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God, heaven and a garden

30 November, 1999

Magali Nicole takes a look at gardening. In it she finds a model of ‘subduing the earth’ which does not involve exercising absolute mastery over it, but rather entails working with God and helping to create heaven on earth.

The English are renowned as a nation of gardeners: we are forever pottering about in the garden or, in winter, planning what to do next. When people find out I am a gardener, after asking for advice, they then stare into space and wistfully remark that they would love to be a full time gardener. ‘If only. . .,’ they say.

In one of our two creation stories, God and Adam (1) are found in a garden: our lost Eden. The story is set in a garden. Why a garden? What is it that draws us so subtly and inextricably to the soil? I have been thinking about these questions for some time (usually when gardening) and I would like to share some of my musings.

What is a garden?
A garden, I believe, is a place which is changed and made better than its surroundings by people, and which fulfils their needs. I realise that some people might cry, ‘What right have you to change what is already there! How dare you!’ But as Christians we don’t dare: it is our duty – and responsibility. I am aware that the state the planet is in has been laid directly at the Christian churches’ door because of the misunderstood and misapplied ethic of dominion. How that word still sends shudders down peoples’ spines! But I feel I must point out that in Genesis 1:28, after humans were created, ‘God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.’ We were created, blessed and given our holy work which includes subduing the earth.

This idea that the earth was not created perfect but that we have a part to play in it appears again in Paul’s letter to the Romans: ‘In my estimation all that we are suffer in the present time is nothing in comparison with the glory which is destined to be disclosed for us, for the whole creation is waiting with eagerness for the children of God to be revealed. It was not for its own purposes that creation had frustration imposed on it but for the purposes of him who imposed it with the intention that the whole creation itself might be freed from its slavery to corruption and brought into the same glorious freedom of the children of God.

We are well aware that the whole creation, until this time, has been groaning in labour pains. And not only that: we too, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we are groaning within ourselves, waiting with eagerness for our bodies to be set free.’ (Rom 8:18-25). In this passage we are told that creation is still waiting to come to fulness and this process is frustrated for a purpose. This frustration can only be removed when the children of God play their part.

Design with nature as a guide
Every good gardener knows that to create a really beautiful garden you have to work with nature. Gardeners must work with something beyond their control but not of their understanding. A gardener, to be worthy of the name, must work with the seasons, the local climate and the plant’s physiology and with what they have inherited. No garden is a blank canvas, as there is always something there: soil pH, prevailing winds, a tree with a preservation order, etc. The best gardens I have seen are not the most expensive or the most complicated, but the ones in which the gardener has worked with nature and her constraints and the possibilities contained within that plot. Instead of going against what is inherent in the site, the good gardener has pulled the existing threads together and woven a garden unique to that piece of land. No copies of Italianate gardens here! The gardener has searched for and found the genius loci and created a garden to bring to perfection nature’s inherent possibilities whilst also fulfilling their human needs. A perfect marriage: humankind using God-given reason to see and understand the pattern and to work within God’s design.

Dear reader, you can of course take it for granted that the gardener to whom I refer is one that is (w)holy organic and who follows the counsel, ‘Do nothing which you cannot offer to God.’ A cheap chemical fix is not something I would present to God; it would be insulting, as if saying to him that what he has designed is flawed, when in reality the case is that our understanding is not complete since we have failed to understand how nature and natural systems work.

What happens to us when we garden?
When we garden well, we work with the natural systems which make up nature and I think because of this we start to feel a part of the whole of creation. ‘Fish swim, birds sing and men pray’ says St Ephrem of Syria. St Francis adds, ‘Pray: use words if you have to!’ I have just been reading a book by Teilhard de Chardin (Le Milieu Divin, London, Collins, 1961, pp. 34-35) who believed that our everyday actions can become prayer by our offering them back to God. Pulling these three ideas together, we might begin to understand how, in our gardening we are brought closer to God. Is it by our actions of submitting to something outside ourselves and realising in an undeniable way our dependence on something greater than our everyday self, that this happens? By this action of submitting and understanding our dependence on God, are we fulfilling our duty as humans as a part of God’s creation by the act of tending the garden?

The cosmic garden
By the act of stepping into the garden, we escape from our everyday realities of nine-to-five routines, the stress and strains of things of our human fabrication. By entering our gardens we realise that we are a part of a greater whole which follows rules not of our making. When we garden, we follow these rules and work in harmony with nature, God’s design. By using our intellect and reason to observe these rules we become truly human. By submitting our will (through the observance of these rules to the one who designed them and created all) we submit to God and, at last, our gardening becomes a prayer. We are a part of creation giving praise, as humans, to God. Because of this, I believe we are brought closer to God and God is seen as present in a garden, because in this place we have fulfilled part of our sacred duty and have helped create heaven on earth: a new Eden. Paradise as a garden.

1) Adam from Hebrew adamah meaning earth/mud, which God then formed into adam=Humankind (male and female)



This article first appeared in Spirituality (July-August 1997), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.