As Christians commemorate Lent and Holy Week, managing daily activities amidst a pandemic, a friar reflects on the gardens of friendship and the seasons of life.
Would it be an understatement to say that our lives have been turned upside-down? Although the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and many of these early spring days are warmer than normal, one might begin to believe that spring has sprung. The calendar says it has but, in our heart of hearts, I suspect living under the pall of these coronavirus days might challenge that reality. We are afraid. We are uncertain. We are scared. Did I wash my hands? Did I wash my hands long enough? How do I know?
We are locked in our homes (or at least we should be!) not knowing what will happen tomorrow or the next day, or next week, or next month. The news reports are not helpful. They are informative, but not always helpful. I say, let us look to the garden.
I like to garden. It is one of the many things I learned from my father. There really is nothing like spending some time in the dirt. Not long after I was newly ordained, I remember telling Andrew Reitz, OFM, the guardian and the pastor of my first assignment, “Gardening is a lot cheaper than therapy.”
There is the immediate reward of seeing the clean garden bed after a long winter as well as the long-term gain of planting seeds with the anticipated beauty that awaits — or the harvesting of vegetables when the time is right.
Years ago, I remember, the words of Dan Grigassy, OFM, when I was planting daffodils one November: “What a great image of Advent waiting.” How true. We plant, then wait. Though there are no guarantees, there is high certainty that something beautiful will happen.
Appreciating Silence, Connections and the Gardens of Friendship
I really wasn’t joking when comparing gardening to therapy. There is wisdom in the garden.
There’s silence in the garden that allows us to hear. It is where we can connect with the “dust” from which we came. There’s life in the garden, and death, and rebirth. The seasons remind us that life has a cycle.
There is also work in the garden, physical work, to be certain, but also psychological and spiritual work is done there. We do need to till the soil, fertilize the plants, and of course, water and weed the gardens in our yard, as well as the gardens of our friendships, our world and ourselves.
On a different note, but within the same song, let me just say that I do “retread” homilies. If it’s a different congregation, why not? I know I’m not alone. When I repeated a phrase to Ronald Stark, OFM, that I’ve heard attributed to him — “We really only have seven homilies in us. Everything else is a variation on a theme.” — he replied, as only Ronald could, “I think that number is too high.” Another time, when speaking with a friend about this, she said, “I want a new homily,” to which I replied, “It will be new for you.”
A homily I go back to often is one I use at weddings. It revolves around the song, “Make Your Garden Grow,” from Leonard Bernstein’s operetta version of Voltaire’s Candide. Voltaire’s satire on life during the Enlightenment was written with such hyperbole, that although funny, it is also painful as he, through a thin veneer of humor, reflects on the struggles, challenges, and difficulties that real life brings.
Candide lived a charmed life in the castle of a great baron in Westphalia. At first, his life echoed the philosophy of G.W. von Leibniz, which taught that there was a reason for everything. Leibniz reasoned that an all-good, all-powerful God created the world and, therefore, it must be perfect. If we thought something was evil or wrong, then we just don’t understand the ultimate good that it was meant to serve.
As the story continues, Candide eventually falls in love with Cunegonde, the daughter of the baron, and the feeling is reciprocated. All is good, as one would imagine after having just fallen in love, until they are both banished from the castle because the baron does not approve. They are thrown out into the world and it is there that they are confronted by events that reason cannot explain away. They come to realize that life is hard. The story takes them to Buenos Aires, England, Transylvania and, eventually, back to his own home. As the fanciful story comes to an end, now quite clear that Voltaire has dismissed the optimism of Leibniz’s philosophy, we hear Candide pronounce, “I know that we must cultivate our garden.”
We must work — do our part, do what we can, to make our garden grow.
Adjusting to Upside-down Life, Remembering that Life Is Strong
As the world continues to isolate, we continue to hear stories of how Italians are singing on balconies to one another and neighborhoods are hosting happy hours – each in their own driveway – while they connect during this new life in our “stay-home” mode. Many parishes are “live-streaming” Mass, and in a rather poignant prayer service, Pope Francis, looking out onto an eerily empty St. Peter’s Square, blessed the world and prayed for an end to this coronavirus.
Yes, life has turned us upside-down, but the garden reminds us that life is strong. What we might think is dead will bring forth new life. Those bulbs planted in November will bloom despite what has happened since. No one doubts that life is difficult, even unreasonable at times, but we also remember that the Garden of Gethsemane allows us all to return to the Garden of Eden.
For this, we celebrate Easter, even if, for now, from an appropriate social distance.
Happy Easter! Go plant something. Watch it grow. Care for it and see the Easter mysteries come alive once again.
— Francis Di Spigno is an associate pastor at St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes, N.J. The previous reflection published in HNP Today, by Dominic Monti, OFM, was titled “Franciscan Perspective on Lent.”
- Spiritual Reflections by Friars webpage
- “Rebuilding God’s House: SBU Plans New Ministry Center” by Francis Di Spigno — Aug. 27, 2015, HNP Today
- “St. Francis from a Gardener’s Perspective” — Oct. 3, 2014, HNP Today