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.