Sunday, 27 July 2014

Gardening, Suffering and Evil

I look at my Mary Garden which I started back in early spring, and it is nothing like I intended it to be:

This is certainly the most challenging thing about gardening for me: not being able to control how it turns out. I mean, there is a massive element of being an amateur involved, which means I make simple mistakes like planting too close together and so on. But I think even the most expert of gardeners experiences this kind of dance between what they plan and what happens. After all, this is the essence of a garden - the harmony between nature and civilisation - the balance between the jungle and the city. In fact Valentin Tomberg puts it well:

“The dawn of humanity did not take place either in a desert where nothing happens, or even in a jungle where everything sprouts forth and grows without the regulating and directing control of the Spirit or, lastly, in the conditions of a city or town where nothing sprouts forth and grows but where everything is caused and is done through the regulation and direction of the Spirit. A “garden” is thus a state of the world where there is cooperation and equilibrium between Spirit and Nature, whilst a “desert” is a state of immobile passivity both of Nature and Spirit, a “jungle” is the state of activity of Nature alone, and a “town”, lastly, is that of activity of Spirit alone….one then understands that is not necessary either to do, or to leave alone; either to build systems of thought, or to let all thought pass through the head without control”

In a garden then, we have a metaphor for the Great Work which we must perform, of bringing our nature, unruly as it is, into harmony with the activity of the spirit - this is done through prayer and work. We do not want to eradicate our nature and let only spirit be present - this results in a kind of quietism, or false humility. Neither do we want to only allow our desires to flourish, forgetting about all else. This results in rottenness and vice. We want to say yes to God with our whole being, which raises our created nature, flawed as it is, into the light of Grace, where our soul is illumined with this light which overflows into our bodies, transforming them into bodies of light - this is the source of the doctrine of the resurrection, and it is why the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary was stated officially in 1950 (although it had been believed in tradition). Mary, being the first of God's creatures to say a wholehearted 'Yes!' to God, was then 'Full of Grace', and taken in body, soul and spirit with God.

It is not necessary, then, to do, or to leave alone. You must do both! Be attendant. In that top picture the leaves of the hollyhocks can be seen to be eaten away by slugs and snails. The bottom picture shows weeds growing rampant, and the lavender overgrown. Some dead growth has been cut away, and new plants have been allowed to spring up.

I think you could also say to be vigilant is important. To stay awake in the spirit, which needs work, or else the tares grow amongst the wheat; well that is really to mix metaphors, as we all know in the parable, the tares grew anyway. The real point is more subtle - the tares look very similar to the wheat, so it is only by being vigilant that we can tell them apart - evil often looks very much like the good thing to do - as it is usually more pleasurable in the short term and less hard work than virtue. And given that the parable tells us that the tares will be with the wheat in the fields till harvest time, then we know that the seeds of evil and suffering are growing in the fields of time and space, parasitic on the goodness of creation, we really have to keep awake, be attendant, be vigilant, but be at peace also, knowing God's saving work is being done, and carried out in the fullness of time, as Julian of Norwich says:

"And thus pain, it is something, as to my sight, for a time; for it purgeth, and maketh us to know ourselves and to ask mercy. For the Passion of our Lord is comfort to us against all this, and so is His blessed will. And for the tender love that our good Lord hath to all that shall be saved, He comforteth readily and sweetly, signifying thus: It is sooth that sin is cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. These words were said full tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any that shall be saved. Then were it a great unkindness to blame or wonder on God for my sin, since He blameth not me for sin. And in these words I saw a marvellous high mystery hid in God, which mystery He shall openly make known to us in Heaven: in which knowing we shall verily see the cause why He suffered sin to come. In which sight we shall endlessly joy in our Lord God."

These reflections come after a difficult week in which my wife and I were told that our daughter who has cystic fibrosis, is culturing a bacteria called pseudomonas in her lungs, and is going to need hospital visits, nebulised antibiotics, and more. This just brought me up against the reality of evil and suffering going on invisibly amongst the joys of our life. In her lungs, something is trying to colonise them which will lead to damage if not caught, and it was going on without our awareness, which is so scary. It is very easy in this state to give in to the fear and anxiety which can surround you like a cloud and paralyse you, but you must, I will say it again, stay awake in the spirit, trusting in God, which brings the peace and clarity necessary for strength and kindness.

So if fear and suffering and pain come to you remember, be vigilant, be awake - pray, and work. And remember the words of J R R Tolkien:

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

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