In every fruitful garden, there is a collaboration between the Creator, Maker of all seeds, plants, soils and the gardener who has a specific role. Genesis 2:15; “Then the Lord God took the man He formed and put him in the garden to tend and keep it”. Whether the gardener has the wisdom and awareness to understand or not, every little happening in his garden is the fruit of this blessed cooperation, in which all aspects are mystically interconnected giving life and purpose to each other.
Together, we have embarked on various gardening projects, and as we have learnt about the life of plants, through reflection on many wonders and failures in nature, a clear parallel emerged between the life of a garden and spiritual life. Below, are just a few fruits born from these conversations.
The journey of growth begins in winter, with the preparation of the soil, which needs to be “made ready” to receive the seed, just as our souls need to be made ready to receive the Lord by weeding out, digging and enriching. It is a most sobering reflection that if you weed a patch of land with the greatest care and dig it over making it thus perfect for planting, but delay planting, the land will become overgrown with weeds in the blink of an eye. Similarly, if you ready yourself for the Lord by uprooting all your passions and destroying all evil propensities (if such a thing were possible), but delay in placing Christ therein, in planting the seed of the Holy Spirit, your soil will only become fertile ground for new, over grown passions. Secondly, as soon as you stop tending and watering your heavenly garden, it will begin to wither, giving space to weeds. Therefore, it is necessary to watch over the garden of our hearts carefully and to cultivate the good seed of virtue, letting it multiply on the prepared soil.
It is also a matter of wonder that the soil is enriched by adding into it decayed matter, like rotten leaves, discarded cut tings, manure. All things dead and rejec ted transform into nourishment for the soil. May we find the wisdom and know ledge to transform all of our rejected, failed plans and endeavours into a matter which will enrich the soil of our hearts. This reminds me of the first lesson in Physics and its heading: Matter does not appear nor disappear, it only transforms –as Christians we are called to transform by the Holy Spirit. Romans 12:3; “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind”.
Germination is without a doubt the most wondrous stage (and my favourite) in gardening. It is similar to the birth of a child. From an infinitesimal seed, life bursts forth. The miracle of Creation is encompassed in the Parable of the mustard seed “which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs” (Matthew 13:3132). We can only marvel at the fact that every tree was once a tiny seed, which you can hold between two fingers. Every germination is a small miracle because life itself is encased in a tiny, inconspicuous looking ball or speck, in this sense the Lord has made us partakers and co-creators of Creation.
If we look at our own lives, we can sometimes pinpoint the moment of germination. The seed of faith was planted in us at different times and in ways specific to each of us: by a friend, a parent, a book or an experience. But often, it lies dormant in the soil of our being, until all elements are right for germination: temperature, light, humidity. And then, suddenly, the tree of faith bursts forth out of the tiny seed. It is sadly too true that some seeds never germinate, but there is always hope. Take the case of the Mathu selah palm tree. During an archaeological excavation of a fortress in Masada, some seeds were found. After spending some years in a researcher’s drawer, one of the 2000-year-old seeds of a palm tree was germinated in 2005. This species of palm tree had been extinct in the area for hun dreds of years. Life had slept inside the tiny seed for 2000 years! The tree is now over 3 metres tall and produces dates.
Like all new life, germination holds the promise of beauty and perfection. Every time a new plant emerges from the soil, you can picture in your mind’s eye the beauty of its maturity.
The stage of growth or the journey from newborn to maturity is the hardest part of gardening. It requires immense energy of the gardener to combat all threats to the plant (pests, disease, competition from weeds), to water, feed and protect
It is a matter of relentless watchful ness. It demands patience (in short sup ply in our garden) to watch the plant grow and also wisdom and faith in equal measure. The wisdom to accept the loss of plants to disease and pests, but the faith to carry on tending to the few little plants left. We see thus that gardening is a spiritual school. How many seeds of the Spirit have germinated in our souls only to die, prey to our bad habits, laziness or forgetfulness? Accepting the loss, rather than mourning over it, going to confession and starting germination afresh in faith is an essential lesson for spiritual growth.
Some gardening techniques, which strengthen the plants and give them a better chance to survive are startlingly useful in our spiritual life. It all starts with grading, which involves discarding the seedlings which appear weak or dis eased and only leaving the strong, healthy ones. We sometimes need to choose the best seedlings in our lives, and when they are old enough, we sometimes need to pinch the ends out. This pain in inflicted on young plants makes them grow stronger, with healthier roots, so that when the time comes to bring them out side into the cold and the wind, they can survive and reach maturity.
Finally, most people’s favourite part is when the crop is ready – the fruit of God’s labour through us. We can feast on the fruit of love and patience, gift it to others and give thanks to the Lord for the completion of our endeavours.
By Mary and Martha of gardening
A parish retreat (homily & QA session) entitled “Orthodox Spirituality” by. Alexey Young (now Hieroschemamonk Ambrose) (video transcript). Fr. Alexey was a spiritual child of Fr. Seraphim Rose,
We often wonder how often we should go to confession. The answer is simple—whenever you have a serious sin on your conscience. Examine your conscience and beg God to show you’re your faults; if you don’t know who you are then you don’t know what Christ came to save you from. This can be a difficult process, but a necessary one. Such study reveals our self-love by which we blind and deceive ourselves.
Our sins offend the Almighty God. He wants to forgive us and share His mercy. We must be satisfied not just with avoiding serious sins, but even the smallest, in an ongoing striving for holiness. Our sins cause ourselves and others unhappiness—why would we want this?!
St. John of Kronstadt says that if you live just one day in obedience to all the commandments then you’ll have a foretaste of Heaven. Once we know and detest our faults we can begin to replace them with virtues, but know that this won’t happen all at once. Be the simple, difficult, weak creature that you are, and start small—to try to stop sinning all at once is actually a manifestation of pride. Start with the baby milk of spiritual struggle before moving on to the strong wine.
How should we examine our conscience? You should do this daily, taking time at night to reflect. You can use the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and so on, as a guide. My spiritual father, Fr. Seraphim Rose, taught me to consider: How have I sinned against God? against my neighbor? and against myself?
Through examining our conscience we begin to discover what is our predominant passion(s)—that sin we fall into most frequently, which tries to master us. This can be the love of ease, love of power, complaining, judgmentalism, and so on. One of the worst things that can happen to us if when someone asks our advice, so we give “learned advice,” but in the end they don’t follow it and we get very upset.
To overcome vice we must practice the opposing virtue. The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a great help in this regard. St. John Climacus analyzed each virtue and vice as a master of psychology, seeing cause-effect relationships in a theocentric framework. Identify your predominant vice, locate its opposite virtue and begin to cultivate it. Simply avoiding vice won’t work because then the passion will simply be replaced with other passions. If we do this we will see that the spiritual life works! We don’t like anyone to point out our faults, but in actuality we need our spiritual father to do this.
We each have our predominant virtue too. Studying and practicing this tends to draw the other virtues along with it. We can overcome vice by practicing the presence of God, by beginning to develop an awareness that at all times we are in the presence of God and He observes us. The icon corner serves this purpose. It is a two-way window to Heaven. Before doing or saying anything, think to yourself: “Would I do this in Church in front of the altar?” If the answer is “no” then don’t do it. Church is the place par excellence where we come into God’s presence and receive Him.
The Theotokos practiced the presence of God more perfectly than anyone else. Her virtues grew and she thus had a powerful influence on other people. People were made better by her mere presence.
The predominant passion is pride; it is the mother of all sins. Its opposite is humility. No soul can have any holiness without some humility, and yet pride will lurk in our darkest recesses our whole life. Adam and Eve fell because they listened to the serpent and thought that they knew better than God. This is pride, and now most of us follow two masters—a little pride and a little humility. Pride is the love of self, the beginning of all sin, and the neglect of the fact that we depend on God for everything.
What separates us from death is so little. Our lives are very fragile, and pride places us in opposition to God because by it we work only for our own glory.
Pride places false regard on the opinion of others, and of ourselves, when the what you think matters more than what God thinks. It is also manifested as desiring a good reputation—to be thought well of, to be honored—and this is a great temptation for priests, with people looking for the latest guide or guru. A priest must do everything to remain humble about what people say. Actually, criticism against a priest is a blessing to keep him humble, which is in turn good for the whole parish. Pride is also seen in being overbearing towards others, insulting or critiquing others, being argumentative, and getting angry easily.
The Holy Fathers give us the antidote for going from vice to virtue. The spiritual life is a science, not an art form. Most of us aren’t so spiritually talented so we need laws and cause and effect in order to learn the spiritual life. St. John Climacus says that the antidote for pride is prayer. Identify where the pride is in your life and ask for strength against it. Human effort can do very little. We must realize that everything depends on God. In prayer we make use of God’s grace, and then we can do almost anything—we can move mountains!
Pride can also be turned into humility by acts of humility, and especially by accepting humiliations. If someone criticizes you, even unfairly, if someone insults you or talks about you behind your back, instead of becoming defensive, accept it! This cheerful bearing of small failures on the part of ourselves and others is bearing one another’s burdens (see Gal. 6:2). It is important to bear the misunderstandings of others without complaint or self-justification. All too often we’re prone to excuse ourselves and urge our opinions on others. When we learn to accept the humiliations that come our way then we’re learning to be humble. As pride is the mother of all sins, humility is the mother of all virtues.
Another serious vice is avarice, which is the opposite of detachment and denunciation. It is the desire for many goods, for power over people, and so on. This passion is combated by cultivating a spirit of generosity. The Lord’s command to give up your coat is quite literal (Mt. 5:40). St. John Maximovitch would often come back practically naked because he had given his clothes away to the poor and starving. St. John of Kronstadt did the same. You don’t have to give away everything, but we should strive to not possess our possessions with our heart. We can have the spirit of poverty even if we aren’t poor—only buying what is absolutely necessary.
There was a German Lutheran pastor named Richard Wurmbrandt who was a prisoner of Romanian and Russian Communists. When asked how he could manage solitary confinement he answered that he had had practice beforehand. He suggested that Americans with much wealth go into a store where they have no intention of buying anything, and every time they see something they like, they should go up to it, look at it, and say “I don’t need this.” Do this repeatedly and you train yourself to be detached from worldly goods. He realized that who he is isn’t dependent on what he owns, whereas most of us really do define ourselves by what we surround ourselves with.
The Desert Fathers had a Psalter and a vigil lamp and that was it, and they were free and belonged to God.
Cultivate generosity and have a spirit of detachment. You can practice this by not using credit cards. We live in a world where it’s possible with a little imagination and a credit card to create an environment straight out of another time, such as colonial America, Tudor England, and so on. Never before was this possible. There’s something very abnormal about it when you think about it. Let’s just live simply and love and care for one another and use our blessings to care for the Church, for the poor, and so on.
We need a spirit of detachment from people too. You can have affections that are not immoral but simply too strong. Don’t define yourself in terms of other people. The spirit of Christian poverty allows for what is genuinely needed, but don’t go out and get something just because someone else has it. Of course detachment doesn’t mean laziness, dirtiness, slovenliness, chaos, carelessness, or anything less than orderly and clean—this is a form of self-love. Christian poverty isn’t stinginess—this is avarice.
Possession can be a passion that spreads even to things not worth keeping. Avarice regrets that you don’t have what others have. Avarice is stinginess. When you give to a beggar it’s for you. It’s not so much for the beggar—if you’re not willing to give that tells you something about yourself. We cannot rest in our diligence—there is always some way there for avarice or pride to creep in. And the antidote to avarice is prayer.
What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of His soul—put this in a frame in your house!
Regarding lust, we are taught that the clean of heart shall ascend the mountain of the Lord and see God, which refers to modesty and chastity according to our state in life, not just big things like fornication and adultery, although Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God is specifically about sexual sins. Our culture is awash in a cesspool of immorality and lust, dominating every aspect of our entertainment, commerce, and so on, but Christ encouraged chastity and celibacy amongst His disciples.
Even seemingly “innocent” things need more discipline, such as too much hugging in churches. For instance, monks and nuns don’t hug—they greet one another with a kiss of peace. I never hugged my spiritual father, Fr. Seraphim, but we loved one another. Of course, hugging is not an awful thing, but what I’m talking about is part of a general looseness of our culture, with looseness of dress, especially in Church, and so on. We see women in church in pants, men in shorts, women with uncovered heads—there was a time when this would never have happened.
If we had tea with the Queen we’d wear our absolute best, but we walk into Church with the Almighty God as if we’ve just come from a picnic. We need to rekindle the higher standard. Men shouldn’t wear short sleeves, or shorts, or pants that are too tight, and you don’t need a tie, which St. John called a noose.
You can combat lust by fasting. St. John of Climacus says in his Ladder of Divine Ascent that gluttony is the mother of many sins, particularly lust. If you struggle with lust you can begin fasting with the lessing of your spiritual father, beyond the fasts of the Church even. If you fast you will find that lustful temptations go away.
We need to learn how to guard our eyes. Monastics know not to look all around—keep your eyes on where you’re going. In photos of the saints we see that often they are not looking directly into the camera; they learned to discipline their eyes so that what comes into the soul via the eyes would not harm them. In the evening prayers we ask for forgiveness if we have seen anyone and been wounded thereby in our hearts. We seek to control our minds too, in disciplining the imagination, day-dreaming, curiosity, and so on.
The antidote for lust is prayer. The spiritual life is a constant battle that will end only at our death. We battle not against flesh and blood, but against the fallen angels (see Eph. 6:12). Examine your conscience, identify your predominant virtue and vice and seek the guidance of a spiritual father. The soul is a garden, though often choke with the weeds of the vices. Our task is to learn how to pull out the weeds one-by-one and plant flowers of virtue.
Question: If you’re on the path but still have passions will you see the Kingdom of Heaven?
Answer: We must make sure that we’re really on the path. We often delude ourselves into thinking we’re on the path when we haven’t actually repented. We don’t have to achieve absolute perfection, but we need some victory that shows our heart.
Question: Surely we can’t give to everyone who asks or we’ll go broke.
Answer: We are called to give but we do need to be discerning. Of course we need to keep some money to provide for our families, to give to charitable organizations, and so on.
Question: What is the difference between self-respect and self-love?
Answer: Some have the special grace to stay in and redeem abusive situations, but this is very rare—it’s almost like martyrdom.
We must be very careful about this, as our culture tells us we’re just a little higher than animals, or even less worthy than animals. We see people saving whales but not babies. Until 150 years ago we believed we were a little lower than the angels, and people tend to live up or down to the image they are given of themselves.
We must work with people very carefully to give them self-respect that isn’t pride. Self-respect comes from being made according to the image of God and knowing that He redeemed us. We should not define ourselves by other people.
Question: How can we safeguard ourselves to keep a healthy balance? Is it a sin to decorate your house and things like that?
Answer: We have the responsibility as good stewards to make a pleasing environment, but we should use common sense about how much money we spend. Of course there are those who have lovely homes but are also very generous. Such questions are on a case-by-case basis.
We have to surround ourselves with beauty—that is a Christian virtue.
Not even ask for help! From anybody around you. Only from your spiritual father. And God of course. In prayer. God will give you all the help you need for the challenge in question and He will also send near you all those you need to help you. If that is His Will for you, of course. So, whenever a difficulty arises, do not waste any time and your peace of mind and do not start asking for help, or complaining for not getting any … Let go of all feelings of bitterness and pray! If anybody offers their help, by all means accept it humbly and gratefully, but do not seek, expect or hope for help from others. “Unless a man say in his heart, Only I and God are in the world, he shall not find rest.” (Abba Allois)
* I was offered this word by S.Silouan today …
“An eagle was flying in the heights and delighting in the beauty of the world, and he thought: “I cover great expanses, and I see valleys and mountains, seas and rivers, meadows and forests. I see towns and settlements, and how men live; while here a village rooster knows nothing except his own yard. I shall fly to him and tell him about the life of the world.”
The eagle flew onto the roof of the country house and saw how gallantly and merrily the rooster was strolling amidst his hens. And the eagle began to speak to rhe rooster of the world’s beauty and wealth. At first, the rooster listened with attention, but did not understand anything. The eagle, seeing that the rooster did not understand anything, was saddened, and it became hard for him to speak with the rooster; while the rooster, not understanding what the eagle was saying, began to be bored, and it became hard for him to listen to the eagle.
Thus it happens when a learned man speaks with an unlearned man, but even more when a spiritual man speaks with an unspiritual man. A spiritual man is like the eagle, while an unspiritual man is like the rooster; the mind of a spiritual man meditates on the law of the Lord day and night and by prayer ascends to God, while the mind of an unspiritual man is attached to the earth or occupied with thoughts. And when a spiritual man meets an unspiritual man, intercourse for them both is boring and difficult.”
In the end, every soul will suffer martyrdom, to be saved. Either suffer martyrdom in one’s conscience or suffer martyrdom by giving one’s physical life, bearing witness unto death, literally shedding one’s blood. Until then though, until that soul reaches that point, somebody else will suffer martyrdom; some other people will suffer martyrdom before that soul, for that soul.
+ Elder Symeon Kragiopoulos of Blessed Memory