So here’s how I understood things as a kid.
My heart was black with sin
Until the Savior came in.
His precious red blood, I know,
Has washed me white as snow.
And in God’s word, I’m told,
I’ll walk the streets of gold.
To grow in Christ each day,
I read my Bible and pray.
I liked my salvation plan succinct, neat and tidy, guaranteed. As a child, it was comforting to know I’d taken the necessary step for procuring eternal life, asking Jesus into my heart. I carried this comfort with me into early adulthood.
But somewhere along the line, I outgrew that definable comfort. What had once felt reassuring began to bind and constrict my awe of God and his image in my neighbor. I’d become overly familiar with what I now view as a mystery. Having the right answers humbled me far less than marveling at the unknowable.
Before converting to Orthodox Christianity, I’d assumed, well… I’d assumed a whole bunch of things about God—what he smiled on, frowned on—and myself. I was pretty good, for the most part, and fully saved, most importantly.
And what about after my conversion? Oh, goodness gracious! How do I begin to describe it? I guess it’s like that finish line I’d crossed decades earlier, having been washed white as snow, was transformed into a starting point for the most demanding, endless, enlightening, amazing journey, one I’m now daily struggling through with fear and trembling and, paradoxically, great joy.
Salvation, for Orthodox Christians, is a process, involving minute-to-minute repentance, renewal, and dying to self that Christ might more fully live in us and act through us, the ultimate goal being not so much avoiding hell as tasting of the kingdom of heaven via a sacrificial and unconditional love for others. This is a different message [from] the one I received as a little girl, less rhymey and systematic. I was saved, I am being saved, I will, by the compassionate grace of God, be saved. There is little confidence to be found on this particular path, but lots of gratitude, meekness, growth, and countless opportunities for transcending earthly pettiness and cares.
All that to say, I am delighted to have discovered a tool for helping present to my own sons and daughters in such a gentle way these truths I now hold and continuously live and die for. One of my favorite children’s book authors, Jane G. Meyer, has just had published by Conciliar Press a literary work of quiet profoundness called, The Hidden Garden: A Story of the Heart. In it, she compares the heart to a dried-up garden, brought back to fruitfulness by devoted toil and the patient love of Christ.
The Hidden Garden, exquisitely illustrated by Masha Lobastov, depicts the toil involved in clearing out, planting, and watering that once-dead garden as both rigorous and ongoing. “Even now he helps me pull the weeds, over and over again, for weeds are always with us,” writes Meyer. And yet it’s that toil that brings forth life, life abundant, and love and beauty. Now that I tend my garden every day, so many good things end up growing there. Prayer, forgiveness, peace, and love are the fragrances that dance in the air above the climbing roses.
And how do we tend the garden of our hearts? Meyer proposes the following: Love God. Pray to him daily, all the day long if you can. Love your friends, your neighbors, your family, and those who don’t love you. Want little. Ask for only what you need. Don’t be jealous of the things your friends and others have. Do good things. Help those who ask of you. Spread joy wherever you go.
How precious is that! Those are exactly the heavenly goals I long for my kids to embrace, unsullied by a lust for material possessions and self-centered preoccupations that can only leave them empty and unsatisfied. Those are exactly the heavenly goals I long for myself to embrace as well, but forget to embrace all the time. Thus the weeding and pruning and watering, the praying, the fasting, the confessing of sins, and putting others’ needs ahead of my own, to help me remember what is incomparably fulfilling about salvation—yours, mine, ours—being everything, the only thing that matters.
I would encourage you to pick up your own copy of Jane G. Meyer’s new, wonderful book, The Hidden Garden.