Finding God in gardens: one couple’s experience

Sacred, Christ Church Cathedra, Oxford 21st March, 2021

Sub Dean, Fr Richard Peers and his partner Jim Cable, horticultural writer

Trinity After Rublev, Meg Wroe

RICHARD 

When I learnt my catechism as a child I learnt the first question by heart:

Why did God make me? He made me to know him, to love him and serve him.

God wants us to know him. One way I have come to know God better is in gardens.

I’ve been examining the Church of England’s calendar of saints recently. Those people we remember as we celebrate the Eucharist and Morning and Evening Prayer each day.

Someone not me has done the maths and worked out that 80% of those commemorated are men. Just 20%, a fifth are women. And just as strange is that only 5% were married. Part of the vocation of LGBT+ people in the church is not to have the conversation about homo-sexuality but to embrace the conversation about sexuality. 

This is particularly strange to me because after my baptism as a Christian, my 35 year relationship – so far- with Jim is the principal means of grace in my life. It is this relationship that most converts me, most turns me from self-centredness and sin, and most engages me in the universe. It is my relationship with Jim that is my principal call to holiness, even though I constantly fail.

When I marry couples, I always give them a present, and the present I always give is a crucifix, that sign of Jesus dying to self, dying for us.

Christian marriage is a way God gives us of growing in holiness. Of dying to self. Jim constantly makes me, has to work making me less self-centred. 

I am often amused at the etymology of the word homosexual. It means same, of course in the Greek. In what Jim and I are going to say tonight I hope that you will see that apart from gender, we are incredibly different. I feel more hetero than homo to him. It is that difference, his love of gardening; his physical work; his finding Jesus in the garden, through gardening that enriches my life and draws me a little closer to holiness.

JIM  

When I was a child my parents were restless and their marriage not altogether happy. We moved house several times and my way of coping with the upheaval was to create my own little gardening space each time. It helped root me in the new place.

Gardening is a skilled practical task. It cannot be rushed. Many jobs require a high level of concentration. So when I am pruning, for instance, I am looking closely at where the buds are that will produce new branches and imagining the shape of the pruned tree or shrub that will result from my actions. There is a rhythm to it. At the same time, it is not that difficult – once you know what you are doing – so the mind, lightly tethered, can drift to some extent. …And that is where God creeps in. 

Psychologists refer to a state of flow. We might say we are in the zone. In any case we are deeply absorbed but also receptive. It is one reason why time flies in the garden.

I guess you could call this informal prayer and it comes naturally to me but Richard taught me by example early on in our relationship how to take what is on my mind to God in more ritualised ways. I was baptised and confirmed as an adult during the time Richard was at theological college. 

RICHARD 

Part of the difference between us is that I am a very religious person. I love going to church, worshipping, being with other Christians. I enjoy almost every kind of worship I have ever attended. From Pentecostal to Greek Orthodox. 

Jim came to faith while I was at theological college in the 1990s but his experience of prayer is very different to mine.

JIM

As well as the mindful craft work I described a garden can be a place for more defined prayerful practice.

I have been involved in two projects where a labyrinth has been central to the design – one outside a church in London and one in a historic walled garden open to the public. Lose yourself in a maze, find yourself in a labyrinth goes the phrase. And while trite it does hold some truth.

At Minsteracres retreat centre, near Consett, in County Durham there is a grass labyrinth near the main housedesigned by Michael Grogan. It is used spontaneously by visitors but also as a teaching aid for groups on retreat. Gardener and lay member of the community Lya Vollering explained to me that for people who find formal ‘religion’ difficult the labyrinth helps them get in touch with themselves, nature and a ‘higher power’. The journey to the centre of a labyrinth reflects the inner journey we all face, that of letting go of all that blocks our way to God. The Minsteracres labyrinth has a shiny stainless steel gateway at its centre. You see see yourself in the mirrored surface but in the context of the utterly beautiful County Durham landscape. God’s creation – the trees, the sky, sheep and wildlife. The centre offers a moment to give thanks before you begin your outward journey back into the world. Lya has used it many times with family and friends of substance misusers. Weather permitting, she encourages them to walk barefoot… “to feel the earth, the grass, to be grounded”.

RICHARD 

One of my favourite Christian writers is St Augustine. Augustine describes God as beauty. When we experience beauty we experience God. When I was a Head teacher we chose a new motto for the school and we came up with Deus pulchritudinis. God is beauty. 

I love many human made works of art, poetry, music, art. But there is something about the beauty of nature that involves no effort. We human beings can end up trying too hard. It is all about succeeding and even competing. But But nature is unselfconscious. Natural things are at ease with themselves.

JIM

When we garden it is almost impossible not to marvel at God’s creation. 

Perhaps the obvious thing we look for in a garden is flowers. We enjoy their colour, scent and intricate arrangements.

Flowers have evolved to aid pollination and perpetuate a species. They are not for us human beings so why do we respond so positively towards them – that miniscule leap deep inside when we stumble upon a perfectly formed bloom. We don’t often eat flowers; they serve no practical function and yet they speak to us.

As the poet, Louis Hemmings, puts it:

How do flowers bring hope?

How do their silent lips speak?

What dreams their sweet scents evoke?

Flowers give strength to the weak.  

It is a bit of mystery. Colour may be significant. The ability to spot ripe fruit amongst vegetation would have been a useful and rewarding skill to our ancestors. I feel symmetry has something to do with it. As Professor Jonathan Edwards, of University College, London puts it “The beauty of the delicate flower is in the sexy invisibility of an unbelievably intricate act of creation and our attraction to it is likely to be an exaptation – of no usefulness in itself but a sign of a useful attraction to things that show ordered complexity.” 

RICHARD 

I do a lot of work with individuals as they reflect on their spiritual lives. I have worked on my own spiritual life with directors since I was a teenager. I have hundreds, thousands of books about prayer and spirituality. But if I had to sum up spirituality in a single phrase it would be remarkably simple. 

The whole of the spiritual life, consists, I believe in doing one thing: letting go.

When Jesus died he was letting go.

Letting go of control, letting go of life itself, letting go of holding on.

JIM

Gardening is a creative interaction with Nature. It is a form of control made most manifest in the grand formal gardens of the 17th century but, try as we might, the results are never perfect. While formal gardens are impressive, I prefer a lighter touch. I love the wilder areas of my garden but in a sense, they work in contrast to the imposed neatness of the more ‘gardened’ areas. Letting go is an important counterbalance to discipline and that juxtaposition makes a garden. Thankfully we are learning that since it is futile to attempt to control what is a living eco system there is no place for chemicals in our gardens. 

W creating a new garden I like to recycle what is on site rather than filling a skip and buying new. 

RICHARD 

If you come and visit us at the Sub Deanery here at Christ Church you will see lots of versions of this famous icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev. The Trinity is what we as Christians think God is like.

For me one of the most powerful lessons of the doctrine is existence of difference at the heart of God’s own being, God’s own life.

LGBT+ have an important vocation in the human family because we will always be different; always be the minority and that’s good.

I believe profoundly that when we are most ourselves we allow other people to be themselves.

JIM

Over my career working with volunteers in a garden setting has been a great joy. The two places where I have encountered the most diversity in the people I engage with have been within the Church and in the sphere of Horticulture. Gardening seems to be a great leveller. And of course, as a physical space a garden can be a great place to meet others. We are blessed here at Christ Church with a garden in the centre of a city. Now the grip of the pandemic seems to be loosening we are looking forward to entertaining in the garden and hearing people share their unique stories. There is something about being in the safe living embrace of a garden that helps us relax and be honest with one another just as walking in the countryside or even going on a long drive together can help us speak the truth. Perhaps one day we can hold an open-air Sacred in the Sub-Deanery garden?

RICHARD 

One of the things I am enjoying most about being here at Christ Church is the opportunity to meet and form friendships with our academic colleagues in the college and university. This Lent I have been interviewing some of those colleagues as part of what we are calling Open House which is a conversation we live stream on Monday evenings.

In my preparation for one of those I had a great discussion with Mishtooni Bose, a professor of literature about suffering. How we cope with suffering she said is the fundamental question of human life.

In this pandemic the whole human race has been confronted with the reality of suffering.

It is no accident that the principal sign of Christianity is a cross or crucifix. 

Suffering, and how we deal with it is who we are.

JIM

The Church year has a definite structure and overlays the natural cycle of the seasons. A true gardener loves winter as much as high summer. It is a time for work as well as waiting. The death of winter is merely a transition time with life slowed to an almost silent tick within the dormant plants, bulbs and seeds.

At this time of year, during Lent, gardeners are acutely aware of the lengthening days of spring.  Easter is a time to sow and nurture and marvel at the reburgeoning of the garden that will lead to an abundance of food and flowers for the summer feast days.

RICHARD 

Jim and I met 35 years ago. We knew pretty early on that we wanted the same thing. 

We wanted a shared life, a life together.

As the Song of Songs in the bible says love is a strong as death, fierce

But I am also with St Augustine once again. Love is an act of the will, it is a decision.

To commit is to make an irrevocable decision. It’s a bit counter cultural. We like to think that we have a choice, choices all the time.

Although I had been brought up in a Christian family it was as a teenager that I committed my life to Jesus. I had an experience of God, of the Holy Spirit that was so powerful that I knew there could be no going back. 

My commitment to Jesus, my commitment to Jim are both part of the same thing.

They are choices I have made as I craft my life.

Gardening is a craft. 

I have spent most of my life as a teacher in schools as well as a priest.

The thing I most want children and young people to know is that we are the craftspeople of our lives.

JIM

I think it is safe to say Richard is better at prayer and me at gardening but maintaining a prayer life or a garden each demand discipline and commitment. I know that gardening can be a solace in the hard times.

I am reminded of Kipling’s famous poem The Glory of The Garden – 

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him seesThat half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away!