A little over a year and a half ago my husband and I moved into our first house. As I walked around the wintry backyard, with its tired shrubs and empty flowerbeds, I planned my dream garden. Where there were weeds, there would be flowers; where there was bare fence, a jasmine trellis. I didn’t know much about gardening, but I did know what I liked.
When spring arrived, I enlisted the help of my mother and got to
work. Many weeks later, the garden was transformed; flowers bloomed brightly and vines were poised to climb up the new trellis. Secure in the triumph of my green thumb I hung up my gardening gloves, ready to relax and enjoy my new backyard.
In reality, though, my work was only beginning.
It’s amazing how much one has to do to keep a garden alive. I water, I weed, I prune. I’m forever clipping dead heads off of flowers or applying Vitamin-B1 to encourage new growth. And in spite of the St. Francis shrine on the fence, I’ve found myself developing an intense loathing for many of God’s creatures, like the squirrels who dig holes in my flowerpots and the whiteflies who (literally) suck the life out of my marigolds. I seem to be forever launching pre-emptive attacks against the snails, who just mightbe considering lunching on my zinnias.
It was frustrating at first, this need for constant effort. I was slightly bitter about not being able to relax after my initial exertions. But there are universal lessons to be learned in the garden, and the biggest one I’ve learned so far is this: in order to thrive, the best things in life require regular maintenance.
Take friendships for example. I’ve seen plenty of my
relationships wither over the years, mostly because contact with friends is usually the first sacrifice on the altar of my busy life. It takes effort to pick up the phone or to remember a birthday, but it’s only when I do so that the roots of connection grow deeper. The relationship becomes stronger, tensile, more likely to withstand life’s changes.
Marriage is similar. The vows that my husband and I took during our wedding three years ago were beautiful, transcendent. But it takes conscious effort to keep the marriage in full bloom. It means choosing conversation over television even when we’re both exhausted, having the patience to understand each other’s point of view when disagreements arise. Although it’s often pretty tempting to take the easy road – to zone rather than connect, to insist stubbornly on my own way of doing things – I’m learning that an initial investment of effort can yield big relationship rewards.
In its own way, faith too requires maintenance. Sure, there are times when spiritual insights just seem to come by magic: a moment of transcendence in prayer, or the sudden overwhelming sense that God is present. But this isn’t the everyday experience of my faith. I need a daily diet of prayer, reading, and reflection to keep myself spiritually alive.
This is tough, though, because I can get lazy. Often, I’m far more likely to reach for the new entertainment magazine than the gospels. That’s hardly a moral failing, but it certainly doesn’t do anything for my spiritual growth; my deepest needs just aren’t met by reading about the glittering crowds at a movie premiere. But when I read about the life of a ragged man named Jesus, when I openly discuss my faith struggles with others, when I strain to focus on Mass even when the homily is less than inspiring – it’s these actions, chosen again and again, that nurture my spiritual life.
Friendships, marriage, faith – all of these good things require maintenance. Much to my surprise, I’ve grown to enjoy my daily forays into the backyard to see what needs to be done. I’ve come to the realization that when people say they love to garden, they don’t just mean they like looking at pretty flowers. The real joy of gardening lies in action, in putting on gloves and turning soil and pulling weeds. It takes energy and sweat, sure, but those things are nothing compared to the satisfaction of being intimately involved in creation, the joy of discovering the best way to help something grow.