Drawing Beauty, and Practicality, From Nature’s Bounty

COMMENTARY: A garden is the perfect tonic for the alienated soul.

(photo: Pixabay)

For fresh-faced new graduates considering their future lives, here’s something the career counselor might not think to suggest. Why not consider a profession that has been specially ennobled through the Gospels?

The obvious example is carpentry, the earthly profession of St. Joseph. Jesus presumably learned this trade in the years preceding his public ministry, and cabinet-makers may take real joy from envisioning the divine hands, going through the same tasks that they do, drawing beauty and practicality out of nature’s bounty.

St. Joseph was a maker. In analogous ways, all Christians should try to be makers.

Shepherds and fishermen are blessed in another way. Their care for animals is reminiscent of God’s own stewardship of human souls. Christ uses the image of the shepherd to describe himself, protecting and guiding his wayward children. That connection may help explain why shepherds were honored with a special invitation to the Nativity.

Fishermen, for their part, were specially chosen as Christ’s first apostles. Today’s fishermen can take pride in the long-standing use of the fish as a Christian, reminding us that we, too, should be “fishers of men.”

One more job was especially elevated through its connection with the Lord of Life. That would be the gardener.

Jesus was laid in a garden tomb after his body was brought down from the cross. When St. Mary Magdalene tried to visit the tomb on Easter morning, she initially mistook the man who appeared to her as the gardener. It was Jesus, of course.

This was just one of many times following the Resurrection when Jesus was initially unrecognized by people who knew him rather well. But there was a certain appropriateness to appearing in Mary’s eyes as a gardener.

In his parables, Jesus many times places himself in the role of the gardener. He is the sower of seed and the harvester who tosses the chaff and stores the good wheat in barns.

The tending of crops is analogous in many ways to the tending of souls. Both require care, and both have the potential to yield great fruit if they grow in a healthy way. Both also have the potential to go astray, thereby failing to realize their true promise.

I am neither carpenter, nor shepherd, nor fisherman. I do, however, love my garden.

As residents of the upper Midwest, my family experiences springtime as an explosion of Paschal joy. No matter how many times you see it, it’s hard to believe the contrast between the muddy grimness of late March and the surging abundance of May and June.

In this season, Christ’s words about the “lilies of the field” have real resonance. Walking among the azaleas and magnolias, it’s easy to believe that God so loved the world.

Planting is one of the great pleasures of spring. When possible, we try to do the preparatory labor during Lent, so that the garden patch is ready and waiting when spring truly arrives. A few things (peas and salad greens) can be planted directly as soon as the soil is workable. Other things must wait until the cold nights are behind us.

Either way, planting seeds (or seedlings) is a hugely rewarding activity. It takes only minutes, but afterward everyone finds themselves in the happiest and most satisfying kind of suspense. When will the seedlings emerge? Which crops will be the most robust? Every year, the germinating of new life feels like a minor miracle.

The children (who now want to spend every possible minute outdoors) keep me breathlessly apprised as bright green things start emerging from the soil. The older ones can now tell their peas from their spinach, and they’ve noticed how the asparagus seems to shoot up like magic, literally overnight.

They know to chase rabbits and squirrels away from the garden. Of course, they can’t be on hand for this every minute, and one spring day, I came home to find that the tulips had been decimated by squirrels. “Children?” asked a friend. Don’t be ridiculous. My children cherish our backyard plants. They would never commit such an act of floricide.

I want my children see the beauty of the garden. We have always shared a love of nature, but the garden is a place where we take charge of tending God’s creations.

On one side, this is a precious experience of God’s love, because it is truly remarkable that so much beauty and bounty can spring from comparatively little effort. At the same time, gardening is (in a way that children can grasp) a wonderful exercise of our natural capacities as rational beings.

God created these plants, and their natural life cycles were authored by him alone. At the same time, we choose from an array of wonderful options in deciding how to arrange our garden. We take charge of weeding, watering and pruning, working to create the conditions to enable these creatures of God to thrive. Sometimes we make mistakes, and they don’t thrive. That can also be a valuable cautionary tale. Sometimes we do everything right, and our crops are still laid low by a freak hailstorm or an early frost. That’s a child-sized opportunity to discuss misfortune and the problem of evil.

However the year goes, I love the experience of helping creation unfold, quite literally from the ground up. My kids may be city slickers, but they know the joy of the first seasonal radish.

I see the garden as a perfect tonic for the modern, alienated soul. Technology, innovation and cultural change have moved us ever further from fundamental realities as a culture: earth and soil, traditional morals, our own bodies, God. It’s salutary to rebuild those connections in whatever ways we can.

Earth may not be not the most important of these, but they are all interconnected. I enjoy the garden when I’m happy, but appreciate it even more when I’m demoralized or heartsick. Working with soil feels restorative to my soul as latent stresses and resentments are soothed. My capacity for joy and mirth seems to expand. Sometimes I feel a spontaneous desire to pray.

Wood-workers, shepherds, fishermen, farmers: All these were ennobled through their connection to the earthly life of Jesus. Even if it’s too late for you to change careers, a hobby can help bring sunlight into troubled minds and hearts, drawing us closer to the carpenter’s son, the Good Shepherd, the tender of our souls. Now is the time to experience the joy of a simple packet of seeds.

Rachel Lu, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at

the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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