Sunday, August 01, 2010


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/1/10)

Meine Überfrau, a gracious, warm-hearted, and vivacious woman, said to me over oatmeal one bright winter’s morning, "If I were chairman of a committee, I'd sure never pick you as member." She was referring, I believe, to my disposition to prefer my own company. As a high-flight extrovert, she sometimes takes umbrage at my introverted ways, as in, “Come on, say something!”

Gardening can be either an introverted experience or an extroverted one, witness Loni Shapiro’s gang of green thumbs at the Olivia White Hospice Gardens. It’s mostly introverted for me. An occasional passer-by or visitor is just fine. Company is great as long as I am left alone now and then in the garden.

The reason for my churlish behavior is simple. Gardening for me is my principal form of meditation. I cannot meditate sitting still as do some of my Buddhist friends, transfixed by a candle’s wavering flame. My mind gets diverted by my bum knee when kneeling. Besides, the customary stance in the Bible for prayer is standing up straight, a stance of dignity.

My physical body has to be active for my spiritual body to focus. It's not that I'm hyperactive. I'm actually lethargic and prone to sloth. It is pleasant physical activity, such as taking a shower, which relieves my consciousness of everyday existence so that I can experience the ordinary extraordinarily.

Rudolph Otto in Die Heilige called this experience a "mysterium tremdendum et fascinans," an experience that is at once awesome, mysterious, and compelling. Long ago I gave up trying to talk to flat-line thinkers, such as secularists, about spirituality. Now, I just get another glass of wine, shaking the dust from my feet, leaving them to their cynicism as I head for the hors d’oeuvres. If they want to live in a world without mystery, a world “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable,” so be it, and a boring choice it is.

The chances are that when gardeners are alone working away in their gardens, they are meditating. It's something like driving on long stretches of a lonely highway. The mind is set free. The tasks of gardening aren't mind-bending. They’re simple once a person gets the hang of it. The real pleasure is not in clipping, spraying, digging, pinching, and planting, but in moving amongst beauty, feeling life slapping one's thigh, catching the faint, subtle aromas of life, and relishing the beauty of flowers, leaves, and even bark. As Gretchen said on watching seedlings sprout out of dry seeds, "I don't see how anyone could not believe in God if they watched this miracle."

Meditating is basically zoning out so that one can zero in. I found this out the several months I spent at a remote Augustinian monastery years ago. For several years, I had been on a spiritual quest to find a way to meditate that was congenial to me, and the Augustinian monastery was a stop on my journey that ended the journey. The monks walked around a courtyard garden chanting and invited me to participate. The more I participated, the freer was my mind to focus.

Their theology didn’t beguile me although I relished theological conversations with them. It was their method. I learned how to pray. And so it is with gardening. If someone wants to pray, the mind must be set free because prayer is at heart an experience beyond the pedestrian, a sense of a Presence, beguiling a person beyond the “dark backward and abysm” of the ordinary into the insurgency of eternity in an hour, infinity in the immediate, and a Presence in a moment.

Albert Einstein said it well, “The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science.”

What better place than a garden? It is not by chance that Jesus repaired to the Garden of Gethsemane to find his destiny. A garden frees our minds of the everyday clutter of obligations, ideologies, and certainties, and allows us to move into the mysteries that one must experience to be able to believe everything else or in anything at all.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010

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