Labyrinth Garden

Labyrinth Garden 1: Reading of this post.

Abundance. That is the word that comes to mind whenever I go out into my garden. It is so abundant in fact, that I simply cannot keep up with it! It reminds me of a scene from “The Shack” where Mack goes into the garden to talk to Sarayu (The Holy Spirit):

Labyrinth Garden 2: Reading of this post.

I have not always been a gardener. It is something I have picked up out of necessity in the last few years. I dug over the top third of my back garden about four years ago, thinking that if I planted a wild flower garden, it would take care of itself a bit, that I would not have so much grass to cut and it would make life a bit easier. I could not have been more wrong! The first year was absolutely splendid – and I missed a lot of the summer being away doing The Spiritual Exercises. After that, I was ill for about a year and nettles encroached, trying to reclaim it for themselves. I spent the last two years claiming it back, and this year has been maintenance, in that respect.

I have learned a lot in my time spent in the garden. The first, and most important lesson I learned is that I am not in control of it. I may have gone out there with a plan, but in no way has it happened the way that I thought it would. There are plants I have not seen since the first year I planted them – the scarlet pimpernel, for example. Such beautiful little flowers, I see why they are called elusive.

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.

Sir Percy Blakeney, Baronet (ch.12); The Scarlet Pimpernel Baroness Orczy

I discovered during that first year that the best time to catch them with the flowers open was mid morning, so I took to taking my coffee break (I still call it that, even though I now limit my one coffee a day to breakfast time) at the top of the garden, looking for the scarlet pimpernel.

Scarlet Pimpernel – close up from the Spiritual Direction Mandala.
Labyrinth Garden 3: Reading of this post.

I generally left things alone for a while, to see what they would do, and I gradually became able to discern the difference between a plain old bramble, a raspberry and a blackberry. I did not plant any of these, but, there they were, in abundance. I am not so cavalier as Sarayu in removing things; in fact, I am as shocked as Mack is at the way she attacks that flower bed with such gusto, and I am tentative, but gradually becoming less so, about uprooting plants in my garden.

The strategy of waiting to see has paid off though. In the first year, as I was walking down the lanes near my house, I noticed some thistles growing on the verge at the side of the road. Being my national flower, I am quite partial to thistles, but I did not recall ever seeing their seeds on sale in the garden shops, and I wondered how I might get some in my garden. A few weeks later, I was sitting on the bench in the wild flower garden and I noticed that that spiky plant I had left alone was a big thistle and it was in flower. This was the second thing that I learned about gardening, that you get presented with many unexpected gifts. My garden has been growing trees – from scratch. As far as I can identify, beeches, hornbeam, black poplar and elderflower. These are challenging, problematic gifts because there is not the space for them there, from their perspective and mine, but what to do about it? I sat on that problem for months, until I noticed that some of them were lined nicely and could form a hedge, delineating the footpaths I have been putting in to prayer spots at the edges. I moved some of the others to form a little grove, leading to a meditation point, and I am coppicing them to form a hedge. I only lost three out of sixteen that I moved. I also planted some sunflowers in the first year, and those were glorious.

Spiritual Direction Mandala
Labyrinth Garden 4: Reading of this post.

This was always meant to be a conversation between friends.

Why am I telling you about my garden? Some of you experienced gardeners might even be shaking your heads thinking:

What is she talking about? She really doesn’t know much about gardening.

And you would be absolutely correct to think so. But I am not really talking about gardening: I am talking about the spiritual journey. Sometimes in our spiritual lives, something begins to emerge, fresh shoots, and we may not know what it is at first. It is like the darnel and the wheat, or in my case, the brambles, the raspberries and the blackberries, the thistles and the trees. God gives graces and gifts freely. Some of these, we desire, and maybe do not even know that we desire them -for me, the thistles. Some of these gifts and graces may be problematic, and we have to sit with them, to work through what it is He is giving, and what He would have us do with them – the trees. Some may be gifts we deliberately asked for, but we have to simply be, and at the right time, in the right place, we will notice their flowering – the scarlet pimpernel. And the sunflowers? Sometimes He gives exactly what we ask for and in the most generous and exuberant way. There are also times to uproot what was there before, even if it seems good, in order to prepare the ground for new growth. We may see a mess on the ground, but from the viewpoint of God, as Sarayu says, of the garden and of us:

Wild, wonderful and perfectly in process.

The mandala I have featured here is an assignment I did in the second year of my formation as a Spiritual Director. I have added the assignment as a page in its own right. It is too long to include everything I have learned since my initiation to gardening. As a celebration, particularly relevant since the churches have opened again in the United Kingdom this weekend, I offer this joyful prayer, featuring some of God’s abundant gifts as they appear in my garden.

If you want to walk on water…get out of the boat.

The Voyage of Brendan. Scanned from the Celtic Mandalas calendar by Jen Delyth. I’ve been buying and using this calendar every year for a long time, and I’ve been saving many of the images in my resource file for use in prayer. So much beauty and spirituality in her work. (Please click on the image to follow the link to her website.)

I played the Psalm 69 setting by Sons of Korah when I gave an assembly in school this week on the theme of: Facing our fears with courage. I took my inspiration from John Ortberg’s inspiring book, relating to the title of this post, and from Gerry W. Hughes S.J. from his book ” God in All Things” when he says:

Desire can only be controlled by a stronger desire.

Gerry W. Hughes S.J. God in All things

And I’m thinking here of the first being more superficial, inordinate desires born out of fear, perhaps leading to avoidance, sloth, self-loathing and other manifestations of spiritual desolation; and the stronger desire being that which is deeper, calling us into life, encouraging and strenghtening us, in other words, leading to spiritual consolation. While I talked about deeper desire and fear as something that gets in the way of it in my assembly, here, I want to focus on the video clip I showed from the film “The Shack”, (firstly a book) and to observe the movement in it in the context of an example, hypothetical or otherwise, of imaginative contemplation on the gospel passage where Jesus, and then Peter, walks on the water. (Matthew 14: 22-33)

Prayer card on Imaginative Contemplation. This may be printed onto A6 card (or bigger) to have in your prayer spot if it helps to remind you of the flow.

It might be worth filling in a little bit of background to the character. On a camping trip, Mack jumped into the lake to save his son from drowning when he got stuck in a capsised canoe. Unfortunately, Mack left his youngest daughter unattended at the camper van and she was abducted. All they found was her bloodied dress in an old shack in the forest. Mack has been tormented ever since. In this scene, Jesus has invited him to take the boat onto the lake to enjoy the peace and beauty of the place.

Mack’s imaginative contemplation of the gospel passage where Jesus walks on the water.

To begin with, we see the place: the peacefulness of the lake: we hear the birds and the paddles in the water, and can almost feel the breeze on our skin and the sun on our face. Mack is in the scene, rowing and he stops to let the peace sink in. It has been a while since he felt anything close to this peacefulness. And then the fear creeps in, anxious fear, despairing fear: and it pulls him away from the graced state of consolation he was momentarily in. In this turmoil, Jesus calls to him:

Look at me. Trust me. I’m not going anywhere.

And so Mack is interacting within the scene. Although there are recognisable elements, his experience of it does not follow the same plot as the gospel passage and that is not important; it is not something we should try to enforce. The imaginative contemplation takes a life of its own, as we trust in God to be with us, where we are; we experience Him up close and personal when we pray in this way. And of course, there is the colloquy towards the end of the scene, the conversation, where one friend speaks to another. Here, Jesus gently challenges Mack’s image of God and reveals what His desire is: to see people change by knowing Papa, to feel what it is like to be truly loved.

I would love to slow down the movement from the creeping fear to stepping out of the boat, to know more about what was going on in Mack during those moments. I would also want to know how it was for him to tell Jesus that he didn’t think he had ever felt like that. And I wonder how he felt at Jesus’ response to him saying that. I notice that these moments may be rich with spiritual fruit and that Mack might benefit from repetition of these points from his prayer.

When it is our deep desire connecting us to God that is driving us to do the things we do, fear may be present and it may even feel pervasive, but when we look at Him, and keep looking at Him, we find the courage to face those fears, and our trust in God deepens. Imaginative contemplation is one method of prayer that can help us to feel the depth of our own, and God’s desire.

More music – as a prayer to close.

Hillsong United: Oceans