Bart Price on how basic gardening can deepen our prayer lives…
Recently, my wife and I have taken up winter gardening. Honestly, it’s not been easy. The soil is loamy here in Florida, and drought conditions continue to prevail. Sometimes, in exasperation, I just belt out at our flailing plants, “Grow, by Jove!”
Needless to say, this and my other Whitmanesque, barbaric yawps (doubtless heard across the rooftops of the neighborhood) don’t exactly yield fruitful results. In fact, the next day, it seems the opposite has occurred; the leaves have withered, and what I thought was a sprig of a cucumber plant popping out of the ground is a weed.
Then it dawned on me: I was trying to apply to gardening the same aggressive mentality that, for years, I’ve applied to my career. While this approach may work at the office, it’s not the recipe for success with a garden – or with our spiritual lives.
As with prayer, gardening requires an element of nurture, I’ve found. It entails a certain attentiveness and receptivity to the laws of nature—adding the appropriate amount of fertilizer, dropping seeds in the ground at exactly the right depth and time of year, making sure plants get the right amount of water and sunlight, pruning them in ways to maximize their potential for growth, and altering the soil composition ever so slightly, if needed.
In the business world, it’s a bit different. Though attentiveness and receptivity are necessary virtues to meet and exceed client expectations (and to collaborate with co-workers to get the job done), a certain amount of, you might say, brute force, is sometimes also required to meet tight deadlines. You have to push that project through; you may have to step on some toes; you have to be the squeaky wheel to get the grease.
Not so with gardening. Just once, try stepping on the toes of Mother Nature or being loud and pushy and see what kinds of results you get. At best, you’ll get nothing; at worst, you might harm the plants. I think there are studies showing that plants are sensitive to loud noises. So who knows what might happen; you might kill them by being too blustery.
But, as I’m realizing, the frustration I experience as a greenhorn gardener can ultimately serve a greater good; it’s an opportunity to foster the skills necessary to deepen my prayer life, to cultivate a greater spiritual mindfulness, by becoming more attentive and receptive to reality.
Let me put that in less abstract terms.
Those adept in the spiritual life say there’s a disposition of docility, or active listening and reflection, required when reading Scripture to be able to mine its deepest truths. Without this, one tends to impose an aggressive, unfair rationalism on the text, demanding that it be technically and scientifically accurate at every turn or else the text’s validity is questionable.
So, being docile is important. In fact, it’s integral to Gardening 101. In general, we tend to flee from reality whenever we get a chance, to escape into a fantasy world of our own making. You can’t do that with gardening. To be successful, you have to accept nature on its own terms, to docilely confront the facts before you, to humbly submit to nature’s immutable laws.
Interestingly, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford suggests that certain occupations lend themselves to a greater attentiveness and receptivity than do others. Though he doesn’t explicitly mention the occupation of farming/gardening, it certainly fits the bill.
As Crawford writes, “Any discipline that deals with an authoritative, independent reality requires honesty and humility. I believe this is especially so of the stochastic arts that fix things, such as doctoring and wrenching, in which we are not makers of the things we tend.”
In gardening, we certainly aren’t ever the makers of the plants we tend or the soil we till. In other types of endeavors, however, people can get away with making reality subjective. A philosophy professor, for instance, might have a successful career – make a lot of money and garner prestigious awards – even if what he’s teaching and writing doesn’t jive with reality or conform to objective truth in any way. Likewise, an artist might earn a livelihood out of selling creations that don’t adhere to objective standards of reality (i.e., of beauty and composition).
But, try fixing a car without adhering to the laws governing how a car operates and you run into problems — big problems — like a windshield wiper sticking out of the gas tank, or an air filter getting stuffed into the exhaust pipe. This kind of egregious image might make for good art in some circles – say, as a commentary on the disintegration of Western civilization – but it doesn’t make for good car maintenance.
And this anarchical approach to reality doesn’t make for good gardening either. Nor does it make for growth in the spiritual life.
This is why learning to tend a garden can be helpful. It requires us to be patient. It causes us to approach the land with a sense of honesty and humility. In these ways, gardening engenders in us a capacity for attentiveness and helps cultivate a humble disposition of receptivity to truth and reality. If nothing else, gardening helps our minds to slow down so that we might be more attuned to matters of the spirit.
Without a doubt, Gardening 101 is Prayer 101. So, if you want to deepen your prayer life and develop a greater spiritual mindfulness, start growing a garden – even if it’s one of those little container gardens on the fourteenth floor of your apartment high-rise.
In the end, you’ll be glad you did.
Bart Price lives in St. Augustine, Florida, with his wife, Angie. A Six Sigma Black Belt, he works in the Six Sigma department of a financial firm. He has published a poetry book entitled The Wild Woods Edge and creates what he calls Photo Poems, combining his original poetry and photography on 8×10 mats. His art can be found at www.bartprice.com