Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
Buzzing with life—plants, flowers, fruit, animals, insects—the garden is an ancient archetype of what the human soul looks and feels like when all is well between God and man. A lush and verdant garden calls to mind God's creative design, His will that creation “be fruitful and multiply,” and His loving provision for the needs of all the creatures He brought to life. We immediately call to mind the Garden of Eden, the Bible's idyllic setting for man's first encounter with the Creator. No disease, no corruption, no death. If asked to name an place that radically contrasts the image of a garden, we might be tempted to say the desert. Dry, barren, lonely. Though an understandable answer, it's not the biblical answer. In scripture, typically, both the fertile garden and the wild desert are places where we can go to meet God. In the garden, we work with and enjoy the divine abundance. In the desert, we empty ourselves to make room for that abundance. If the garden is the biblical image of the human person flourishing, growing, and producing abundant fruit with the blessings of God, what does the biblical desert say about our relationship with the divine? Jesus says to his disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”
If you've ever planted and tended a garden, you know that even the smallest plot takes a lot of work. Planting, weeding, pruning, watering, harvesting. We had three large gardens when I was a kid, so I've spent many an hour bent over rows of butter beans, cucumbers, melons, and tomatoes, hoeing, pulling weeds, mulching, and picking. The work didn't kill us; we just sometimes wished that it would. God blessed us with more than we could can, freeze, and eat but those blessings—in all their excess—came about b/c we worked with the gifts God gave us. To put this into spiritual terms: God gifted us with His goodness; we received that goodness and worked with it to produce abundant fruit. If we had been less willing to acknowledge God's grace, we might've concluded that we had done all the work and that our gardens thrived on our labor alone. The desert is the biblical image that interrupts our descent into pride and reminds us that where there is abundant fruit, famine is only a lazy season away. So that we might not come to believe that we alone work for our spiritual good, we go into the desert and live with God alone, emptying ourselves of excess, indulgence, and readily satiated want. The desert is not a desolate place or a place of scarcity. Its dryness comes from our surrender, our abandonment to God of all our needs, wants, and demands. It's a place where nothing comes between you and your God.
The human soul is fed and nurtured in the garden, and it is freed from debilitating attachments in the desert. Moving back and forth between the two describes the normal course of our spiritual lives. There are times of hard work in prayer and works of mercy, work that produces abundant fruit. And there are times to flee into the wilderness, to scrape away the ties that bind, to purge all the excesses of pride. But whether we are in the verdant garden or the arid desert, we are constantly called to remember that our God is always with us. He was with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He was with Moses and his people in the Sinai desert. He was with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. And he was with John the Baptist in the deserts of Judea. His abundance is a blessing and so is His scarcity. Both teach us gratitude and gratitude teaches us humility. Perhaps the hardest lesson we can learn.
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