From the June, 2000 issue of Touchstone


Practicing for Paradise by Marjorie Haney Schafer

Practicing for Paradise

Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening
by Vigen Guroian
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1999
(95 pages; $9.00, paper)

by Marjorie Haney Schafer

For centuries, Christian writers have examined the garden as a symbol of the spiritual life. From the Book of Genesis onward, the garden has served as an image of the soul and its growth. Vigen Guroian in Inheriting Paradise continues this tradition as he ponders the myriad ways that gardening and gardens reflect and inform the spiritual life.

Before completing ten pages, the reader discovers the source of Guroian’s spiritual insights: “I am an Armenian Orthodox believer and theologian.” Guroian seeks in Inheriting Paradise to reflect on the connections between his labor in the garden and his labor in his spiritual life—specifically as that spiritual life finds expression in the liturgical seasons and feasts of the Orthodox Church:

Through these meditations I have endeavored to capture the earthiness and sacramental character of the Christian faith. I have tried to bring together the experience of space and time through the cycle of the church year. But it was the garden that gave me insight into the cycle of the church year and deepened my experience of the great feasts of the church, and not the other way around (pp. xiv–xv).

Guroian’s insights are often delightful, sometimes sobering, and at times profoundly moving.

Guroian’s wisdom emerges as he narrates the simple, daily tasks familiar to all gardeners, and plumbs their deeper meaning from a theological vantage point. For the gardener, the earthly realities are unavoidable: “In March I labor with spade and hoe and plant peas and cabbage in the cold damp clumps of earth. By June the peas and cabbage are ready, but the weeds have sprung up too and the insects have arrived. I can hardly keep up with these invaders of my impossible paradise” (pp. 4–5). Meditating on these realities leads him to reflect that

the fruit of sweet communion comes after the gall and the vinegar. The mystical enjoyment comes not without the toilsome struggle of raking and sowing and pulling up the weeds. In my garden the thistle grows more easily than the primrose. Sin grows in my body more readily than purity, and the keys to my garden do not admit me back through Eden’s gate. Nevertheless, my garden is a place away from that first home, a spot where labor lends substance to my living while I am in this mortal frame. Birth and renewal are signs, proleptic though they may be, of paradise (p. 5).

Inheriting Paradise therefore upholds a deep and spiritually based ecology, not one based on romantic notions of the perfections of uncluttered nature. Sin has affected not only human nature, but, through the Fall, the natural world as well. This sober but respectful view of the relationship between human beings and nature provides a balanced corrective to much radical ecological theory, replacing the vision of a pristine and perfect nature with a more realistic view of the fallen aspect present even there.

A similar fruit of Guroian’s meditations is found in his comments on technology. For example, he makes the following observations about the Internet:

[W]e are not disembodied mind, or spirit, we are our bodies—cruising the Internet won’t teach us that. It may even trick us into thinking that having a body and a place is not important. Gardening teaches us differently. I do not mean industrial mechanized farming. I mean the kind of gardening that any one of us can do with his hands and feet and the simplest tools (p. 8).

The practice of gardening has taught Guroian much about the embodied, sacramental dimension of the human—a dimension that is so commonly lost or ignored today.

The liturgy and rituals of the Armenian Orthodox Church provide the context for Guroian’s reflections on gardening. Guroian refers to the Easter liturgy, the Akathistos of Mary, the blessing of the waters, the veneration of icons, and the use of incense. He quotes from hymns and liturgies, and from familiar Eastern church fathers and theologians such as Ephrem the Syrian, Simeon the New Theologian, and Gregory of Nyssa, as well as from less familiar ones, such as St. Nerseus the Graceful and David the Invincible.

More specifically, Inheriting Paradise is based on the feasts and fasts of the Orthodox church year. The author ponders the parallels between the natural cycle of the garden and the great spiritual cycle of the church year, demonstrating the sacramental unity of nature and grace, the material and the spiritual, the earthly and the heavenly. One of the most beautiful instances of this interpenetration is elicited in Guroian’s discussion of Advent and Christmas. For example, he writes:

We have spoiled Christmas—maybe lost it—because we have forgotten the meaning of Advent: of the light that comes into the darkness, of our need to repent and prepare ourselves to receive the true gift. Advent is a time to let our old used-up sinful selves die into the earth like the crumpled cornstalks in my garden: Let the reaper come and cut me down, and I will fall to the ground (p. 81).

This meditation demonstrates the unity in Guroian’s vision between the garden and the liturgical year, and exemplifies the wisdom that the author gleans from both.

Guroian draws on a broad range of literary resources in Inheriting Paradise, including Wendell Berry, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Robert Frost, and Christina Rossetti. The texts are carefully chosen and provide an added dimension of reflection to the topics at hand. Some are well-known passages, some lesser known, but all enhance Guroian’s (and the reader’s) meditations.

At times, the plethora of literary and theological reflections can become overwhelming, losing the connection with the anecdotes on gardening. Perhaps this is yet another example of the author’s Orthodox sensibilities: just as the richness of the Eastern liturgy, with its seemingly endless round of hymns and litanies and its hours-long services, can overwhelm a visitor, so the large quantity of quotations in Inheriting Paradise tends after a time to overwhelm the reader. If Guroian had provided a bit more background on Orthodox liturgy and life, his meditations would have been more accessible to the general reader and would also have served as a smoother introduction to Orthodoxy for the uninitiated.

For Guroian’s book is unique and very special, and will appeal to many readers who ordinarily would not venture into the heady realms of theology or spirituality. Conversely, many theological readers will, I believe, share the sentiments of Frederica Mathewes-Green, who is quoted on the book’s cover as saying, “These essays are so lovely and evocative that they make even a nongardener like me long to pick up a trowel.” This reaction surely would please Guroian. For gardening and the spiritual life are both described by him as practices—realities about which one does not idly speculate, but which one must live. This book can serve as an aid to such practice, as a guide and a meditation book. Its richness prohibits quick and easy absorption, and it calls for careful, prayerful reflection. Indeed, Inheriting Paradise is a book to turn to throughout the cycle of the seasons, natural and liturgical, again and again.  

Marjorie Haney Schafer is an assistant professor of English at Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois.

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