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Spiritual Gardening

by Norman Wirzba

Gardening is never simply about gardens. It is work that reveals the meaning and character of humanity, and is an exercise and demonstration of who we take ourselves and creation to be. It is the most direct and practical site where we can learn the art and discipline of being creatures. Here we concretely and practically see how we relate to the natural world, to other creatures, and ultimately to the Creator. We discover whether we are prepared to honor these relations by nurture and care and celebration, or despise and abuse them. Gardens are a microcosm of the universe in which all the living and nonliving elements of life meet, elements ranging from geological formations and countless biochemical reactions to human inventiveness and age-old traditions about cuisine and beauty. When and how we garden gives expression to how we think we fit in the world. Through the many ways we produce and consume food, we bear witness to our ability or failure to gratefully and humbly receive creation as a gift from God.

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postTo garden effectively is to bring human living into fairly close, appreciative, and sympathetic alignment with the life going on in the garden. It requires us to know a particular plot of land and understand its potential, and then work harmoniously with it. To garden is to unseat oneself as the center of primary importance, and to instead turn one’s life into various forms of service that will strengthen and maintain the many memberships that make up the garden. It is to give up the much-trumpeted goal of modern and postmodern life—individual autonomy—and instead live the life of care and responsible interdependence. This is what the biblical command to “till and keep” the garden means. When we garden well, devoting ourselves to the strengthening of the memberships of creation, personal ego and ambition gradually recede from the lines of sight so that the blessings and glory of God can shine through what we see. When we serve a garden well by learning to calibrate our schedules and desires to complement gardening realities, life has the chance to thrive and smell and taste really good.

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Gardening, besides being a practical, life-nurturing task, is also always a spiritual activity. In it people attempt to make visible and tasty what is good, beautiful, and even holy. Every act of gardening presupposes and embodies a way of relating to creation, a way that invariably invokes moral and spiritual decisions. Though membership in a garden is a given, how we will take our place in the membership is not. Our aim must be to develop into good gardeners, gardeners who work harmoniously among the flows of life. This means that besides vegetables, flowers, and fruit, gardeners are themselves undergoing a spiritual cultivation into something beautiful and sympathetic and healthy. A caring, faithful, and worshipping humanity is one of the garden’s most important crops.

Norman Wirzba is Research Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School. These excerpts are from his book Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.