Faith and Philosophy:
Today’s topic is “Lessons from the Garden, 2010.” The recent Episcopal Assembly in New York City has not escaped my attention and I do plan on saying something about it in the near future, but I want to consider my remarks more carefully before I commit them to podcast. So today I thought we might revisit my garden.
As you know, last year was my first year having a vegetable garden. Emboldened by success, this year I’m trying something new. It’s been about one-hundred fifty degrees in the shade and two-hundred percent humidity around here for the last two or three weeks but nevertheless I spent more than a week preparing what I hope will be a “three sisters” garden. I’ll explain exactly what that is a little later. Let me begin by saying that tilling sod is not fun, even if you have a tiller, a project made even more difficult by the fact that my yard is mostly weeds. It’s one thing to pull up grass; it’s another thing to go after weeds with roots go six inches or more into the soil.
I soldiered on, however and planted my white corn late Monday afternoon. By Friday, the corn had sprouted. And by this morning, Saturday, every seed had sprouted and most were an inch or more tall. I’ll have to thin them out a bit later but it was most gratifying to see the corn up so soon. As I’ve been tilling, weaseling,, pulling weeds, digging, pulling weeds, raking, pulling weeds, and planting and pulling more weeds, three lessons came to my mind, lessons that have direct parallel with our spiritual lives.
The first lesson is that I am never going to get rid of all the weeds once and for all. I wish I could but I can’t. Those of you who have a garden know the frustration of pulling weeds, turning around to do something else and then turning back to find more weeds, which have seemingly sprung up in the few seconds it took to turn your head. There is no point in griping about it or cussing. If you are going to garden you are just going to have to reconcile yourself to a never-ending battle with weeds. The same it true for the spiritual life. We are in a constant battle with the passions and logismoi. Like Paul, we would like to be delivered from these but like Paul we too hear that God’s strength is sufficient for us. There is a very great danger, however, especially for converts in trying to measure our spiritual progress. It can be disheartening when we are beset by the same temptations and passionate thoughts that beset us years ago. Surely we should have grown or matured by now. Heck, I’ve been Orthodox for twenty-two years and I still don’t glow in the dark when I pray. What’s wrong with me?
Our spiritual life is not measured by how many weeds we have pulled up but by our willingness to keep on pulling them up. Our goal should not be to have achieved such-and-such a state of spiritual maturity by such-and-such a date, but simply, to persevere to the very end. Of course, there are short-cuts to getting rid of weeds. We can go to the store and buy chemical herbicides. The problem with these, however, is that they get into the ground, into our vegetables and fruits, and eventually, into us. Hardly a desirable state of affairs.
This brings me to the second lesson. We best grow a garden by working with nature and not against her. I mentioned that I was trying to grow a “three sisters” garden. This is a method developed by the Iroquois. The “three sisters” are corn, beans and squash. The Iroquois discovered that by growing them together the three plants assist one another. Corn is a nitrogen hog. Beans, however, put nitrogen back into the soil so the beans help feed the corn. The corn stalk , in turn, provides a natural pole for the beans to climb. The squash spreads its big leaves out along the ground, shading the roots and providing a kind of natural mulch. This helps keep the weeds down and the soil moist.
God has created nature in such a way that she is truly bountiful in her blessings if we will only treat her right. One of the hallmarks of modernity, however, is our belief that we can control nature, using science and technology. Nature is an enemy to be overcome, not a beneficent friend. We’ve paid a mighty price for this attitude in the past and that price is only going to get higher. To take but one example: the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930’s was not caused by Mother Nature. It was caused by idiot farmers plowing up the prairie grass on the Great Plains so that they could plant cash crops. The problem was that the prairie grass was what was holding the top soil down and the moisture in the soil. When a great drought occurred, everything dried up and the top soil just blew away. Sandstorms were recorded as far east as the Atlantic coast.
Certainly, with a lot of engineering and chemicals we can grow things in areas where normally they would not grow, but why would we? Doesn’t it make much more sense to work with nature rather than against her? Again, the same is true for our spiritual life. I’ve said before and I will say again before you can become a saint, you have to become a normal, healthy human being. Sometimes I think we get too caught up using words like supernatural. Well, forget about the supernatural. The fathers tell us, that because of sin we live at the level of sub-nature. Before anything else, we have to get back to the level of nature.
I ran across a quotation from Christos Yannaras the other day which I thought was quite apropos for this talk: “Repentance is irreconcilable with idealistic illusions and utopian embellishments,” he writes. “Faithfulness to what is natural is the precondition for transfiguring it.”
It’s all too easy for us to get caught up in reading ascetical literature and thinking about things like clairvoyance or bi-location. Frankly, I think the last thing anyone would want is for me to be in more than one place at once. What we need to focus on is the cultivation of the natural virtues and feelings. These and these alone provide the platform for spiritual development. Blessed Seraphim Rose made a similar point when he handed a young seeker a copy of David Copperfield instead of a weighty tome on asceticism which the seeker had requested. “If you can’t develop the warmth of heart and basic emotions of little Davy,” he told the young man, “then you will never be able to achieve the spiritual development you are seeking.”
Yes, we are all creatures with orders to become God, as St. Basil says, but to do that we must first come to terms with what it means to be a creature in the first place.
This brings me to the third lesson. Working with Mother Nature means working on her time table, not ours. I was delighted to see my corn sprout so soon but the fact is it will be months before I can start harvesting. No amount of hand-wringing or wishful thinking will change that. I have a job to do. I must do it to the best of my abilities, but after that, it’s all in Mother Nature’s hands. Again, we can genetically modify crops and make them yield more in less time, but we will end up paying a frightful price for this meddling. Similarly, we cannot rush the spiritual life. Yes, there are lots of shortcuts out there but they are all dead ends. In fact, the Church has historically called these “heresies.” That’s all heresy really is, anyway, someone’s attempt to take a shortcut and getting off the straight and narrow path.
We have a job to do: to pray, obey the commandments, fast according to the Church’s direction, not our own lights, to be good children and parents and good neighbors. Beyond that, we are in God’s hands and on God’s time. We will save ourselves a lot of frustration and disappointment if we remember that. The Christian life is one of constant struggle, to be sure. But it is not a struggle against nature, as the secularist would have us believe but against the weeds and thistles that keep us from living in accordance with nature. Let us resolve to persevere in the spiritual garden until the very end, tilling in faith, enjoying the fruits of our labor in thanksgiving, and enduring the challenges in sure and certain hope.
And now may our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and of the blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov, have mercy on us all and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.