The Vigil of Pentecost, the first beautifully clear Saturday in many weeks, found me in church at the much more beautiful Vigil service. After the ancient and glorious Mass and Confirmations that followed, I spent the rest of the day finally planting the garden which weeks of cool, rainy weather had precluded.
A garden, while being a good way to save some money, enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables, and get some healthy exercise, is one of the clearest types of the spiritual life of souls. Many are the metaphors in both Old and New Testament that speak of the soul as a garden. Many of the parables of Christ have this theme, including the cockle and the good seed (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9), the ungrateful husbandman (Matthew 21:33-43), the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), and of course, the sower and the seed (Mark 4:2-8,13-20), among others. One of the most beautiful from the Old Testament is the testimony of the Holy Ghost, the Divine Guest of our souls anew at Pentecost, regarding His Spouse, Mary our Immaculate Queen: "My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up" (Canticles 4:12).
The Purgative Way
First, we began with a grassy piece of ground. Those who have tried to till through sod know how difficult it can be. Grass is beautiful, but you can't eat it. A nice lawn takes much care, and gives some satisfaction, but is nevertheless not essential for life. The same is true for many souls who labor vigorously to cultivate only grass in their soul (more or less weed-infested), pleasing to the senses and to the world, but not truly necessary. For "but one thing is necessary" (Luke 10:42) to cultivate - the fruit of eternal life.
This breaking up of the ground, rendering it totally altered from its former state, and without which a garden is impossible, represents the changes effected in a soul initially at Baptism by the Divine Gardener. The soul is, as it were, prepared to bear fruit from the seeds of divine grace sown. In another light, this also represents the primordial good will of the soul who, no matter the condition or upbringing, desires to obey God in whatever He ordains for salvation. This true, sincere desire to obey God's holy Will, expressed at baptism (at least of desire), results in a new creature (Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 4:24), totally reborn (John 3:3-7), "born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13), more different from the old and prepared for fertility as sod is from tilled ground.
This tilling also represents humility. The deeper and more completely the ground is tilled, the more roots are destroyed, and the less likelihood there is that weeds will later pop up and choke out the plants. Humble souls struggle less and attain more, just as a well-tilled garden needs less weeding and produces more fruit. The same can be said of a building: the deeper the foundation, the more wonderful and stable an edifice may be built upon it. A large building on a shallow foundation is likely to collapse. Hence a great truth of the spiritual life is that Almighty God exalts and favors a soul only in exact proportion as the soul labors to humble itself' (Luke 14:11).
Further preparations, necessary for us this year, served to further enlighten us (and our garden). There were many overhanging branches that blocked out the sun and would have rendered literally fruitless our efforts, as well as many large roots that greatly hindered the cultivating. We had to first cut these branches completely off and dig the roots out. These, of course, represent the vices. They must be cut off entirely. If one attempts to merely trim them, they shall quickly grow back, for the soul, still attached to them, truly gives life to these vices just as a garden can bear either weeds or fruit. Let us always remember that we are the source of our own misery by our sins and imperfections, not the Divine Gardener who must necessarily, yet mercifully, cause us pain in tilling our garden, rooting out and cutting off its vices, which He shall do if we allow Him.
We allow these vices to take root; we allow the world, the flesh and the devil (Luke 4:1-13) to block out the rays of divine grace which, as an impetuous flood, flows wherever there is no obstacle. Is it the fault of Almighty God that we place obstacles in the way of His grace? If we wish to grow, we must remove these obstacles with violence like to that of the chain saw against the tree or the axe against the root. This is what Our Lord meant when He said, "The kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away" (Matthew 11:12). No matter how "dear" the vice or occasion of sin, it must be cut off (Matthew 4:29-30). This is so true that the failure to cut them completely off will, eventually, ruin the attempts of the Divine Gardener, blocking off the rays of His grace and choking out any efforts made.
A classic example, rife even among traditional Catholics, is the excessive and/or sinful watching of television. If our standard here is that of the world, we must recall with dread that our Savior "prays not for the world" (John 17:9). How many are in hell right now who lived by the standards of the world and thought they would save their souls by, as it were, plopping their bodies in a pew once a week. A friend of mine, after hearing a sermon on TV-watching, simply took his television and "did violence" to it-throwing it into the dumpster! Bravo! This is exactly the violence Our Lord spoke of, and this friend has told me of the great joy and progress this has brought him. Indeed, his virtues and good works are as so many flowers adorning his soul and our parish.
Try replacing TV-watching with prayer, spiritual reading, works of charity, family fun, legitimate entertainment, and- oh yes, how about an extra Mass now and then? You will see the tremendous fruit you bear in that "peace the world cannot give" (John 14:27). See whether it be dull drudgery, as some think, or not rather true happiness and spiritual joy. The pleasure of the spiritual life must be experienced to be at all understood. "O taste and see that the Lord is sweet" (Ps. 33:9). Our Faith is not a nine-to-five job - our Savior desires all of us, all of the time.
How sad that so many Catholics fear to draw close to Our Lord by detaching themselves from the world, fearing to lose what they consider their freedom and happiness. Poor souls! They never experience in this valley of tears the penetrating truth of those words of the Divine Master, "the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32), and "I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). Detachment, not entanglement, denotes freedom.
This initial tilling and clearing, with subsequent weeding and cultivating, represent the first, or purgative, stage of the spiritual life, absolutely necessary yet painful to those still clinging to vain self-love and self-sufficiency which hinder the divine operations. This purgation prepares the soul for the germination of the divine seeds of graces and the growth and development of the virtues whose fruit is eternal life.
The refusal to submit and make great effort in these first preparations - breaking up the soil and clearing away obstacles - is why so many souls either never enter the path of virtue or do not persevere in it. They either refuse to admit with the prodigal son, "Father, I have sinned" (Luke 15:21) and submit to the remedy of the sacraments instituted and mandated by Christ, or they refuse to do violence to them-selves, like the rich man of the Gospel (Matthew 19:22), willing to practice virtue only if not inconvenient or painful to self-love.
The Illuminative Way
Once the soil is prepared and obstacles cleared, the seed is sown (as at baptism). Of course it is the Divine Sower who does so (Mark 4:3). This seed represents grace itself: "...grace, as St. Thomas teaches, is the seed which, when full grown becomes eternal life." 1
The seed is hidden, and, as Our Lord said, must die to itself to bear fruit. The soul must die to itself and desire to love and obey God and cooperate with His grace. Just as all seeds have enough food in them to sprout primordial roots, stem and leaves, so our loving Gardener freely adds other graces to the initial seed, helping it to grow until strong enough to strive on its own and cooperate with the gifts given it.
The germinating soul must now sink roots, sprout, and break through the ground into the sunlight if it is to survive and grow. So the soul, in its initial fervor, must now ground itself in humility and strive by its "stem", both representing the Catholic Faith, "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15), to lift itself above itself, through prayer, to a new, higher life, as different from its former life as earth is from air and sun. The soul, formerly self-sufficient, now keenly feels total dependence upon God and His grace, always keeping firmly rooted in humility while striving with all its might toward heaven. The clouds of trial and temptations are only temporary and bring new abundance of rain, also representing grace.
Now the plant must draw its nutrients and water from the soil and use the sun's energy to make sweet food in leaves newly sprouted, which food nourishes and causes it to produce even greater foliage. So the soul must draw the waters of grace "out of the Savior's fountains" (Isaiah 12:3) causing the leaves of good intentions must be further nourished and put into action if they are to bear their true fruit. The soul, though experiencing the sweetness of grace, yet must remain humble, remembering that it is still a creature of earth, and completely dependent upon the Master. "I am the vine; you the branches...without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
The garden, now full of young, tender plants, must be constantly weeded, through daily prayer and use of sacramentals, especially that "clear" symbol of grace, holy water. Recultivation, much more effectual because it breaks up the ground anew and tears out weeds by the roots, is accomplished according to the dispositions and docility of the soul by each Mass heard well, Holy Communion received devoutly, and confession well made (and each sacrament in general). This recultivation occurs most completely by a devout general confession, often accompanied by a "spiritual reawakening" or "reconversion," experienced by many saints who thus became increasingly docile, fervent and fertile.
This stage of nourishment by the sun is the illuminative stage in which cooperation with the grace of God is just as necessary for the soul for continued advancement as sun-light is to plants. Yet the clouds and storms, often violent, of further trials, temptations and tribulations are necessary, and bring only a greater "reign" of grace in watchful souls. If the soul, however, is not vigilant in prayer and frequent reception of the sacraments, the weeds of the soul - the "cares and riches and pleasures of this life" (Luke 8:14), sin and imperfections, both block the rays of the Divine Son and choke off virtue at its roots, threatening destruction of the life so well begun. Constant weeding, fertilizing and watering is necessary until the end - the reaping of the desired fruit - is obtained. "Watch ye and pray" (Matthew 26:41). In the City of God our Queen says that "Could ye not watch one hour with Me" (Matthew 26:40) means "during the whole of thy life; for, compared with eternity, life is less than one hour, yea, less than one moment" (Transfixion, p. 490).
Very interesting are the writings of St. Teresa of Avila in this regard. In her favorite analogy of the spiritual life, the soul is a garden, Our Lord the Gardener, and the ease of obtaining water for the garden corresponds with the grace of successively higher levels of prayer according to the soul's docility to the Will of God. 2
The plant, now sufficiently rooted in humility, standing on the stem of faith, remembering its dependence upon divine grace, now produces the flowers of virtue, so carefully cultivated and long-awaited by the Beloved, in all their wonderful variety. The beauty and sweet fragrance suffuse the air, being such a reflection of the divine beauty and sweetness that, shining before men (Matthew 5:16), other souls are attracted (as butterflies to flowers) by, as St. Francis de Sales said, the "spoonful of honey," rather than chilled by the bitter vinegar of invective and dull duty.
The Unitive Way
A great biological truth is that the very purpose of flowers is to produce fruit. Without flowers, there can be no fruit. Just as without flowers it is impossible to have fruit, so without virtue it is impossible to reap the true fruit, eternal life. It takes much time, effort and nourishment for a plant to perfect fruit, and the flowers by this time are not seen. So the soul advanced in perfection, while producing abundant fruit, is yet hidden from the world, and often from itself, becoming a "garden enclosed, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up" (Cant. 4:12), though the soul is ineffably consoled by the Holy Ghost, giving sweetest testimony to it that it is a son of God (Romans 8:16).
But even after the soul begins to bear fruit, Our Lord must purge and illuminate it. "Every one that beareth fruit, [My Father] will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit" (John 15:2).
And now, wonderfully, the fruit itself begins to bear seed. The very definition of fruit is that it bears seed. The cycle is mystically complete. Thus each of the elect may sow the seed of the salvation of others, just as it has been said that "no one goes to Heaven alone" (someone is always taken along by way of good example or graces obtained through prayer and good works), but not without the fruit of personal holiness. St. Teresa also taught that souls should first worry about themselves, become holy themselves, before true good can be accomplished for others. Personal holiness is therefore a great act of charity. Ever think of it that way?
Finally, the Divine Gardener begins to reap the fruit He has cultivated in the cooperative soul, uniting Himself with it just as we unite the fruits of our gardens with us by eating them. We have fed, and do feed, on Him, literally, in the Blessed Sacrament, and He now, as it were, feeds on us, reaping the fruit of a return of love and gratitude from the once-sterile earth He has fructified. This is the final, or unitive, stage of the divine life in souls, and all souls are called to labor and cooperate with grace to attain this during their pilgrimage on earth, for Our Lord desires not to wait for the blessed union for which He created us. So intimate is this union that Our Lord, as it were, gives the soul a new name representing the new state of holiness (Apocalypse 3:12). Far too few souls consciously live this union to its fullest possible extent here on earth (our Immaculate Queen, of course, being the supreme example), and we must all strive for this until the final consummation in the Beatific Vision, in the land of Paradise, where flowers and fruits are constant and all things are new (Apocalypse 21:5).
Lest we tend to glory in our flowers and fruits as if we alone produced them, we must remember that we could no more practice virtues and good works without grace and divine illumination than dirt could produce flowers and fruit without water and light. Indeed, our bodies are "organized dirt," and biological life itself the growth and maintenance of this order. 3 The admonition of St. Paul is most appropriate here, that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels" (2 Corinthians 4:7).
As there is a 'time for everything under the sun' (Ecclesiastes 3), and I felt urgency to get our garden in this weekend, let us realize that "now is the acceptable time" (2 Corinthians 6:2) to renew our spiritual life, laboring anew to nourish by prayer and frequent reception of the sacraments the seeds vouchsafed us anew by the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. As fruit must be produced before winter sets in, the "night...when no man can work" (John 9:4), so let us enter upon or hasten along the path of life. Woe to us if Our Lord coming in that hour which none of us knows (Matthew 25:13; Mark 13:35-37; Luke 12:40), which for us will be the end of time (the one we should really be concerned about), and finds no fruit in us, for we shall then be "cut down and cast on the fire" (Matthew 3:10). Therefore let us hasten to produce fruits in abundance, each of us according to the talents we have been given, so that we shall all rejoice together in the heavenly home of bliss, the true home and final destiny of souls who cooperate with the grace of our all-good and loving God.
1 Fr. Juan Arintero, O.P., S.T.M., The Mystical Evolution in the Development and Vitality of the Church (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1949), p. 24. In fr. 21 he quotes St. Thomas: "Ilia llae, q. 24, a.3, ad 2um: 'Grace is nothing else than a beginning of glory in us/ In another place (la llae, q. 114, a.3, ad 3um), St. Thomas states: 'Grace...although unequal to glory in act, is equal to it virtually as the seed of a tree, wherein the whole tree is virtually.'"
2 Cf. William Thomas Walsh, Saint Teresa of Avila (Rock-ford IL: TAN Books, 1987), especially chapter VIII.
3 Speaking of dirt, when I planted my garden my little girl was "helping" me by running her hands through the soil. When I asked what she was doing, she said she was "cleaning the dirt." So if you want to see the cleanest dirt in town, visit us!
(First Published back in the Spring of 1996 in Reign of Mary #84, then republished with permission on these pages on May 17, 2005)