To tend a garden
A few weeks ago I moved into my new home. It's a beautiful old-style farmhouse with a large patio overlooking the massive lawn sloping down to a bass dam on the right which mirrors the tree-rich mountain to the back and right of it.
Nestled on a four or five hectare piece of land, my home and the adjacent cottage (where some of my friends have moved into) walk out onto the lawn and garden that is surrounded by a lush green indigenous forest. Here we are treated to the sights and sounds of uncommon birds and oversized insects who share the treetops with, among other things, the rare Samango monkey.
The last two weeks have seen me spending a lot of time in our new garden. The previous tenant wasn't at home often enough to give the necessary attention that such a large and well-watered garden demands, and as such my friends and I made it a priority to tend to the garden whenever we weren't hindered by the rain. We cut grass and uprooted weeds. We cleaned ponds and re-engineered their water supply. We removed dead growth and started a few compost heaps. Having spent the last five or so years building a business that relies heavily of the sanitized environment of computers and technology, in which time my life became unliveable without my mobile phone and laptop being in close proximity to me, it was a welcome change to go to bed with a tired body and some soil underneath my fingernails.
Being what I am, I couldn't help but see the connectedness and correlation between my outside world and that what was unfolding inside of me. The more I slaved away with a shovel or wrestled with a wrench, the more it dawned on me that my own soul is like a garden, one that hasn't always enjoyed the necessary care it deserves - and that's putting it mildly. In fact, certain weeds and alien plants that I have let into the garden of my soul - sometimes by choice and sometimes by chance - have ran amok, killing off and choking the beauty and potential that longs to flow from my unimpeded soul.
I have given a lot of thought to this the past few weeks, and more than once I have asked myself the question: 'How did it - how did I - come to this?' I still don't have all the answers, but a certain awareness did dawn on me, and it is this awareness that I want to verbalise in today's post.
Back in 2006 something fundamentally shifted in my consciousness. It was in this year that I visited the monastic community in Taizé, France. It had been a dream of mine to visit this particular community ever since a lecturer of mine sparked an interest in me a few years earlier, and my eventual visit was preceded by various other retreats and visits facilitated by monastic communities. What attracted me to the Taizé Community in particular was the fact that they are an ecumenical rather than a Roman Catholic community (a rarity to say the least), and because they were and still are known for creating a safe place for many seekers in their 20s and 30s - mostly from post-Christian Europe - to dialogue and awaken. I went to Taizé on a weeklong silent retreat, not only for the obvious benefit of my soul but also to give deliberate attention to a yearning inside of me that longed for a monastic life.
To make a long story short, I left the Taizé Community knowing two things: One, the disciplines of silence and solitude should always remain an integral part of my life; two, I am not called to pursue these disciplines exclusively - i.e., I am not meant to be a 'full-time' monk. This realisation was both liberating and challenging to me: liberating, because my desire for solitude has always been tempered by a strong longing for skin-touching-skin solidarity, energised by my belief in a God who came to dwell among us as one of us; challenging, because I had absolutely no idea what to do with the remainder of my life.
The rest, as they say, is history. I went from being an aspiring monk in 2006 to a clearly out-of-my-league entrepreneur in 2007; from single and satisfied to dating and disillusioned. These two meta-narratives (that of building a business and seeking a life partner), together with my departure from Christianity-as-a-religion some years later, have been the three dominant scripts of my life for the past five years or so, and as such have had the greatest influence on the state of my soul-garden within this time.
The effects of these meta-narratives upon my life have been both beautiful and brutal. On the one hand, they have awakened much latent potential that lay dormant in my soul when I lived from hand to mouth, unconcerned about securing my future or finding a significant other. In certain respects life is easier when one is of singular focus, but it carries with it the danger of making us narrow-minded and self-absorbed. By broadening my horizons the last few years, I have experienced a lot of life for the very first time.
But there is also a very definite sense in which these meta-narratives have contributed to the trouble that now besets my soul. Being involved in business with its bottom lines and cut throat people have made me less gentle and more cynical. Having lived through a number of failed attempts at meaningful romance have made me less receptive and more suspicious. In the process of pursuing love, I have hurt and been hurt. In the process of building a business, I have become hurried, heartless and hard.
I look back on these past four or five years of my life - years that have passed by in a blink of an eye - and I see the seeds and consequences of my actions scattered all across the garden of my soul. Some seeds have grown to be beautiful trees that give both shelter and shade to those who need it. Other seeds have grown into monstrous alien overgrowth, spoiling the beauty and even changing the fundamental character of my garden. It is a sad day when alien plants are no longer considered as foreign in one's garden, for in time these outside invaders will change the very purpose for which the garden was brought into existence to begin with.
Having greened my fingers a little more than usual the last few weeks, I have reconsidered some of Jesus' agricultural parables and how they may apply to my own situation, particularly the so called parable of the sower. In the past I have often viewed this parable as being somewhat unfair. If the sower sows seeds that falls on the wayside, or on stony ground, or among thorns, then isn't the sower responsible for the seeds not germinating and bearing fruit? It's the sower who must take care of where he is sowing, the ground has nothing to do with it. But what if it is our responsibility to work the land and prepare the soil that is our hearts? What if we are called to ready the garden of our souls so to speak in order for the soil to be receptive of the seed that is freely given everywhere and at all times? Considering the non-partial character of God as well as the processes involved in cultivating an actual garden, I would say that it is very much up to each one of us to ready our own hearts - by the grace and guidance of God nonetheless.
What this means for you I cannot say. Each garden has a unique character and requires meticulous care. What may be considered as alien in one garden may be considered as local, necessary and even beautiful in the next. Some gardens require a lot of water, while others thrive in harsher conditions. How you ready the soil for one garden, while similar in certain respects, may differ completely from how you ready the soil for the next one.
As for me this I know: I need to recover the disciplines of solitude and silence that I have all but completely lost through my preoccupation with the 'deceitfulness of riches.' I need to recover a simpler way of life that have somehow eluded me in recent years due to an anxiety fuelled by 'the cares of this world.' I need to recover the purity I have lost in trading love for lust and companionship with obsession.
This means getting down on my hands and knees and uprooting some of the dead growth and invasive plants that is choking the life of my garden. I need to do this deliberately and thoroughly. It also means indentifying the type of plants that my garden is best suited for, and acquiring and cultivating these without measuring my own garden with that of another. It means being open to the change of seasons: knowing when to till the soil and when to plant the seeds;, when to toil in the sun and when to sit back and watch the rain watering one's labour.
I may not be much of a gardener, but this kind of soul gardening has been a part of my life for nearly fifteen years now. I have slacked in many respects in the last few years, but it is my hope and prayer that much good will come from the re-evaluation of my own soul which I have underwent these last few weeks. If you are reading this, please hope and pray with me. Above all, remind me in whichever way you can - by email, a telephone call or in person - to become the kind of garden I am destined to be.