Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Kneeling beside the garden bed I pull the dead leaves gently away with my hands. I have been waiting for warmer days and nights to rake out the flower beds. As I pull off the fallen oak leaves, I uncover the perennial plants that have already started to spring up. The day lilies are coming back in abundance. Our ivy vine is green with new buds. The daffodils are pushing green tips up through the rich-smelling earth.
I pull dead stems out of the garden phlox, and a wave of gratitude hits me. Gratitude for returning life. There amongst the dead remains of last year’s growth are hardy new shoots forming at the base of the plant. The past year has been a long, dark one in terms of my health as a result of Lyme disease and other chronic conditions. And now with the spring, with the budding plants, my strength and my health are being given back to me more each day.
“I feel like this phlox!” I tell my husband who was working beside me, and he understands. He has been at my side for the months of my illness.
There is a springtime within my whole being, and as the winter is passing into recent memory, the goodness of new life is sinking in. But I also recognize its frailty. Just like the plants in my garden, my returning health requires solicitude and care. I should not trample it or even ignore it but give myself water and sunshine, so to speak, by continuing to eat well, get sleep, and praise God for the strength to go for walks.
The new life is not limited to my physical health, but I feel it in my soul as well. I do not want to lose what I have learned as I suffered with Christ in my illness. This Easter season, I am pulling away the dead leaves to find that little green shoots are growing. He has used the evil I bore for good. God has started new things in me, such as helping me grow in patience (something I badly need). He wants these shoots to grow up into beautiful flowers, to bear fruit into the world. If I am receptive to his tending hand, he will help me bring forth great spiritual fruit.
Jesus’ parable of the barren fig tree can be spiritually applied here:
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ (Luke 13:6-9)
In this parable Jesus is referring to the three years of his ministry to the Israelites, God’s chosen people, but we can think about it in our own lives as well. We can bring to mind all the ways he has called us to bear fruit and we have let him down — missed opportunities and our own stubborn unwillingness to follow his will. Who among us is not like the barren fig tree?
Year after year, God looks at us and tends us like a gardener. This comes in different forms for all of us. We all have small and great sufferings to bear: the sleepless baby, the chronic illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, the hurt of broken trust, the monotony of the everyday. Yet, these things are good for our souls if we are receptive to grace.
St. Paul wrote about the growth we experience from suffering:
[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, ‘and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.’ (Romans 5:3-5)
The sufferings we bear with hope and trust in God draw us closer to him than we could ever imagine. Through them God tills the ground of our souls and fertilize it with his Holy Spirit. His grace is the sunshine and water we need to grow if we only are receptive to it. He is the gardener bringing forth new life in us.