You are not an angel. You are also not a demon. Along with such groundbreaking facts, I’d note that you are also not a beast or a tree. Let me explain…
You have a body, which is why you are not an angel or demon – both of which are pure spirit. You also have a rational soul, which is why you are not a beast or a tree. As a human person you are the unique crown of creation, the composite of body and soul, spirit and matter, that is able to perceive spiritual things (as the angels and demons do) yet enjoy and live within the created and physical world (like beasts and trees do). In other words, you can have your feet planted firmly on the ground while your mind is in the heavens.
Let’s clarify further. Your feet are usually planted on the soil, except when there’s a half a foot of concrete between you and the earth. But it’s still close. And as humans we have a special closeness with the soil, and it seems we become more human when we are closer to it and less human when we are far from it. The earth truly is motherly and has a good effect on us. The soil is the only fellow creature that we came out of and will return to, a truth we are reminded of on Ash Wednesday. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Adam, from the word adamah, can be translated “ground” or “earth.” So take heart if your heart tends toward “earthy” things – you’re just being what you are.
During Lent I love to remind people – and myself – that preparing for Easter is not just about kindling the reality of our sin, but cultivating our hope for the coming resurrection. Why would we fast and do penance if there was not something we were hoping for? This spirit of hopeful expectation is felt keenly in the garden, which is why this season is perfect for getting out and getting that garden ready. We do a work that does not have an immediate return, yet we do it with a palpable hope.
Without dwelling too much on its practicality, I would just point out that a home garden produces a tremendous amount of food per acre compared to large “crops” you see driving in the country, like corn and soybeans. A small space can grow peas, greens, and radishes early in the season, larger crops like tomatoes and squash later, and then finish out with a round of broccoli, cabbage, and mustard greens into the cooler months. In other words, it’s worth the time and a great utilization of space. It is not just symbolically fruitful, but tangibly and delightfully fruitful.
But on a higher plain gardening is good for the soul and good for the family. Covering a seed in the “tomb” of the earth is a beautiful exercise, and contemplative to boot. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone: but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Do you hear the hope in the death? Seeing the tender growth emerge from the tomb in the earth, and then watching it mature into fruiting size is just plain exhilarating (at a pace much slower than other things we might call “exhilarating”).
Considering Jesus’ parable about weeds choking out a latent seed, even doing battle with the weeds out of love for the tender plant is enjoyable with the right frame of mind. Remember, though, that mulch is your best weapon… Sorry, that was very practical. Let me get back to the contemplative…
The type of “death” that a seed enjoys as it enters the tomb of the earth is the expectant death we strive for in our Lenten mortifications. And as sowers we do the work of planting and tending but we depend on natural forces outside of our direct control. This is the difference between cultivation and manufacturing. This reminds us of the work of Lent wherein we labor for spiritual growth but depend totally on the grace of God as a gift. Each germinated seed feels like an underserved gift, even if we did the work to put it there. Mortifications should have the same spirit.
Gardening is also never done alone. You are always present with nature itself, and sunshine and breezes are gifts that remind us of God’s presence more than the hum of air conditioners, the glow of screens, or the soul crushing “light” of overhead fluorescents. And this does not even consider the other relationships enjoyed there, like time with family and friends during planning, planting, cultivating, and harvesting. Your “style” of gardening will be unique and a true extension of who you are, as the whole of creation similarly reveals much of who God is. Pope Leo XIII spoke wonderfully of the extension of a personality into the soil:
For that which is required for the preservation of life and for life’s well-being is produced in great abundance by the earth, but not until man has brought it into cultivation and lavished upon it his care and skill. Now when man thus spends the industry of his mind and the strength of his body in procuring the fruits of nature… [on] that portion … he leaves as it were, the impress of his own personality.*
So much of work today is in the spirit of force and competitiveness, which is why I love Pope Leo’s words that we “lavish” our “care and skill” on nature, we don’t coerce goods from it by extraction. It is a mutual and fruitful gift between trusting creatures of God.
Gardening engages body and soul. It’s a creative, artistic, and pragmatic activity that draws our mind upward as we gaze down at the soil. Emerging from such work is invigorating, and tends to draw the sense up to heaven. Again, humans can have their hands in the soil and their mind in heaven. No other work I engage in does that so profoundly. And because the work itself ends in the good food we share with those around us, the work of it is both sacrifice and blessing. I think of this at Mass when we offer up “the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands.” We rarely actually picture the earth and the hands that make the Mass possible – no growing of grain or grape means no Mass.
As bodily creatures destined for heaven we truly depend on the earth and on God to nourish our unique life, and when experienced and cultivated well the former leads to the latter. I think that’s a good reason to get the garden ready this Lent.
* Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 9