I love gardening. Recently there was a perfect day to get out in the yard to do some planting. Considering that I am allergic to most grasses, weeds, and trees, that I have lower back issues, and that I am a human mosquito-magnet, one would think I would not be a likely person to love gardening. You might say I am just plain crazy to even think about gardening. If left alone nature will take care of itself anyhow, so doing less out there and simply letting nature do its thing would save me the ‘suffering.' I would argue against that, however, because I so enjoy making things look alive and filled with color that the discomfort is outweighed by the process of bringing new life to my yard. No matter what it takes, I love accomplishing the task of renewing my garden.
While I trust in what nature can do, I also know that a little help by attempting to nurture it can go a long way. I have found that getting my hands into the dirt and breaking a sweat while preparing the beds is very therapeutic, bad back notwithstanding. There is something about the process of bringing new life to my winter-ravaged yard that brings life to me as well. When taming the weeds and trimming the bushes I feel like I am working with nature, not against it. I find that rather than having chaos ruling in the flower beds, keeping them neat and clean gives a sense that I am like an artist choosing colors and textures on a canvas. In the end, it is my work of art which I will enjoy for as long as the plants survive the season, at which time I will create a new work on a new canvas. It is an expression of my taste but it is simultaneously the way I participate with God's gift of all that is beautiful in the great outdoors that is my yard. But it does not simply happen on its own. I have to put in a bit of sweat and elbow grease to make this work of art appear.
Tending to a garden is a lot like tending to one's spiritual life. We can argue all day whether or not it is nature or nurture that affects things most, but in the end the truth is that it is some of both that is needed. The nature part can be seen as what God gave us in creating us as human beings. We have been given many gifts which include all those things that make us who we are as His unique children. But God also knew we would need some nurturing. Therefore He gives us gifts of His grace as well as His love and mercy. He gives us His Shekinah presence, which is His protection and care as we navigate the dangers and temptations of the world.
We, too, have to apply some nurture to our nature. That is, if we want to grow in relationship with God we have to do some work. Just as gardens do not sow themselves, do not weed themselves, and do not harvest themselves, someone has to do it or the fruits planted will die on the vines if they even manage to bear anything in the first place. We seem to understand this analogy, even if the closest we get to doing any of this is to shop in the produce section of our local market. So why do we struggle to realize that in order to advance in the spiritual life, we have to do some work?
I think it is because ours is a culture of convenience. We can obtain things with the push of a few buttons. Once we make an order it can even come straight to the front door. We believe that we can take a pill and the fat will be gone, whether it is on our hips or in our arteries. We can do just about anything one can conceive of in an instant. I admit that I enjoy these expediencies as much as anyone else, but the problem is that we develop an attitude of convenience such that we forget the work of being patient. This can cause us to forget gratitude since we come to expect things. We forget that someone 'out there' somewhere is doing work so that we can get the product we desire to our doorstep immediately. And worse still, the attitude that is taking root creeps into our spiritual life as well. We begin to grow bored with liturgy because it is not exciting enough, and God forbid, it takes too long. We begin to take shorter and shorter times for personal prayer 'since God knows what we need anyway.' And before we know it, we have drifted away from God altogether.
Prayer is not ‘convenient.’ No relationship is, since relationships are about love, and for us love needs nurturing. This nurturing means we have to work at loving, including our love of God. There is no magic formula that is going to make us into saints. If we want to grow in holiness and grow in the spiritual life, we have to do the work of prayer. But there is good news: if we do the work, we will become holy. If we want to become holy, God will help us to attain that desire. Just recently Pope Francis said we should all desire to become saints. Every Christian should want that simply because it is what God desires for us. To desire to be holy means to want to give back to God the best gift we can. It means we want to do the best we can with what He gave us, not for our sake, but for His. We desire it not so others can say, "Wow, how holy he/she is!" but so that others can say, "Wow, how great God is!" And maybe in saying that, they will also say, "I, too, want to be close to God so I can be loved and love like that."
In tending to our own spiritual life we are doing more than something just for us; we are witnessing to the greatness of God, to the love and magnanimity of God. Growing in holiness is about becoming more and more like Jesus. It will affect everything we do and shape who we are as children of God. It will inspire others to do kindness and to come to realize they, too, are loved by God as we are. In short, we will be helping Jesus to build the Kingdom of God.
Nurturing our own relationship with God, then, is not a solitary act. It is for our personal, inner growth toward the person God created us to be in beauty and love, and it is for us to be inspired to move outward towards others in love. The only way to nurture our human nature toward holiness is to do the work of planting the seeds of love through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. And we accomplish none of this alone. It is not my work or your work; it is our work. That is, it is God's work with and in us. The more we do the work of prayer, forming a habit of being with the one we love, the more He works with us. The more God works with us, the more we learn to let go and let Him sculpt us until we become more like Him, which is to say, we become holier. As this transformation takes place, we will move outward in love, finding that the work we do in the world is not work at all, but that it is pleasure because we do it for Jesus. Just as planting my garden with my achy back, itchy skin, and mosquito dodging is still something I love to do despite those things, we can persevere in the suffering that we might endure in working to build the Kingdom. The suffering is as joy because it was for and with the Lord that we have labored. The end result is beautiful.
Lent is going to begin in a short time. Therefore it is appropriate to begin considering how we can put in the time to grow in relationship with God through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Let us nurture our own soul, building on the nature God gave us and our capacity to grow in holiness. Let us allow God to pull the weeds and to till the soil within us, so that the beauty of who we are emerges in a new way. Anything truly worthwhile in life is worth the aches that the labor may cause because we know that in the end, something beautiful will be born of it. Let us work with God to let the beauty of who we are be renewed and become visible in a new way.
May we allow the Lord to nurture us as we do the work of prayer! May we be inspired by the Spirit to desire holiness! May we persevere in the process as we ask for the graces we need to grow into the holy men and women God created us to be! May we discover that we are indeed temples of the Holy Spirit, beautiful to behold, called to share that beauty with others! And may we have the joy of laboring with the Lord, joining with Him in building the Kingdom! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of the Lord of Love! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The photos are all mine. The top photo was taken in Oregon at the public rose garden.
Next is an image painted by Fr. William Hart McNichols and is called The Name of God Shekinah. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/30-the-name-of-god-shekinah.
The next photo is of St. Therese of Lisieux and is a photo I took of a photo which was on display at Notre Dame in Paris. I included it here because of her nickname, The Little Flower. She wanted to be as a flower in the garden of the Lord and in this desire, found her holiness.
The last photo is one of the pansies I planted recently in my garden, hence the inspiration of this entry.
Heart Speaks to Heart