Carlisle Cathedral Holy Week (5)

Good Friday Sermon

Once upon a time there was a little boy. He was precocious and wanted to get the better of his aged teacher. One day he caught a butterfly and ran to the wise old mentor, seeking to catch him out. ‘I have a butterfly here – I bet you can’t tell me if it’s dead or alive!’ If the old teacher said that it was dead, he planned to release it to fly away. If the old one said it was alive, he would squish it to death. The old man gazed long and hard at the young boy, until he became uncomfortable. ‘It’s in your hands, my son.’

We hold much in our hands.

Take a moment to gaze at yours. The lines on your palms, the veins. Nails, cuticles, scars. So familiar, holding so much. They tell the story of your past; the years of care, of work, of labour. The times of holding – the hands of others, bodies, children, parents. The times when hands are midwives, when they bring things to birth, carrying; soothing and gentle. Our hands shape and mould. Sometimes they do bad things too. They hit. Or steal. They write cruel words. They bear the scars of mistakes, of worse. They kill butterflies.

Jesus stood before Pilate, silent, hands hanging uselessly by his side, a passive victim who also is the Truth, which cannot be dominated by force or power. Pilate can do nothing against him.

Pilate washes his hands of him.

Thomas could not believe. Unlike Mary the Magdalen, whose heart was ready to receive her Lord, Thomas is clouded, muddy with doubt. He needs to reach out his hands, even into the wounds of Christ, into the reality of what lies beneath the surface of the events that have happened. Until he meets his Lord and his God, he will not, cannot see more deeply into the love and new vision that is offered.

We wash our hands of goodness. We are clouded in our faith. We do worse.

The poet Elizabeth Jennings captures this, in her poem Friday.

We nailed the hands long ago,
Wove the thorns, took up the scourge and shouted
For excitement’s sake, we stood at the dusty edge
Of the pebbled path and watched the extreme of pain.
But one or two prayed, one or two
Were silent, shocked, stood back
And remembered remnants of words, a new vision.
The cross is up with its crying victim, the clouds
Cover the sun, we learn a new way to lose
What we did not know we had
Until this bleak and sacrificial day,
Until we turned from our bad
Past and knelt and cried out our dismay,
The dice still clicking, the voices dying away.  (Friday by Elizabeth Jennings)

Throughout this Holy Week we have considered our responsibility as stewards for the natural world, God’s creation. The future is in our hands: we can seek to bless the earth, rather than curse it. We can choose to use our hands to destroy or heal. To relinquish what is not needed; to restore the world around.

Jesus was not so concerned about whether his disciples washed their hands before eating; he wanted them to use their hands to touch the poor, the blind, the crippled. As he used his. His held the power to heal, to help people move from darkness to light. In all times, he brought a holy touch, whether the time was to be born, or to die; to break down or to build up.

Our hands are his hands in the world today. They are required to heal the world, this fragile earth.

This Holy Week we have considered the gardens, as a metaphor for God’s creation, now so under threat.

We have recalled that first garden, the garden of innocence, the garden tended by Adam and Eve before their fall from grace and banishment, where God walked in the cool of the evening.

On Tuesday we were in the garden of Gethsemane, remembering how Jesus reached the place and said to his disciples: ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial’. Jesus, in extremis, contemplating what lay ahead. As he retreated to the garden of Gethsemane, what did he go to find? This was no wilderness, no place of fasting, but rather a place where he could know again the strength that sustained him. A garden for the prayer of anguish, watered by his sweat that fell like great drops of blood down on the ground. We were with him in the darkness of our fears for the future. Remembering how, as the poem goes,

Into the woods my Master went,
Clean forspent, forspent.
Into the woods my Master came,
Forspent with love and shame.
But the olives they were not blind to him,
The little grey leaves were kind to him:
The thorn-trees had a mind to him
When into the woods he came.

Out of the woods my Master went,
And he was well content.
Out of the woods my Master came,
Content with death and shame.
When death and shame would woo him last,
From under the trees that drew him last:
‘Twas on a tree they slew him – last
When out of the woods he came. (A Ballad of Trees and the Master Sidney Lanier)

We have been in the garden of the tomb, and watched as Mary stretches out her hands to touch, although now is not the time. Noli me tangere, she is told.

She takes him to be the gardener, up early.

The first time the risen Christ is encountered is as a gardener.

Christ, the saviour of the world, a gardener. Indicating God’s care for the natural world, delight in beauty, concern for the smallest flower, the largest tree.

The gardener-Christ entranced Julian of Norwich. She wrote:

Outwardly, he looked as if he had been working hard for a long time, but to my inner understanding he seemed to be a beginner, a servant who had never been sent out before. Then I understood: he was to do work that was the hardest and most exhausting possible. He was to be a gardener, digging and banking, toiling and sweating, turning and trenching the ground, watering the plants the while.

And by keeping at this work he would make sweet streams to flow, find abundant fruits to grow; he would bring them to his lord, and serve them to his taste … I thought that in the Lord there was everlasting life and every goodness, except the treasure that was in the earth. And that treasure, too, had its being in the wonderful depth of his eternal love.

So, Julian of Norwich, speaking of the sweet fruits of life in Christ. The Christ who is gardener. Who seeks us to respond and nurture the natural world around us. To live within a new heaven, a new earth. A new vision, everlasting life, the treasure that was in the earth.

This time of the year is the time to be in the garden, pulling weeds, digging, planting out geraniums, snapdragon, forget-me-not, flowers to enjoy now and in the months to come.

Our hands, trimming and pruning, tending and nurturing, sore with cuts and blisters.

Our nails dirty with soil. As we throw away the stones, and gather the stones together, keeping and throwing away, restoring and destroying, we seek to return, perhaps, to that first garden of bliss, where God walked with the man and the woman at the time of the evening breeze. A place where we can know ourselves, and be known, as if for the first time.

We are in the garden of Gethesmane, in anguish at the state of our planet; deeply agitated as we contemplate a future we cannot know.

We are with Mary in the garden of the tomb, where Christ cannot be contained.

Richard Crashaw writes of the gift of freedom that is ours, because Christ was bound, hand and foot.

Thy hands to give thou canst not lift,
Yet will thy hand still giving be;
It gives, but O, itself’s the gift!
It gives tho’ bound, tho’ bound ‘tis free!  (Christ Crucified         Richard Crashaw)

We might imagine the hand of Christ holding open the gate to the garden, ready and waiting. Imagine the wounds still clearly there. The stigma, the wound, not healed, still flowing, lifeblood for the world.

Let us remember Christ’s hands, pinned to the tree, from which flowed life, from which rich gifts of grace and joy, through pain and suffering.

He challenges us to risk losing our defences, to stand before God without disguise. The God whose love does not let us go, but demands to prune us of the branches that bear no fruit. Our greed and disregard; our polluting ways; our carelessness and cruelty.

Let us hold out our hands towards God’s grace; empty of all but desire to hold the future of the earth, safe for our children and our grandchildren. Holding out our hands for grace to change, aware of our need to relearn innocence and live in harmony with God’s creation. Holding out our hands that we might allow Christ to garden us, to tend and watch over our souls, waiting for new growth.

Holding out our hands for the bread and wine that sustains us and makes us whole that we might garden the world around as we are gardened by Christ.

Carlisle Cathedral Holy Week (4)

Christ the Saviour of the World: Maundy Thursday sermon

This night we remember. We remember Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed and was obedient unto death, gathering his friends around him, washing their feet, and sharing a meal. Bread and wine, such ordinary foods, both made with yeast, leavened with life. He takes the bread and says ‘This is my body’. He takes the wine and says ‘This is my blood’. A meal; fruits of the Spirit which sustain us through the ages.

Simple, so simple an action, and yet it takes us to the profound truth that Jesus is the Saviour of the World. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Jesus: who redeems the world, who offers up himself that we might have life, and have it to all eternity. This is a true story for all creation, that we are redeemed through the life and death of Jesus.

When we consider God’s creation, all is not well. This week we have explored how it suffers as a result of human activity; forests felled; fossil fuels consumed; carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere and into the oceans. We know the polar ice caps are melting; how sea levels are rising; how flooding is now a reality for some; drought and desert, a lack of water, a disaster for others. The world is suffering, and humanity with it. St Paul’s words have a real resonance today:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8: 22-25)

How can we understand this? Someone who can help us was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He died in 1955, a French philosopher and Jesuit who trained as a paleontologist and geologist. Scientists today are reading him anew for his insights as they realise just how mysterious the world is. Teilhard de Chardin believed you could find God in all things. The entire world is the divine milieu, he said.

In the early 1920s, Teilhard wrote The Mass on the World. He was a devout priest and he was miles from any church or altar on which he might celebrate mass. He was in a wild land, far from civilisation. But the whole of creation around him seemed to sing with the presence of God. The body of Christ, the blood of Christ was there, to be discerned in the land which surrounded him.

Since once again, Lord – now in the steppes of Asia – I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world. (p.19)

He imagines everything taken up, with all its immense heartache and suffering, as the bread and wine are lifted. As Teilhard, the priest, holds up the chalice and paten of the world around him, all the pain and joy of the created order is there, as it groans inwardly to be one with God.

This bread, our toil, is of itself, I know, but an immense fragmentation; this wine, our pain, is no more, I know, than a draught that dissolves. Yet in the very depths of this formless mass you have implanted – of this I am sure, for I sense it – a desire, irresistible, hallowing, which makes us cry out, believer and unbeliever alike: ‘Lord, make us one.’ (p.20)

Teilhard believed that there is an underlying unity to all things, sustained by the love of God which spends itself again and again for the creation. That sacrificial love is at the heart of things; it is the Mass on the world.

What might we take from this? Yes, the world is sacramental; infused with the creative love of God. More; it is through suffering and self-sacrifice that this love gives life. God emptied himself, became human, became matter, that matter might be reconciled. Through your own incarnation, my God, all matter is henceforth incarnate, (23) writes Teilhard. The living, dying and rising again of the Christ is an action that is continually repeated within creation, within each of us. There is a larger story going on, a story that tells us that death is never stronger than love. Like the yeast that leavens the bread, that ferments the wine, but which dies in the process, the sacrificial love of God in Christ gives life.

We see life, the fruit of the Spirit, all around us. In 1962 Rachel Carson predicted a silent spring, as humanity continues to exploit the natural world. In fact, nature provides a raucous summer, given half the chance. Forests regenerate; species return; nature recovers. When, we, the human race responds to God in love and respect for the integrity of creation, with a much stronger sense of stewardship and responsibility, we find ourselves not pilgrims through an increasingly barren land. Joyful pilgrims, rather, in a rich and abundant world, the divine milieu, which reflects the love and glory at the heart of God.

Our own lives become richer too: relationships strengthened in peace and love; a sense of purpose and meaning in life; inner joy; a wild patience that lives in hope.

As we receive the cup of salvation, the bread of life tonight, and every time, we participate in a Mass on the world which brings hope to the whole created order. We experience the release from helplessness and despair, we see a glory about to be revealed. Our desire, as those who consume the sacrament of Christ’s body, is for union with God beyond life, beyond death. This union with God belongs to the whole of creation, of which I, you, are but parts.

This is my body. This is my blood. We receive Christ this night, remembering that he goes to his death. His self-sacrifice lies at the heart of the love of God. This is a God in Christ who gives, and gives, and gives again in order that we and all creation might have life. Let us not take, and take, and take, in return, but grow in self-sacrificial love ourselves, for the sake of God’s creation.

Carlisle Cathedral Holy Week (3)

Talk Three:  The Garden of the Tomb (Holy Wednesday)

Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’

Supposing him to be the gardener …

We find ourselves now, in the garden of the tomb, where, like Mary, we have hurried on the first day of the week, not knowing what we will find. We do not know where we are going; only that this garden calls us to be there, close to the loved one we have lost.

It is early morning. Morning has broken, blackbird has spoken. The light is green gold. We come, as Mary did, acutely aware of the human propensity and knowledge of good and evil. We come, straining to see through our tears, caused by the state we’re in. We come, full of fear and trepidation at the challenges that the natural environment faces, and humanity with it.

We come, and the peace of the garden begins to delight us. We come to find a gardener, who tells us to have resilience, to relinquish what’s not needed, to restore what is needed for a fruitful future. In the garden of the tomb we anticipate the resurrection that is to come. The garden of the tomb holds the opportunities and promise of life.

The garden of the tomb is bathed in a different light. It promises delight, colour: a riotous range of greens, yellows and white. The shimmer of moisture in the air; the soft, intense light. We recall Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet who walked and noticed, who wrote of the thrill of a world charged with the grandeur of God; how nature is never spent; of the dearest freshness deep down things, and how the Holy Ghost broods with warm breast and bright wings.

This experience of life, abundant life – surging all around us in colour and vibrancy like a Stanley Spencer painting – gives us a glimpse of the Resurrection life in which heaven and earth rejoice. This is the life to which we are born, and in which we continue to live and move and have our being. We find ourselves in the garden in which life began, in which Mary found the risen Christ. The natural world sings the glory of God. It shapes our desires; breaks our heart and remakes us.

It inspires poets, painters, writers. C S Lewis described it like this in The Voyage of the Dawntreader. Caspian and the children are at the end of the world.

And when the third day dawned … they saw a wonder ahead. It was as if a wall stood up between them and the sky, a greenish-grey, shimmering, trembling wall …

This was the frontier between Narnia and Aslan’s country, a potent boundary between our desire and the fulfilment of desire.

Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why?” said I, “Was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.

It would break your heart.

St Augustine, too. He knew this light too. To wrote in Chapter X of his Confessions:

There my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfilment of desire. That is what I love when I love my God.

It is a time, as Augustine did, to consider our desires, and how best to respond.  At a time when people are campaigning because they know the natural environment to be at breaking point, we are inspired by the promise of the Resurrection to consider the dearest deep down desires we have.

When we hear God’s call in our lives; so often we don’t understand. All we have is this nagging, yearning for something else, something more to life. We can’t put words to it, but it’s there, prompting and urging us towards we know not what. Baptism has begun the work of grace in us; and like the world around, we come alive as the ordinary becomes extraordinary. We need to follow the joy.

Michael McCarthy is a contemporary nature writer who struggles with the way the natural world of his childhood has become so degraded. Nevertheless, he commends a sense of joy. Like other natural writers, he encourages humanity to recover the wonder of elation. He is not a churchgoer; not a believer – but he knows something essential about the joy of life. In his book The Moth Snowstorm he describes a blackcap singing in a tree in his garden:

Here was this God-given, blossoming snow-white tree, which was breathtaking in its beauty; and here was this God-given, breathtaking sound coming out of it. This tree, this tree of trees, was not just an astonishing apotheosis of floral beauty. It now appeared to be singing.

The rational part of me couldn’t cope. It was all too much, and it fell to bits. I had gone way past simple admiration into some unknown part of the spectrum of the senses, and there was only one possible response: I burst out laughing. And there, in the exquisite fullness of the springtime, was the joy of it. (McCarthy 2016, p.154, abridged)

‘And there, in the exquisite fullness of the springtime, was the joy of it.’ This is a sense of fullness that so often describes the experience of awe. A fullness that overflows the normal boundaries of the self into something delicious, exciting, unmistakeable. Lovely, good and true in a way that can’t be explained, but takes us into an ineffable realm. A realm where poetry comes into its own, and language opens out beyond control to dialogue with others, to seek to express a sense of praise and thanksgiving to the transcendent God.

To anticipate the resurrected life is to know ourselves surrounded by the grace of God – sight, fragrance, light, embrace. It is to hear the word of the Lord calling us to abide in him as he abides in us. Rooted and grafted into Christ, the true vine, we then bear fruit, fruit that will last.

It is not always easy, to follow Christ, and bear Christ’s fruit. We need to suppose him to be the gardener. Jesus Christ, who prunes and shapes our desires; who tends us as we live through suffering and pain. We will live with anxiety and fear that feels unbearable, that keeps us awake at night. We will continue to abide in the Garden of Gethesmane. We will know the pain of loss, of despair. We need to remember that baptism is through the deep waters of death. When we abide in the vine, and allow Christ to dig deep in the soil that is our lives, we know that rejection and pain is part of a greater story that gives meaning to suffering. Behind all words and experience we may endure there is God’s purpose which is life; the eternal life in which we abide. In which we are fruitful, even in our suffering and pain. Christ the gardener calls us by name. Our hearts are broken that we may know the life that is stronger than death.

Let us listen for that voice in the garden, calling us by name. A vocation to abide more deeply in God’s love, giving of ourselves in service, and in prayer. We can hear that voice in the wastelands of the world, in our churches, out walking, or in the garden. We hear it in the wild, undomesticated corners of the world. We see it in the weeds that grow abundantly – the ferns and flowers that spring up through the cracks of pavements, in the walls. We hear it in the raucous sounds of gulls, the first swallow of summer.

There are reminders all around us – from the natural world, in the words we hear, the sounds and sights that speak of God’s grace. As we join Mary in the garden of the tomb, we know that we abide in God, who is the Love that does not let us go. The love that breaks our heart, that we might know the abundant life of God.

Carlisle Cathedral Holy Week (2)

Talk Two: The Garden of Gethesmane (Holy Tuesday)

It is easy to romanticise the garden as a place of innocence, of peace. This evening finds us in our next garden, where all is chaotic, and betrayal is in the air, taking us to the very depth of fallenness from grace. Jesus has withdrawn here, to the garden of Gethsemane. We hear him as he prays those words from Lamentations, so familiar to him:

Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.
For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears;
For a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage.

It is all the more shocking that the violence begins in this place of retreat, as Judas comes, accompanied by the crowd, with swords and clubs, and kisses his friend. Jesus is deserted, and the passion begins.

Last evening I mentioned Professor Jem Bendell’s work, anticipating climate tragedy. How now we must face into the real possibility – indeed, likelihood – of climate-induced societal collapse, with long-term repercussions for life as we know it. Some scientists argue that we are in the end game: that Inevitable Near Term Human Extinction is going to happen. Whether we choose to believe or not is up to us: for me, the impacts already cause enough concern for me to lose sleep at night; to live with anxiety levels that are deeply uncomfortable. No longer can I bury my head in the sand. I feel the need to face into my fear, and work out, as best I can, how my Christian faith can resource us to face what is on the horizon, indeed already here. To be in the garden of Gethesmane, awake with insomnia, as Jesus prays for a comforter to be near, one to revive his courage, is where I need to be.

For the anxiety is real; the atmosphere is tense. This garden is not one of peace and plenty; of innocence and romance. I recall the servant in Shakespeare’s Richard II, who grumbles about the state of the nation, as the queen listens in:

our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruin’d,
her knots disorder’d, and her wholesome herbs
swarming with caterpillars? (Act III, scene IV)

A lament for order and stewardship lost; for care and nurture that is no more, recalling humanity’s devastation of the fragile earth.

To be in the garden of Gethesmane is to know our fall from the grace of the garden of Eden. It is to enter the saeculum, the in-between time; to be banished to live disordered by thoughts and feelings that are hard to bear. Nationally, internationally, it’s an anxious time to be alive; with all we are and hope to be clouded by threat. Our knowledge now of good and evil is to take responsibility for the garden of creation – this fragile earth – as it faces the most extreme degradation, with the story of its future a bleak one, as we watch, seemingly helpless, as the environment copes with the accelerating impact of climate change.

The Paris COP21 Agreement of 2015 saw 195 countries adopt the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal. The agreement set out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C. It all seemed so hopeful at the time. But where is the political action? It’s not surprising that people are marching and campaigning in London and major cities around the world. This is so much more important than Brexit. There’s no avoiding how global warming is melting the ice caps – and not just polar ice, but also vast regions of tundra, releasing dangerous methane into the atmosphere. How the sea becomes more acidic, and polluted. We see the major extinction of species, increased use of pesticides and herbicides in modern agricultural systems. Pollution, particularly plastic, is a real problem in the oceans, rivers, air and land, caused by personal, industrial and chemical wastes and residues. Soil erosion and desertification mean increasing shortages of drinkable water and other natural resources and ‘commons’. Extreme and disrupted weather threatens crop production.

It’s enough to make us all extremely anxious when we think of how the environment is under threat as never before. Instead of moving towards greater global co-operation on issues that require global solutions – on the environment, on security, on poverty –everything becomes more tribal, with nationalism and regionalism on the increase. The best global leadership in recent years has been offered by the Pope in his encyclical Laudato Si of May 2015. But otherwise the nations of the world retreat from international co-operation into silo mentalities. It’s hard not to be completely over-anxious and scared about the future of the planet, this blue planet that is God’s greatest gift of creation.

T S Eliot, wrote The Wasteland in the early 1920s. With images of the trenches and No Man’s Land in mind, he penned one of the greatest epic poems of the 20th Century. The Waste Land is disjointed in structure, as Eliot jumps from one voice or image to another without clear explanation, creating a world of confused voices, from a range of foreign languages, perhaps recalling the story of the Tower of Babel.

Professor Jem Bendell advocates a deep adaptation agenda to enable us to face the reality of a heap of broken images – the future – with hope. He commends Resilience – the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances with valued norms and behaviours. Relinquishment – where people and communities let go of assets, behaviours and beliefs that are not helpful; and Restoration, which is the rediscovery of approaches to live and organisation that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation has eroded. So we must actively re-wild landscapes; change our diets back to match the seasons; rediscover non-electronically powered forms of play, and increase our engagement in our local communities. How do we keep what we really want to keep? What do we need to let go of in order not to make matters worse? What can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies? His deep adaptation agenda.

TS Eliot said that humanity cannot bear very much reality. We face unprecedented challenges wherever we look – whether it is in our own lives; the Church of England today, and the rate of decline; the state of our national life, with its deep divisions; the future of the planet, and the Waste Land it looks like becoming.

Perhaps like me, you find yourself saying over and over again Christe Eleison, Lord, have mercy. For our prayer life is crucial as people of faith. We live in the world, surrounded by broken images, broken lives. We bear in our bodies the scars of our own lives, and we bear for others a little of the pain they feel. We hold the anxiety of the world, as much as we can – and through it all, we offer a reminder of God’s grace. We hold out a glimpse of God’s goodness and active grace in the world around.

To find ourselves in the Garden of Gethesmane is to remind ourselves of loss and betrayal; of what it is like to have little hope; to be alone and facing the utter wasteland of death and destruction. It is to return to the deep knowledge of God and know that we are not in control, as Jesus relinquished control over his life into the power of violence. It is to go with him to the Cross, and not know what lies ahead. Only faith, love and hope sustained him in the God who makes all things new.

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.

As we wait and pray with Christ in the Garden of Gethesmane, so we take the whole world into our heart and mind, placing the wastelands of this world in the heart and mind of Christ, to be taken through the days that lie ahead, and onto that most awful place of death and destruction, the Cross.



Carlisle Cathedral Holy Week (1)

Talk One: The Garden of Eden  (Holy Monday)

My mother, who died too early in 2005, knew the power of gardens. She would take every opportunity to quote the words of the Victorian Manx poet, scholar and theologian Thomas Edward Brown (1830-97)

A Garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot,
The veriest school of Peace; and yet the fool contends that God is not—
Not God! in Gardens! when the eve is cool?
Nay, but I have a sign:
'T is very sure God walks in mine.

Since Peter and I moved to St Michael’s Rectory in Workington last summer the garden there has been calling for more attention. Last summer we dug a pool, which is now fringed with pansies, narcissus, astilbe; with water lilies beginning to break the surface, full of the promise of those superabundant blooms later in the summer. The tadpoles have hatched and are now finding their own way on their journey to frogdom, the water is clear, and settling down to its own ecosystem. It’s a start. Sometimes at night we have owls in the sycamore trees; every so often a woodpecker comes to the peanuts; the chickens lay eggs in the back garden, and take it in turns to be broody. Yes, there’s a lot to do – but I like to think that gradually, over the years, the Rectory garden will become a veriest school of Peace that speaks of God.

Not God! in Gardens! when the eve is cool?

The story of the relationship of God with God’s people begins in a garden, as our foundational myths tell us. Adam, created from the dust to which we all return; Eve, his partner in tilling the soil, and later in crime. Both given a garden full of the richest abundance and diversity of creature, fauna and flora, to care for in harmony, in peace. Not to take and exploit, to plunder and ravage. Not to take and eat where will and desire tempt, succumbing to the false delight of the eye, the greed of the stomach. Not to distort and spoil the gift of innocence.

At a time of escalating environmental crisis – even catastrophe, if David Wallace Wells has it right in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, or Climate Tragedy as Professor Jem Bendell of the University of Cumbria calls it – we need to think about the environment as never before. Yes, there are all sorts of excuses and denials that we can use to defend ourselves against the anxiety and fear we face if we consider the worst possible scenarios. We can listen to those who caution one way or another that there’s no need for drastic action, and that fear demotivates. Or we can believe the trajectories and learn to live with the possibility of catastrophe. Professor Bendell in his article Deep Adaptation, which is trending throughout social networks, counsels that research and evidence shows that our future is bleak as a human civilisation. ‘We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war,’ he writes. The garden of Eden – the fragile earth that we are given in that foundational myth of our faith – is under extreme threat. How might we respond?

Remember how it all went so very wrong for our forebears. The garden of Eden was a world of innocence, where God delighted to walk, in the cool of the evening.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

Adam and Eve represent our humanity, with our all-to-human propensity to destroy what we’re given – to do what human beings do. They trespass where they are forbidden, and are banished from the garden of delight. They are forced to roam the world, knowing both good and evil, working the ground in toil, in thorns and thistles, until to dust they returned. From a harmonious relationship with God, walking together in the cool of the evening, now humanity lives alienated, yearning always for that far-gone memory of peace and plenty.

St Augustine knew the life of banishment from the true life of togetherness with God. He describes how he was on the outside, one of a gang of ruffians that raided a garden just for the sheer hell of it. ‘There was a pear tree near our vineyard, loaded with fruit that was attractive neither to look at nor to taste. Late one night [we] went off to shake down the fruit and carry it away … We took away an enormous quantity of pears, not to eat them ourselves, but simply to throw them to the pigs. Perhaps we ate some of them, but our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden.’ (Confessions, BkII.4)

There is something profound here, that Augustine captures, about the nature of yearning and desire. We see a tree, laden with fruit, and we want it; even when it is not ours for the taking. This is concupiscence; desire, out of hand. Adam and Eve took; St Augustine took. We take too – of the rich resources this beautiful creation provides. In our banishment from the garden, we look over the wall, full of yearning for the home that was once ours, and some worm turns within us. Our desire for that beauty and goodness and truth turns sour and destructive.

And so, when given something beautiful, too often we want more; or we turn away, or we destroy. We find it so hard, simply to receive, and cherish.

We know it in our souls; we hear the call of the garden of Eden. We seek that garden all our lives. It holds the reality of redemption, of the fulfilment of desire.

We find the true reality in the fulfilment of all our desires in God, whom we too might find, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening.  Fulfilment does not lie in the distortion of desire in greed or destruction. So the impulse to garden is a deep and fundamental one, I’d suggest. It is the recognition of the desire to co-create with God, to nurture a space over time that speaks of the fulfilment of desire such as we experience as we return to the God who creates the world in love, for love. To create a garden is to create a lovesome thing, God wot.

We see the impulse in literature.

Perhaps our mind goes first to Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden.

Remember that moment when the neglected and lonely child Mary first encounters the robin?

She stopped and listened to him and somehow his cheerful, friendly little whistle gave her a pleased feeling–even a disagreeable little girl may be lonely, and the big closed house and big bare moor and big bare gardens had made this one feel as if there was no one left in the world but herself. … the bright-breasted little bird brought a look into her sour little face which was almost a smile. She listened to him until he flew away. … she liked him and wondered if she should ever see him again. Perhaps he lived in the mysterious garden and knew all about it.

She imagines the garden from outside, as St Augustine did; not yet able to find her way in. When she does, the mysterious garden offers her the opportunity to nurture growth, with the disabled Colin, and find redemption. Her loneliness, his trauma and his father’s pathological grief are transformed.

Or remember Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. How the garden was closed off to children, “Trespassers Will be Prosecuted” said the sign. Winter came and stayed.

‘I cannot understand why the Spring is so late in coming,’ said the Selfish Giant, as he sat at the window and looked out at his cold white garden; ‘I hope there will be a change in the weather.’      But the Spring never came, nor the Summer. The Autumn gave golden fruit to every garden, but to the Giant’s garden she gave none. ‘He is too selfish,’ she said. So it was always Winter there, and the North Wind, and the Hail, and the Frost, and the Snow danced about through the trees. One morning the Giant was lying awake in bed when he heard some lovely music. … It was really only a little linnet singing outside his window, but it was so long since he had heard a bird sing in his garden that it seemed to him to be the most beautiful music in the world. What did he see? He saw a most wonderful sight. Through a little hole in the wall the children had crept in, and they were sitting in the branches of the trees.

Gardens are there, throughout literature – imaginatively, poetically articulating the yearning for return that we experience from beyond the garden wall, as we listen out for birdsong; as we wait for life to emerge after winter. It is a God-given metaphor for our Christian journey, as we realise our sinful state and seek to return to the reality of the full love of God. We are outside the garden, as we watch the environment suffer from our sinfulness – our greed, pollution, ceaseless, nervous haste. As we recall that, since records began in 1850, seventeen of the eighteen hottest years have occurred since 2000, we glimpse the garden from which we are banished, and yearn to walk with God in the cool of the evening,

Tomorrow, we find ourselves in the garden of Gethsemane.