Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Practicing for Paradise” first appeared in the June 2000 issue of Touchstone.
Practicing for Paradise
Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening
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:
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
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:
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:
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.
“Practicing for Paradise” first appeared in the June 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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