structured tulip garden of the Canons of Dort theology, that has not always been a comfortable place for me. Over the past decade I have been receiving creation theology as a balance. I still enjoy working in my front garden, welcoming the social interaction it invites. But when my interior garden needs refreshment, I work in the backyard.