Field of God

by Jessica Hickey (c.) 2010

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

“The LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed . . . . to work it and take care of it.”(Genesis 2: 8-15)

“Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).” (John 20)

“My vineyard, my very own, is before me . . . . O garden-dweller, my friends are listening for your voice, let me hear it! (Song of Songs 8:12-13)

“Then the LORD will guide you always and give you plenty even on the parched land. He will renew your strength, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails. The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt for your sake, and the foundations from ages past you shall raise up; "Repairer of the breach," they shall call you, "Restorer of ruined homesteads." (Isaiah 58:11-12)

I am arriving now at the time when I must once again plot out and prepare my back garden. For five years, I have grappled with my little bit of earth, trying to understand the temperament of its soil, trying to reclaim it from years of neglect. I have hauled decrepit concrete slabs, the remnants of oddly placed sidewalks, by tying them to my long-suffering car and driving down the alley. I have dug up sad and sickly evergreens and had a crew of tree-cutters in to prune the ash and walnut trees of their dead wood. Between my vegetable and herb patches I have unearthed every imaginable thing: buried clothing, a ring with no gems left, a rusted axe-head, a tin Santa cookie cutter exactly like one my grandmother had, and over three hundred of the old clay Poston paving bricks.

It seems as if half of my plantings die or need moving about, and another quarter falls to the fauna. There is a long-standing war between me and the squirrels, those frivolous destroyers of cultivated things, and at this time last year, I was in consultation with a trapper who helped to relocate a sizeable resident woodchuck, the latter being a true connoisseur of organic produce.

It is going to be a long, long time before I see things put back to rights. But there are signs of hope. This week, I looked out the window and saw that the sorrel patch is already green and leafy again. Each year the air smells less of decaying plants and aging metal and car exhaust, and more of violets, tomatoes, mint. And every summer there is an increasing variety of birds like cardinals and hummingbirds, and the larger butterflies: monarchs, tiger swallowtails, and some I cannot name--signs of health of life.

This little garden, beleaguered though it be, drives me on, for it deserves to exist. In it stands a plum tree, which I like because it is gratuitous and because it is old. I didn’t know what it was when I first moved it, only that it had blossomed white and was the only thing of unadulterated natural beauty in the lot. Later, it began to bear fruit, the honey-like smell thick in the air about the first week of July.

It has become a thing of strange beauty, because its snowy blossoms and blue-blushing fruits overhang an alley full of trash bins and dumpsters, with ugly wires strung overhead and beer bottles underfoot. People smell the tree, however, and come by to gather plums. I see different people each year: a Mexican family with lots of children and a puppy; a pair of boys maybe ten or eleven years old who have an innocent enjoyment and enthusiasm which is good to see; a young man with a baseball cap who confesses he likes the sour ones best; even my meter-reader, who stopped me to ask what grew on that tree because it was the best fruit he ever tasted.

I didn’t do this; someone else planted here before me, and that is why this object of joy exists today. It is right that a gratuitous beauty be shared for Christ’s sake, and if I ever find a little Child perched in it, as did the Selfish Giant in the Oscar Wilde story, I will not be surprised.

What has all this to do with the spiritual life and the task of the Christian?

We know that often in the Scriptures we find the image of the garden, the vineyard. Jesus spoke frequently in parables of the seed and the harvest and the laborers, and was Himself mistaken as a gardener after the Resurrection. But perhaps it wasn‘t such a mistake: “The Church is a cultivated field, the tillage of God,” we read in Lumen Gentium. It is a living thing, with its roots deep in the first days of what we now call salvation history, and all of its branches, connected to the True Vine, are destined to bear fruit. But they must be cared for, tended.

However, cultivation is rarely an easy matter. Firstly, the seed does not always take root where it is sown; the weeds crowd the new growth, and it may come to any number of unfortunate ends. And also, the plot which needs tending seems to resist the gardener’s hand, so that, day to day, nothing seems to grow or improve. It is a work of years and lifetimes, rather than days or seasons.

Pope Benedict, speaking in 2005 to a gathering of parish priests from the Alpine Diocese of Aosta, remarked on the parable of the Sower and its historical context:

“The Lord's work had begun with great enthusiasm. The sick were visibly cured, everyone listened joyfully to the statement: "The Kingdom of God is at hand". It really seemed that the changing of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God would be approaching; that at last, the sorrow of the People of God would be changed into joy. People were expecting a messenger of God whom they supposed would take the helm of history in his hand. But they then saw that the sick were indeed cured, devils were expelled, the Gospel was proclaimed, but the world stayed as it was. Nothing changed. The Romans still dominated it. Life was difficult every day, despite these signs, these beautiful words. Thus, their enthusiasm was extinguished, and in the end, as we know from the sixth chapter of John, disciples also abandoned this Preacher who was preaching but did not change the world.
"What is this message? What does this Prophet of God bring?", everyone finally wondered. The Lord talks of the sower who sowed in the field of the world and the seed seemed like his Word, like those healings, a really tiny thing in comparison with historical and political reality. Just as the seed is tiny and can be ignored, so can the Word.

Yet, he says, the future is present in the seed because the seed carries within it the bread of the future, the life of the future. The seed appears to be almost nothing, yet the seed is the presence of the future, it is a promise already present today. And so, with this parable, he is saying: "We are living in the period of the sowing, the Word of God seems but a word, almost nothing. But take heart, this Word carries life within it! And it bears fruit!"

“The seed carries within it the bread of the future.” The world will be fed from what is sown, though the sowers may not be there to see it. They are there to plant the promise, not necessarily to reap the harvest. And we also must recall what was said of the seed, which carries the future within it: that seed first must fall and die. Benedict continues:
“[Jesus] made people realize that he himself was the grain of wheat that fell into the earth and died. In the Crucifixion, everything seems to have failed, but precisely in this way, falling into the earth and dying, on the Way of the Cross, it bore fruit for each epoch, for every epoch. Here we have both the Christological interpretation, according to which Christ himself is the seed, he is the Kingdom present, and the Eucharistic dimension: this grain of wheat falls into the earth and thus the new Bread grows, the Bread of future life, the Blessed Eucharist that nourishes us and is open to the divine mysteries for new life.”
Spreading the Word, dying to self, partaking of His Sacrifice--these things are never wasted. Rather, in doing this work, we have made provision for the bread of future life, for ourselves and others. Just as with the unknown planter of the Plum Tree, the full flowering, the fruition comes later, an unexpected gift to many.

Yet what of the difficulty in proclaiming God’s Word and God’s Kingdom in a world which does not think it needs it, a world which resists tending? Benedict tells us:

“It seems to me that in the Church's history, these questions that truly torment us are constantly cropping up in various forms: what should we do? People seem to have no need of us, everything we do seems pointless. Yet we learn from the Word of the Lord that this seed alone transforms the earth ever anew and opens it to true life.
. . . . In the Western world, which is a world weary of its own culture, it is a world that has reached the time when there is no longer any evidence of the need for God, let alone Christ, and when it therefore seems that humans could build themselves on their own. In this atmosphere of a rationalism closing in on itself and that regards the model of the sciences as the only model of knowledge, everything else is subjective. Christian life too, of course, becomes a choice that is subjective, hence, arbitrary and no longer the path of life. It therefore naturally becomes difficult to believe, and if it is difficult to believe it is even more difficult to offer one's life to the Lord to be his servant.

This is certainly a form of suffering which, I would say, fits into our time in history, . . . . . I do not think that there is any system for making a rapid change. We must go on, we must go through this tunnel, this underpass, patiently, in the certainty that Christ is the answer and that in the end, his light will appear once more.”

“Christ is the answer.” Nothing can change this, even the world’s denial. But even if it resists the tending hand, the patient work of the saint will still teach the world, and will be the instrument by which people are brought closer to God, closer to the ultimate promise:

“Thus, the first answer is patience, in the certainty that the world cannot live without God, the God of Revelation . . .the God who showed us his Face in Jesus Christ. This Face of the One who suffered for us, this loving Face of the One who transforms the world in the manner of the grain of wheat that fell into the earth.

. . . . We are in need of patience, but also an active patience in the sense of making people understand: "You need this."

Even if they do not convert straightaway, at least they draw closer to the circle of those in the Church who possess this inner strength. . . . . I am thinking of the Lord's Parable of the Mustard Seed which was so small and then became a tree so great that the birds of the sky build their nests in it. And I should say that these birds could be the people who are not yet converted but who at least perch on the tree of the Church.”

Sometimes we hear of the ‘prophetic office’ of Christ in which we participate. Speaking the Word of God, being in this sense ‘a prophet,’ does not mean being a sooth-sayer, a teller of the future. It means rather embracing the personal experience of God, and delivering to others what we ourselves have been given. We may, like the prophet Moses, die on the mountain without seeing all the promises fulfilled. But the main thing is that we pick up the hoe and the trowel and plant the seeds.

“I am first and foremost a rustic,” wrote the doughty St. Patrick, whose feast we celebrate today, “but this much I know for sure . . . . He inspired me with fear, reverence and patience to be the one who would if possible serve the people faithfully to whom the love of Christ brought me. The love of Christ indeed gave them to me to serve them humbly and sincerely for my entire life if I am found worthy. . . . I must fearlessly and confidently spread the name of God everywhere in order to leave a legacy after my death.”

We have to fight for the Kingdom of God; it deserves to exist. It must be there to feed the future. We look with gratitude on that which was planted in the past by the labors of others. Let us pray also for the enthusiasm of the saints, the prophets, the evangelists, knowing that we inherit the fruits of their deeds and their continuous intercession:

“Today I put on a terrible strength,
Invoking the Trinity, confessing the Three,
with faith in the One
As I face my maker.
Today I put on the power of Christ’s birth and baptism,
Of his hanging and burial,
His resurrection, ascension,
and decent at the Judgement.
Today I put on the power of the order of Cherubim,
Angel’s obedience, archangel’s attendance, in hope of ascending to my reward;
Patriarchs’ prayers, prophets’ predictions, Apostles’ precepts,
Confessors’ testimony, holy virgins’ innocence,
And the deeds of true men.”
(From The Lorica, a prayer by St. Patrick)

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