Monday, 21 March 2016

The Priest as Gardener


‘Priests are to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent…They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord’.[1]

The language of the Ordinal gives familiar images of the priest, replete with Biblical allusions and imagery.[2] In his reappraisal of the work of Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s classic The Christian Priest Today (1972) in an anniversary lecture, Rowan Williams adds a new image, that of the priest as weaver, one who interprets and draws together the stories that form and shape the community that the priest serves. In this blog I want, humbly, to suggest and explore another image, that of priest as gardener. As it continues I have written on the basis that the word ‘gardener’ can be replaced by the word ‘priest’, and ‘garden’ be replaced by ‘human spirit’ or ‘church’, such are the parallels.

It reminds me of a story when I started my second curacy, before I was licensed and no one knew who I was. A woman came into our new garden as I was chopping some overgrown things down. She was clearly looking for someone and said to me, 'Are you the gardener? Can you tell me where the keys to the church hall are?' Nice to be mistaken for the gardener.

Of Gardens

Gardens feature in the Bible as locations that are, and represent, a place of proximity to God in God’s creative and redemptive purposes. In the Old Testament, the Garden of Eden is the place where Adam and Eve dwell, initially in harmony with God, before fracturing that relationship (Genesis 2.15 ff), and it is also a place where the man and woman hide from God (Genesis 3.8); the garden in the Song of Songs is a place where the loved purses the beloved (Song of Songs 6.2). In the gospels the Garden of Gethsemane is where Jesus bears the weight of the fallen creation to reverse ‘Adam’s fall’ in saying ‘yes’ to the Father (John 18.1); and in the Garden of Resurrection, which is in such close proximity to the place of crucifixion (John 19.41), Mary Magdalene’s tear-filled search for her Lord sees her find the beloved (John 20.15).

These gardens interconnect typologically: Adam and the New Adam; the lover’s pursuit in Song of Songs, Mary Magdalene’s in the garden of resurrection. In Eden and the Garden of Resurrection the true gardener is God.

Of Gardeners

The task of a gardener is to cultivate, tend and nurture a garden. The gardener does this to (co)create something beautiful and that grows, not to the gardener’s glory, but as something for everyone to behold and for God to delight in. The garden is an offering beyond itself and is subject to forces beyond the gardener’s control. So then, the garden, like the human spirit or church community is a microcosm of the world; or, is it the world, the Kingdom, in embryo? Like the trees of the field the plantings of the garden will ‘clap their hands’ (Isaiah 55.12), or in the words of the canticle Benedicite, omnia opera, ‘O all ye Green Things upon the Earth, bless ye the Lord: praise him and magnify him forever’.[3]

The gardener intercedes for the garden. The prayers of Rogationtide are perhaps more agricultural than horticultural, but the same principle applies: the gardener asks God’s blessing on the garden.[4] The gardener knows, like St Paul, that whilst planting and watering it is God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3.6). The tending of the garden is a work of trust on the part of the gardener and one in which grace is bestowed.

There is nothing the gardener enjoys more than to perambulate around the garden. The poet George Herbert interpreted the ‘beating the bounds’, the traditional Rogation procession, ‘as a means of asking God’s blessing on the land, of preserving boundaries, of encouraging fellowship between reconciling neighbours with the reconciling of differences, and of charitable giving to the poor’.[5] The gardener knows that whilst boundaries are in the mind of the gardener: bees, birds, butterflies and dandelion seeds do not observe boundaries. In gardens boundaries are trnagressed. There is cross fertilisation, literally. The gardener has to live with and accept this graciously.

Biodiversity is crucial to support the ecosystem of the garden. Plants that may not be desired by the gardener nourish and support the life of other deeply valuable aspects of garden life. The caterpillars that are a nuisance become the pollenating butterflies. Even 'weeds' (insert names as applicable) have a place in a healthy garden. That which is deemed a weed by the gardener can be a thing of beauty; it can be redeemed and seen as a blessing to the garden.

The gardener has to be endlessly patient. There are many pressures to short-circuit patience. Planting of rapid growing shrubs or ground covering plants and those that provide instant splashes of colour are easy to do. But they will need to be replaced season by season. We do not plant many oak trees any more. In the eighteenth century Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown changed landscapes with a patient vision knowing that neither he nor his aristocratic employer would see instant benefits. The landscape would look its best when trees had matured and lakes had reeds around them. And that would be long after his day.

The gardener has to take particular care in transplanting. Seedlings are delicate and do not always take root in new soil. Indeed the gardener has to attend to the whole garden but know that some plants are more self-sufficient than others. The gardener’s task is inter-generational. The youngest plant can bloom and be beautiful as can the mature plant; each will need different treatment.

The gardener can only work with the garden that has been entrusted. So it would be impossible to create the gardens of Sissinghurst into the Australian outback. The gardener has to pay heed to the soil conditions of the garden as well as the local climate and conditions, what the French viticulturists would call the terroir. A gardener is on a hiding to nothing in attempting to replicate the planting of a garden from elsewhere and to not pay attention to the realities of the terroir of their own garden.

Like the vine grower, the gardener has to prune (John 15.1-2). Pruning helps healthy growth, can increase fruiting and cuts away disease. On first sight pruning looks brutal or harsh yet it is profoundly necessary. Furthermore pruning can benefit other plants as well as the pruned one. Pruning enables light to get to dark places to allow those plants growing in the shade of others to flourish, although some plants are shade loving and the gardener needs to honour that. The full sun will impoverish those plants.

From time to time the gardener has also to tie up and support those plants that cannot stand by their own strength. The trellis is needed to ‘bind up and heal’. Gardeners also need to feed and nourish the soil. Feeding is a task of the gardener. The need for patient digging in of nourishment and nutrients, watering in drought but knowing some plants draw from deep down and not just at the surface (cf Jer 17.7,8).

You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God…Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.[6]

This is a profoundly Trinitarian vision into which the gardener is bound. In the gardener’s task we see the Triune God: the Father, the source of all being and life, the Creator, who spreads the garden before us; we see the Son, in the redemptive capacity with the Father, to recreate the garden as the New Adam; the Holy Spirit in the Spirit’s boundless creativity, sustenance, beauty and diversity of gifts, the Spirit which enables even ‘the desert [to] blossom and burst into song’ (Isaiah 35.1).

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

[1] Common Worship: Ordination Services, Study Edition, p. 37.
[2] Common Worship: Ordination Services, Study Edition, p. 37. This edition gives biblical references for these images.
[3] Book of Common Prayer, p. 9.
[4] Common Worship: Times and Seasons, p. 610.
[5] Common Worship: Times and Seasons, p. 597.
[6] Common Worship: Ordination Services, Study Edition, p. 39.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Seeking Wisdom: St Benedict and Universities, Ancient and Modern

‘The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day’ (Proverbs 4.18 AV)

‘But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? (Job 28.12 AV) Those are the questions that underlie the great Hebrew tradition of wisdom writing. The answer from the book of Proverbs is, in a nutshell, that, ‘The fear of the Lord is beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and understanding’ (Proverbs 1.7 AV). Proverbs is a book that restates that question and answer, and explores wisdom and her benefits and contexts. The question for the Christian is how far that wisdom tradition informs us today as those living in the hope of the gospel.

I want to use the Rule of St Benedict as a way into that and as a lens through which to see the pursuit of wisdom and the love of God, not least in the context of learning in Universities.

The Rule is laced with Biblical references, predominantly from the book of Psalms, with the next largest number of citations from the book of Proverbs. There is a clear relationship between the opening of Benedict’s Rule and Proverbs: from Proverbs: ‘Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding’; and from the Rule: ‘Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart’ (RB, Prologue, 1).

It’s not overstating it to say that St Benedict’s Rule is the conjunction and application of both the Hebrew wisdom tradition and the vision of Christian society. The pedagogy of both may seem remote from our times, laced with patriarchy, but The Rule is, at its heart, a practical and very pragmatic set of guidelines and instructions for living in Christian community, and some of the disciplines that go with that, centred on worship, hospitality and deep attention to God and neighbour. It is a powerful statement of finding wisdom in the heart and love of God.

Universities and collegiate foundations flow from and echo the monastic ideal: a resident, learning community that pursues wisdom (in the library or scriptorium); that eats together (in the refectory or hall); that ponders in company (in the cloister or quad); and that prays together (in the chapel or oratory). The survival and promulgation of learning and Christian teaching through the so-called Dark Ages has been attributed in large part to The Rule and those living it. They were faithful to the disciplines that go with the pursuit of wisdom, centred on worship, hospitality and deep attention to God and neighbour.

What Benedict advocates is a patient, unhurried pursuit of wisdom. For those pursuing wisdom, patient habit forming is at a premium. ‘Habit’ for a monk has a double meaning, the robe he wears and the formation in which he engages. So it is that Benedict states his aim of creating ‘a school for the Lord’s service’ (RB Prologue, 45) and this is about habit forming in the virtues and in wisdom. In emphasising, like Proverbs, the acts of hearing and attending as we pursue wisdom, Benedict’s Rule takes the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew scriptures and weaves it together with the New Testament and his deep conviction that the Christian should, ‘prefer nothing to Christ’ (RB 72.11).

In a hurrying world the ancient question uttered by Job still has a place: ‘where is wisdom to be found?’ Many things conspire against us: short terms for undergraduates, REF applications for academics, modern living and all hours’ social media. Whether we are monks or not, the disciplines that go with the pursuit of God’s wisdom, centred on worship, hospitality and deep attention to God and neighbour still matter but are still hard to pursue.

How we do that is in the forming of the habits of patience and attending to God are also shaped in those times and places where the hurry to a conclusion is not essential, and recognises that not everything concludes tidily anyway. Perhaps that’s why the Rule gives attention to the washing up in the monastery kitchen as much as to the cleaning of the vessels of the altar. Nevertheless, wisdom is rooted in God; a place like this is a witness to the divine patience where you are invited to stand on the threshold of God’s time: ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’.

But we cannot do this alone. The pursuit of wisdom is relational and inter-generational, as Proverbs and Benedict know. Hence the reference to father and son, that extends out into understanding that the wise community is not simply a teaching community, but a learning one too, drawing on and interpreting that which is handed on to us.

This patient, relational wisdom comes out in Benedict’s use of verses from the First Letter of John. How should the monastery deal with the admission of those seeking to join them? Benedict answers quoting 1 John, saying, ‘Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (1 John 4.1). This isn’t the desperate, grasping anxiety to recruit and boost numbers, characteristic of our contemporary church. This is a sense that ‘trying the spirits’, what we might call discernment, which is not to be hurried or rushed, but to be right both for the community and the individual: an act of wisdom.

So, then, there are connections between Proverbs and attending to wisdom and our second reading which is a meditation on love and listening to God. The Rule of St Benedict starts the process of incorporating wisdom and practical daily living in Christian community: as he says, it is a Rule ‘for beginners’ (RB 73.8). Such is the nature of wisdom that there is a practical and prosaic dimension to it. The wise ordering of the community is one aspect, but also wisdom as the basis for our ethical thinking and acting. The Christian Gospel roots that in love; not as a soppy sentiment but in the redeeming, sacrificial love of God revealed in the cross, which is, as St Paul puts it, scandal to Jews and the polar opposite of wisdom to the Greeks (cf 1 Corinthians 1.18-25).

So where is wisdom to be found for you and me? The culmination of Benedict’s pursuit of wisdom in relation to life in Christ comes as he connects it to the way of humility, the way of the cross, and how that shapes practical wisdom and the living of the virtues. So, he says, ‘after ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear (1 John 4.18)’ And he goes on to say that this can be exercised, ‘no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue’ (RB 7.67, 69). Benedict is alluding to the verses from 1 John which capture John’s theology, ‘he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God…Herein is our love made perfect…There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear…We love him because he first loved us’ (1 John 4. 16-20 AV).

That’s the task for us as Christian disciples, within and outside Universities, to continue to pursue wisdom in all that we pray and think, speak and learn and do, so that it may be said of us, ‘The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day’ (Proverbs 4.18). 

© Andrew Bishop, 2016