National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

God in the Greenery

You don’t need a monastery to have a monastery garden

BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN

June 11-17, 2006 Issue | Posted 6/12/06 at 11:00 AM

 

Centuries before Americans took to gardening as a hobby, St. Benedict, the great founder of Western monasticism, made gardens important in his monasteries.

Most flowers, plants and herbs were for everyday use, but the monks would admire them just as much for their religious and symbolic meaning as for their natural beauty. Gardens became little daily catechisms.

Catholic families can take a lesson from the Benedictine monks and other monastic orders and create their own medieval-style monastery garden for prayer and meditation — not to mention teaching the faith to children and visitors.

Since many plants also reflect aspects of the Blessed Mother, a monastery garden can be a perfect companion to a Mary garden.

Imagine picking up a simple viola tricolor, which we now popularly call the Johnny Jump Up, to meditate on the Blessed Trinity or to explain how the persons of the triune Godhead come together as one.

For medieval monks, the three colors symbolized the Holy Trinity, the purple also standing for Christ’s passion — another opening for meditation.

Back then, this flower was called both the Herb Trinity and also Our Lady’s Delight to recall how Mary delighted in contemplating the Trinity revealed first to her at the Annunciation.

Breathe in the fragrance and revel in the color of the lovely lavender herb — a perfect opening to talk about how monks knew it as Mary’s Drying Plant. Legend had it that lavender received its fragrance after Mary spread Jesus’ clothes on it to dry. That can lead to shared meditation on daily duties the Holy Family also carried too.

Lavender was also called Our Lady of Purity because it was believed to preserve chastity.

Often the herbals had a combination of medicinal value, religious symbolism and culinary use for the monks. Gardens also provided flowers for the altar.

“For something we think humble and mundane,” says horticulturist Susan Moody, “people thought about and linked flowers in ways we may not link them today.”

Moody, who oversees the recreated medieval monastery gardens at The Cloisters museum in Manhattan, points out that, even with the bitter dandelion, there’s a connection to the passion of Christ.

“St. Benedict talks about living the whole day in the awareness of God’s presence,” reminds Benedictine Father Edward Glanzmann of the Monastery of the Holy Cross in downtown Chicago. “Ideally, all the time different parts of the monastery help point to that — in the field, gardens, in nature, in prayer, in church.”

Having a type of monastery garden would make a natural occasion for the parents to talk with the children about the faith, he says. 

“It would provide a wonderful alternative to quiet the children and the whole family down for prayer,” adds Father Glanzmann. “It can also provide the family the same opportunity it provides the monks and retreatants here who focus their attention on the beauty and the delicacy of the garden. One would want to move from there to thoughts of God.”

The monastery’s own cloisters garden for monks and a similar one for guests are serene oases for prayer and contemplation right in downtown Chicago. There’s a statue of the Blessed Mother, roses and flowers that bloom through the year, a park bench and lawn.

Fruits of the Faith

According to Professor Martin McGann at Penn State’s Center for Medieval Studies, cloisters often had seats constructed in their surrounding wall. Monks could sit under the covered walkway and look into the garden.

He says plants with white flowers, such as the Rosa Alba, a medieval plant, were important.

Then the white and gold of the Madonna Lily symbolized Mary’s purity. After appearing in paintings of the Annunciation, it also got the name Annunciation Lily.

Although families might not use its roots to make a soothing poultice for aches as the monks did, they can surely be inspired by this lily to talk about the visit of the angel, Mary’s fiat, and Jesus’ incarnation for our salvation.

Certain staples in the garden had strong spiritual connotations to bring good and drive away evil. Chief among them was Lady’s Mantle, which reminded monks how our Blessed Mother protects us under her mantle.

Another cue worth emulating from the Monastery of the Holy Cross: a kitchen garden that feeds monks and guests most of the year.

“This helps to capitalize on what St. Benedict wrote in the Rule,” says Father Glanzmann. “Each monastery should be self-sufficient and grow its own food. Some families can do that as well.”         

Like of old, flowers are interspersed with the vegetables themselves. Tulips and early spring veggies, for example, make fine companions.

Strawberries make good companions with flowers, too. And the sweet treats have religious significance. McGann says their three leaves stand for the Trinity.

Being a flower and a fruit at the same time, the strawberry symbolizes Mary’s perpetual virginity and was named Fruitful Virgin, something families can discuss while picking ripe strawberries for dessert.

Green Thumbs

According to Moody, raised beds for gardening originated in monasteries. Families can plant in herbs and vegetables common for the monks, like leeks, chives and onions in their raised beds.

Working in the garden together also put into practice Benedict’s dictum of Ora et Labora (prayer and work). Gardening was a form or prayer and contemplation mixed with labor.

Even though families don’t live in a cloister, they can adapt another medieval monastery garden, the garth garden.

Moody describes the fairly geometric layout where paths crisscross at a central fountain and divide the four squares. Early monasteries would have a fruit tree growing in each of squares and often fragrant plants as well as a lawn.

The water recalls baptism, the waters of eternal life, and the cross paths recall Christ’s death and our salvation.

This well-used medieval cloister garden is related to plans for the ninth-century St. Gall monastery in Switzerland that planned an ideal monastery after St. Benedict’s Rule.

The Middle Ages may be far back in the Church’s memory, but even modern Catholics can reap the blessings and benefits monks knew so long ago through their beloved gardens.

In such a simple way, a monastery-style garden can provide families with “the contemplative experience, which is to see and feel and live in the presence of God all around you at all the time,” says Father Glanzmann. “By and large, that’s the call of every Christian.”


Joseph Pronechen writes from

Trumbull, Connecticut.