Beauty in the Garden
by Vigen Guroian
Vigen Guroian is professor of religious studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia. His books include The Fragrance of God and Inheriting Paradise.
And to Adam he [God] said: "Because you … have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.
Genesis 3:17, RSV
I once said that gardening began when God expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise. I was wrong. What I should have said is that after the first couple greedily consumed beauty, gardening got inextricably mixed up with labor and survival, and farming came into existence. Adam's son Abel was "a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground" (Gen. 4:2, RSV).
Farming is a noble activity, but it also is a necessity, whereas there is no need to garden. Thus we may distinguish gardening from farming. Yet in a fallen world, farming and gardening are ofttimes commensurate. I cannot conceive that the activity of farming will ever completely be divorced from the vision of beauty, even in the most mechanized and industrialized farming, for flower and fruit are beautiful in and of themselves.
In spring, I cultivate the perennial bed with the magenta petals and sweet citrus fragrance of the rugosa rose in mind. In excitement, I wait also for the green bouquet of the broccoli plant and the calm, clean scent of the cucumber.
This was not always so. In the beginning, in my first garden in Richmond, Virginia, I farmed for food on the table. But in Charlottesville, Virginia, in Eldersburg and Reisterstown, Maryland, and last, here in Culpeper, the garden has finally reformed my disposition toward it. It has entirely transfigured my vision of life. St. Ephrem speaks for me:
Paradise raised me up as I perceived it,
it enriched me as I meditated upon it;
I forgot my poor estate,
for it made me drunk with its fragrance.
I became as no longer my old self,
for it renewed me with all its
varied nature. …
In its fair beauty I beheld
those who are far more beautiful than it,
and I reflected:
if Paradise be so glorious,
how much more glorious should Adam be,
who is in the image of its Planter,
and how much fairer the Cross,
upon which the Son of its Lord rode.
Hymns on Paradise, 6:4, 5
Here in Culpeper, I have divided my vegetable garden into raised beds of triangular, rectangular, and square shapes. Shape, size, texture, and color matter to me as much in the vegetable garden as in the perennial beds. For the sake of beauty, I gladly leave the ruffled red cabbage to grow long beyond its time for harvest. I let the mustard reach high with bright yellow bouquets. I cultivate carefully the asparagus row not just for the taste of its buttery spears but also for the verdant fern foliage that shoots up after the spring cutting. I let volunteer sunflower, cosmos, and cleome seedlings grow where they choose. And I sneak orange nasturtiums into the hills of sweet-potato vines. If we modern people thought of our world as a garden, if we gardened more, then I think all the other creatures and things that grow in the ground would be so much better off. Beauty can save the world! But that depends on how much we love beauty and seek it in our lives.
Gardening is not only making the world around us beautiful once more but letting beauty transform us. Gardening grows from our deep longing for salvation, so that beauty fills our lives. "Beauty," writes Berdyaev, "is God's idea of the creature, of man and of the world. … The transfiguration of the world is the attainment of beauty" (The Destiny of Man, p. 247).
In my garden, I take hope from Jesus' promise to the repentant thief on the cross that he will be with his Lord in Paradise. I know that the sweat of my brow and tears of penance bring Paradise near in my backyard. For a garden is a profound sign and deep symbol of salvation, like none other, precisely because a garden was our first habitation, and God has deemed it to be our final home. Beauty is the aim of life. God imagined it so. God spoke the Word, and his invisible Image of Beauty became a visible garden. "The fertility of the earth is its perfect finishing," writes St. Basil of Caesarea, "growth of all kinds of plants, the up springing of tall trees, both productive and sterile, flowers' sweet scents and fair colours, and all that which … came forth from the earth to beautify her, their universal Mother" (Hexaemeron, homily 2). Beauty will transfigure the chaos and deformity of our wounded world into the peace and harmony of a cosmos that God, from the beginning, proclaims to be good and beautiful.
I know that the beauty I aim at in the garden lies hidden within the innate potentiality of the earth and the seeds that the sun and the rain bring to life. I must divide the ground to fit the needs and the habits of the plants that grow. I must prepare the soil and supply it with minerals and nutrients. I must sow the seeds in an orderly way and thin the seedlings so that they have room to spread and capture the light of the sun. And I must cultivate the earth to let in the air and the water.
Alas, the garden has taught me that beauty is both gift and accomplishment. As gift, I accept it humbly and without pride, gratefully and not greedily. As gift, beauty comes from above and beyond my poor power to bring it into existence or to experience it. St. Ephrem writes:
Paradise has … clothed itself
in terms that are akin to you;
[but] it is not because it is impoverished
that it has put on your imagery;
rather, your nature is far too weak
to be able
to attain its greatness,
and its beauties are much diminished
by being depicted in the pale colors
with which you are familiar.
Hymns on Paradise, 11:7
Yet Paradise, Ephrem insists, is not so far distant from us that we cannot approach it. Indeed, we draw nearer to it with each and every effort to make our own selves and the world around us beautiful. Beauty in this fallen world is like the sun hidden behind a cloud. Our ruined "eyes" see just the shadow of its brightness. When, however, we are transformed by our love for it, beauty illumines our whole being, much as on Mount Tabor the bright glory of God enveloped Peter, James, and John.
In the Kingdom of heaven, light, life, and beauty are one. Light engenders life in the garden and beauty everywhere. From the Father of Light issues the Spirit, who gives Life and the Only-Begotten, who is Beauty itself. The Three are One God.
Editor's Note: You can listen to an interview online at http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/restoringthesenses/