O Clemens! O Pia! O Dulcis! Virgo Maria!
From time to time my wife Paula asks me to dig a hole in one part of the yard, then dig up a bush or a tree in another part of the yard, put it in the hole and then fill the hole back up with dirt. That’s pretty much the extent of my horticultural expertise, which is usually limited to mowing grass and occasionally pulling weeds. If anyone is the gardener in the family it’s Paula – she’s the one in the summer who plants the flowers and cultivates our garden.
But gardening arrived in our lives in a big way over the past year. Last spring we invited the Douglas Community Garden Association to use our lower yard for a community garden. It’s been a big project, involving cutting down a stand of mountain ash trees, leveling out the lot, building boxes for raised beds, getting the soil ready (mixing soil, spent grain from the local brewery and sand together) and putting in a variety of vegetables and flowers (not to take any credit for that ourselves: our contribution was mostly just providing the space for the garden).
Of course, getting organized took the most work. As in any human enterprise the rules and expectations needed to be clearly spelled out and agreed. After one early meeting a group of participants came by to look over the plot of land where the garden was going to go in. One person turned to me and asked: “I don’t see what the need is for a lot of rules. It’s just a garden. I mean, how much trouble can you get into in a garden?” I replied, “All you need are two fruit trees and a snake to get in a lot of trouble.”
This got me to thinking about the role that gardens have played in our Christian story. From the beginning of salvation history when God planted a garden in paradise, the Garden of Eden, where everything went so wrong, to the arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and his burial in the garden tomb where he rose from the dead, gardens have featured prominently in the story of salvation.
I read about a number of other gardens in sacred scripture. There was Ahab’s disastrous garden project, when he appropriated the vineyard belonging to his neighbor Naboth so that the king could plant a vegetable garden. Then there was poor, innocent Susanna, who had a pool in her garden where, while bathing one day in privacy (or so she thought) she was accosted by two lecherous elders. When she refused to sin with them, they accused her of adultery and tried to get her put to death. Just in time, the prophet Daniel rescued her by his devastatingly clever cross-examination of the elders.
And then there is the allegorical garden in the Song of Songs, in which the bridegroom speaks poetically of his bride as an enclosed garden filled with flowers, fruit trees and fragrant herbs and spices. (Song of Songs 4:12-15) That got me thinking about how Christians in the middle ages saw in this passage about an enclosed garden, a symbol of Mary the Virgin Mother of God. Intensely devoted to our Lady (after all, this was the period in our history when Christians all over Europe built hundreds of cathedrals in honor of Notre Dame), they created enclosed gardens in honor of the Virgin Mary. And they filled these gardens with some of the many varieties of flowers and herbs that were named after Mary or were associated in some way with the events of her life. In fact, there are so many plants and flowers associated with Mary that it is possible to create a garden on a specific theme in the life of Mary or Jesus, such as the Seven Sorrows of Mary, or the Mysteries of the Rosary or Mary’s clothing.
The Marian significance of some of these flowers is obvious: marigolds (Mary’s Gold); roses (the Rosary) and ladyslippers (Our Lady’s Slippers), others, such as Lily of the Valley (Our Lady’s Tears) and violets (Our Lady’s Humility) aren’t easy to discern at all. Some are named after items of her clothing, such as foxglove (her gloves); morning glory (her smock), or (columbine) her shoes. Still other plants and flowers are associated with her life: bellflower (Bethlehem Star); dianthus (Our Lady’s Bedstraw – from the bedstraw she used to prepare a bed for Jesus in the manger) and the plantation lily (Hosta – which blooms at the time of the Solemnity of the Assumption.)
I love the idea that Mary is honored and venerated not only in prayers such as the rosary and in works of art and architecture such as icons, statues and cathedrals but in the order and beauty of the natural world as well. And while we won’t be building a cathedral anytime soon in Douglas, Paula and I (with the help of our children Phoebe and Miguel) have started work on a small Mary Garden in a corner of our yard (uphill from the Community Garden). Right now it’s a square garden box. We’ve skirted it with bricks and gravel and once we get the soil ready we’ll get some suitable Marian annuals planted so we’ll have a few flowers for the rest of the summer. In the fall we’ll get bulbs planted for next spring.
I’ve already sketched out the design for a covered shrine, which, when it’s built and I’ve shingled the roof, we’ll erect in the corner of the garden. Into that shrine will go (inevitably) an icon of Mary and Jesus, which I will paint as soon as I have finished the icons already promised to several long-suffering but patient people. (Rest assured that the icon for the garden will be as weatherproof as is humanly possible – marine plywood, a dozen coats of outdoor primer varnish and a Plexiglas cover).
The next two months are a good time for this project as we celebrate some beautiful Marian feast days coming up in July and August: Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16th; the Dedication of St. Mary Major on August 5th; the Solemnity of the Assumption on August 15th and the Queenship of Mary on August 22nd.
Come the fall, I’ll let you know how it turned out for this year. Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us.