Rambling round the roses

I was asked to comment elsewhere on whether there is a ‘theology of plants’…  Perhaps I should have responded that “a theology which excludes them is likely to be deficient!” But this induced the following ramble, some of which regular readers may recognise.

I have needed to be wary of claiming “theology” due to a culture which takes it for an empirical science, requiring water-tight arguments; a discipline which proves rather than convinces. ‘Natural theology’ has to work a bit too hard in its reasoning, where the awe and wonder may already have done its job for it.

Human beings don’t need to think and pray only in that way, and in my work as EcoChaplain, I was openly commissioned, from the outset, to recognise the value, scope and power of ‘poetic theology’. Hymns and prayers, with all their logical flaws, may be at least as valid as essays and theses as we encounter the mystery of God. Should we, when we turn to God, always speak of trees/plants? I’m convinced!

Though some of this requires an appreciation of divine irony.

Jesus was welcomed (Palm Sunday) by branches, hung on a tree. The identity between Christ, affixed by human cruelty, and the abuse of the tree (of life) to hang him up there should take our breath away. When I’ve used the Iona prayer about ‘wood and nails…purchased our salvation’, have I forgotten that wood comes from plants? The deeply moving Anglo-Saxon poem ’The Dream of the Rood’ which is quoted ( in runic script) on the tree-like cross now sheltered by Ruthwell Parish Church narrates the feelings of the tree wrenched from their forest home by ’stone enemies’ and forced to become an instrument of torture of the World’s friend’. On the sides of the cross, happy birds much berries from its leaves. The animals Jesus encountered, without antagonism, in the unkempt wilderness, are also there.

It’s clear that ‘wilderness’ is not lifeless ‘desert’, but perhaps more, as the Celtic Christians would have sought it out, a ‘deserted place’, where you can escape the bustle and listen for the voice of God. But can there be a wilderness in the midst of a city? The last few weeks, when we hear the birds as the traffic subsided, suggest there can.

What do you grow in your garden? In Holy Communion, through faith, by grace, fruit and grains are offered as the flesh and blood of Christ, broken and scattered, gathered and shared, for the good of all. Few of us would be outraged at singing along with’JesusChrist the Apple-tree’. The convergence of God and nature, whilst we remain calmly aware of the difference between creator and creation, wonderfully reconciled in the body of Jesus Christ, deepens rather than damages our faith. Can a garden speak of this ?

The hyssop that comforts and eases pain on the cross (John 19:28–30) reminds of our awesome debt to the healing powers of plants, celebrated in Revelation, 21, where the leaves of “the tree” (and when you read this, “the tree” implies wonderful diversity) are for the healing of the nations. A right relationship with this part of fellow creation implies justice and peace as well. Out of utter practicality, monasteries and Christian communities cultivated medicinal plants, as do we, though they’re so often masked by blister-packed pills. My late wife’s cancer treatment came from yew berries. Foxgloves help people with heart disease. The list is well-nigh endless. And few folk remedies are lacking in a grain of efficacy.

And Pope Francis recalls a tradition many churches are now happy to revive (Laudato Si Paragraph 12. “What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty.
Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”

It’s truly refreshing that people have begun to delight in wildflower borders and meadows – even on the grass verges in Motherwell!

In our approach to climate crisis, do we try to fight a war, or befriend an abused neighbour and carer? So often too, there is need to balance the arrogance of ‘care FOR Creation’ with the humility of acknowledging how we might be cared for BY Creation. The shaping of a garden should surely take this into account. Just as it should provide for other creatures than ourselves. It is with unambiguous approval that Jesus notes how the mustard-shrub provides habitat for the birds. ( Matthew (13:31–32), Mark (4:30–32), and Luke (13:18–19)

The parable of the Sower ends with an abundant harvest, perhaps because of and not despite the modus operandi of scatter-sowing. It allows for the ecosystem in which this takes place. The birds are fed, and there are weeds. Nature can do their part. Likewise, ecological wisdom underlies the prohibition on superficially efficient reaping. Extreme tidiness, we are discovering, kills: not only starving the creatures whose habitat is on the margins, but also the poor, and ultimately even the rich. And it’s with the authority of God that this point is made. Nothing we do will affect only ourselves. Only sinful arrogance says otherwise.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you are not to reap to the very edge of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not strip your vineyard bare or gather its fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the resident alien; I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:9-10).

This provides the food-bank which ensures the survival of Ruth, one of Jesus’ ancestors, all the more as Jewish tradition values the female line of decent).(Cf Matthew’s genealogy.) Many community gardens provide open access to passers by whilst going food. With all the challenges of regulation that this involves!

I’ve noted that even German churches are being encouraged to allow for wild-flower borders in the graveyards and green spaces they administer, to let foliage cover their church buildings, recognising that managing structural damage may be offset against the welcome for other creatures whose habitat the church then provides, and the bonus in delight for the people who visit. Church authorities even appoint consultants to advise on this, though it’s also necessarily an education in perseverance and collaboration with the needs and demands of nature. Our recent and timely appreciation of our dependance on pollinating insects surely encourages us to acknowledge their place in our spirituality. I don’t know how far we may have come in the appreciation of decay: of the sheer beauty of a rotting log, or indeed what goes on inside a compost bin; and yet life continues because life recycles, and plants and fungi are the workers involved. Not ‘bondage to decay’ comes to mind, but partnership with it. Bondage, like all slavery, is an abuse, and the processes of decay are themselves wondrous aspects of creation.

The ancient and fundamental duty and honour of hospitality is surely key: a locked and completely private, walled-off garden says much about its owner. Abraham welcomed God in person from under the shade of the trees. And in the Book of Isaiah, is it the abuse of the holiness of trees, rather than that the pagans had sacred groves, that so infuriates the prophet?

Next time someone tries to make a case for cutting down a tree in church grounds “because it takes light” think again. In so doing, it’s helping you breathe. Always question such things.

You might have visited various types of historic gardens: those where nature is collaborated with and thoughtfully managed (the school of Capability Brown and others) and those where the aim is to show the complete human mastery of nature, forcing it into artificial geometries and shapes (look at pictures of Versailles). I cannot see that the second expresses a spirituality appropriate to our own age.

The mention of the fig tree in Luke 21 often obscures the following phrase: that we look at and learn from “all the trees”, and there has never been a better time to do so. Science, of course, far from undermining a biblical approach to vegetation, has begun to give meaning to the ‘personalisation’ of plants in Biblical language. We shouldn’t be intimidated into neglecting this though fear of inappropriate anthropomorphising. Green leaves do not just feed us, they give us and all other creatures oxygen for life. Not only do they ‘clap their hands’, (watch the trees in a stiff breeze) but plants certainly communicate, and respond to stimuli. They work together . We share in the building blocks of our DNA so much of what they are, that any approach towards the domination of nature which disregards its spiritual nature and value will tend towards an idolatry of the human. Your garden needs to be someone to ’tend and keep’ rather than to dominate and ruthlessly exploit. Be wary, please, of popular Bible translations which, in your living memory at least, have “weeded out” references to fellow creatures and replaced these with the assumption that it’s only about people. (see Mark 16:15 in GNB!!!). Again, nothing is absolute and clear-cut, but open up you mind to the partnership of plants and animals in the background of everything you hear, pray and sing in church, and you might find the garden of your faith is richer, lusher, more sustainable and sustaining in the turmoil of present day life.

A garden is a privilege, and access to it, even if it isn’t ‘your own’ should be a delight. In sight, sound, smell and peaceful hospitality. I don’t know the details of the ‘paradises’ of middle eastern aristocratic gardens, but it’s worthy of a final comment, that this was what Jesus, from the wood and the nails of the cross, promised the barbarically punished and lowly fellow creature on the point of death. In a garden, we may be with our ancestors, and they in God’s hands. Do you keep memorials fresh and tidy or allow nature to take their course, in the faith that God remembers? What do you think.

And since it is not ourselves, but the Sabbath, which is the culmination of the first Genesis story, perhaps a garden must be a place to value rest, rather than just of labour. God ‘walks in the garden’.

Ultimately, we don’t need to stretch points or lean over backwards to feel how a garden can be a sacred space. But it’s worthy of some discernment and thought, what message we receive from it and give to others.