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With God – In the Garden

Lent 1 BCP

10 February 2010 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

It falls to me rather than a visitor to give the first of four Lent sermons on spirituality and prayer: With God – in the garden. Despite today’s gospel, the wilderness follows next week, and thereafter we are With God in the jungle (concrete) ending With God – in the heavenly city.

There’s a link between the temptations of Christ we heard in the gospel, and the garden of Eden, in that Jesus in the wilderness reverses the disobedience of Adam and Eve by his faithful obedience. They were both tempted by what seemed pleasing to the senses, and distrusted the provisions made for them by God – even though all that was created was good.

The garden of Eden is the image I had in mind as I considered titles for this Lent series. For this is a garden with plants, animals, birds, and fish, all living together in harmony and delight. All provided by God for the enjoyment of his creation. This Lent series therefore begins with a vision of paradise…and we end with the heavenly city as the subject of the last sermon.

Modern day gardening I know has its full measure of struggle, sweat, suffering and sacrifice. There is no doubting its potential to create beauty. Just back from South America I shall never forget my first sight of Punta del Este’s myriad stylish tall buildings from afar…jewelled and manicured in their apparel. The natural splendour of sweeping beaches, if left alone and undeveloped, would have provided a different beauty. But this was the St. Tropez of South America, and some of the lush restaurants in the pine forest created a sort of Miami south beach jungle atmosphere, which combined simplicity with sophistication. Whether you were actually inside or outside wasn’t very clear. And so I appreciate the capacity of man-made gardens to convey beauty. But this is not a debate between Art and Nature, and I believe the most helpful image for the early stages of the spiritual life is of Eden, and nature. What God provides for us, and our response to that, rather than our own construction. The gift of God’s loving grace which in Christ provides all we can ask or desire. Freely given rather than created by any effort of our own. We are each given all the spiritual resources required for a spiritual life, and it is not necessary become struggling gardeners to enjoy a life of prayer.

St. Teresa of Avila in her autobiography compares what she sees as four stages of prayer to four different methods for watering a garden. The first stage is to haul the water up from a well. The second stage is to construct a mechanism by which the water can be raised from the well. The third stage is to divert water from a stream – presumably digging ditches for irrigation of the garden. The final stage in her metaphor is to water the garden by relying on God’s abundant rain. Isn’t that a beautiful image she gives us?

Most of the hard work, the necessary labour, occurs during the early stages…whereas the final stage is the state of rapture and bliss, when the soul dies to itself and almost all worldly attachments, and lives in union with God. This is the prayer of mystics.

The first stage, when water is drawn from a well can be compared to our taking the initiative to place ourselves in the presence of Christ. Simple as that. Taking a first step on the spiritual path. It involves self knowledge with regard to sin, meditation on God and the meaning of life…the experience of aridity…though in opening up to prayer and in thinking progress is being made often there is a concern about the shortcomings of others.

The second stage is less effort and during it comes the prayer of quiet, and a sense of understanding… as God bestows comforts and consolations. St. Teresa seems to think this is how far most people get.

Water flowing from a stream into the garden is the third stage of prayer where we find rest only in God. While the second stage represents ‘the holy repose of Mary’ when the soul does not wish to move or stir, this third stage also includes the activity of Martha. The active and the contemplative life is thus possible to be lived out at the same time. St. Teresa of Avila was herself a great example of prodigious energetic achievement whilst remaining recollected in prayer and rapture. Doing works of charity, going about the business of the world.

We began in the garden of Eden. The garden has great significance in the New Testament as well. It is to a garden, Gethsemane, that Jesus leads his disciples after the Last Supper. After his crucifixion the resurrection is witnessed in a garden at the break of the day, and Mary Magdalene even mistakes the risen Lord for a gardener. But each location is also a place of human fear. Adam is frightened of God’s approach after the fall, and hides himself. In Gethsemane the disciples cannot stay awake to watch and pray and Jesus sweats blood. At the resurrection garden, Mary Magdalene is told ‘do not be afraid’.

As we begin Lent let us ponder how the garden of our soul is nourished, and learn to rest in God. In that rest to know the peace that passeth all understanding, and casts out fear. I have no doubt that God’s blessings of peace and joy – an awareness of his loving presence – of being supported underneath by his everlasting arms – will come to any soul that seeks Him in prayer. And I end with a poem that was found as a bookmark in St. Teresa’s own prayer book, and tells of her complete trust in God, who alone suffices:

Let nothing disturb you,
let nothing cause you fear
All things pass.
God is unchanging.
Patience obtains all:
Whoever has God
needs nothing else.
God alone suffices.
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