The Life of a Gardener: Prayer and St. Teresa of Avila

water, baptism, purity

water, baptism, purityThis is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.  Of its own accord, the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.  And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come. ~ Mark 4: 26-29

The Garden: Grain, Ground and Growth

In this parable from the Gospel of Mark, the reader is taught two important aspects of the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom has both a natural and a supernatural element.  These aspects intertwine with each other so that the seed of faith sown in love may grow to its fullness.  The gardener spreads the seeds in the garden (the natural element).  Once the seeds have been sown, the planting grows of its own accord, something unknowable to the gardener (the supernatural element).  The gardener’s work tells us that we are called to act in a relationship with the Kingdom of God, i.e. a person needs to “do” work.  However, the gardener’s effort alone is insufficient because the seed simply needs to “be” in order for it to grow. The gardener thus needs to rest with the “being-ness” of the seed as it grows, even though the gardener knows not how it grows.

An Insight from St. Teresa of Avila

It is in this context that I want to introduce a thought from St. Teresa of Avila.  In her Spiritual Autobiography (SA), she offers up an important image that aids her listener in their movement from “doing” to “being” within the spiritual life.  Her focus for this movement is centered on the idea of prayer.  Within chapters 11 to 18 of her work she details four ways to water a garden.  Each way helps the garden to grow and thrive, but as one moves to the different stages of watering, they rely less on their own labors and more on the “being-ness” of who God is, the Lord of the garden.  Recall that St. Teresa defines prayer as “[…] nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends” (SA Book 8, Ch. 5).  Her four ways of watering the garden explain how one moves from doing for God to finally just being with God, as her definition implies.

As St. Teresa was aware, it was the Lord who planted the seeds of faith in her heart (the garden), and without Him there would be no way for those seeds to grow.  She knows that the seeds are not from her and that she has no power over them.  Yet, she reminds us that the Lord, as He did with Adam and Eve, invites us to walk and work with Him in the garden.  Through our lives of prayer, unlike our first parents, we can fully embrace the gift of being in His presence and resting our being fully in His.

Water from the Well

The first way of watering the garden is by means of a well.  For the gardener, this method is the most laborious.  The gardener, i.e., the prayerful person, goes to the well of his mind and heart where he recalls the moments of God in his life.  During the labor of recollection, external and internal noise will cause distractions that seek to pull the gardener away from his introspection.  Nevertheless, it is through recollection that the life-giving waters of the Spirit are brought to the surface, drawn out of the deep recesses of the person’s mind and heart.  St. Teresa even reminds us that as the water is brought to the surface, our own tears may become mixed with it, as the sadness of memories and past actions come to our mind (SA, Book 11, Ch. 9).  However, this call to internal recollection is not an excuse for a person to ignore or abandon his commitments in the world.

We must not forget that friendship exists through charity, and we offer our charity to Christ through the care we show the people entrusted to us within our lives.  We, as the gardener, experience the charity of Christ through the strength He offers us whenever we grasp the rope of our bucket and pull it up to the surface of our garden.  Let us never be afraid of how deep our well is or how long our rope is because the strength of Christ, His love, has been entrusted to His gardeners.

Using the Aqueduct: Shifting Our Gaze

A second way to water the garden is by means of an aqueduct, and St. Teresa invokes the image of a water wheel to explain it.  This way entails a different movement of the eyes.  With the well, the eyes of the gardener were focused on the earth beneath his feet and the water hidden within it; now, the gardener turns his eyes toward the mountain.  Why the mountain?  Because the water flows from its heights to reach the gardener, yet the gardener still has things he must “do” (i.e., using a water wheel) in order for the water to reach the garden.  The gardener has no control over when or how much of the water the mountains will yield; the mountain offers up its water freely to all who seek it.  This gift of watering brings joy to the gardener, which is a sign to the gardener that he has entered a little bit more deeply into spiritual friendship offered by God that is manifested through prayer.

Nonetheless, this period of prayer is not totally filled with joy because the gardener does not control the mountain or the water flow.  The gardener is learning that life does not come from his own hands.  The hands of the gardener only participate and nurture that gift of life.  There will be times of aridity in this second way of watering because the mountain holds back its water.  These times of aridity are important for the gardener. Why?  It is through these moments that the gardener grows closer to the cross of the Lord.  The cross protects and saves the gardener from the whispering presence of the devil, who is still speaking the same lie he told Adam and Eve.

In general, the movement of the second stage of watering is shown through the journey of two events during Holy Week: Palm Sunday and Good Friday.  The joy of Palm Sunday, as the presence of Jesus flowed into Jerusalem, is thus pushed aside in order that, like the holy women, we may find ourselves at rest before the cross of Jesus in faith. Hence, through faith we can embrace the cross and follow Jesus when He calls us (Matthew 16: 24).

The River:  Our Joy and the Cross

Now that our eyes have turned beyond the patch of dirt before us – our soul – we can turn to the river and spring.  The river and spring are the third way by which a gardener may water his garden.  Again, the gardener is being moved from the “doing” aspect of the prayer life, where he is called to mental prayer and recollection, to an invitation to simply rest with the Lord of the garden.  Using a river that covers the garden at times, the gardener has now moved to a deeper level of being present to the Lord, where the space between the two does not need to be filled with words and actions.

The heart is invited to rest even more in the Lord of the Garden.  God is now the one taking upon Himself the more active role in our lives of prayer.  The labor at the beginning of the process, whereby we desire to keep the garden alive for our own sake, is slowly being replaced.  Also, those unseen energies within ourselves, those we freely gave to God for the building up of the kingdom of heaven through caring for His garden, are now showing signs of growth.  The new fruit that is budding forth will soon be food not only for the gardener but for all those around him.  God is the Lord of the garden and those all around the garden can glean from it (Lev. 23: 22).  The building up of the Kingdom, through care of the garden, reminds the gardener that he is not his own (1 Cor. 6: 19-20). Likewise, his desire to praise the Lord of the garden and make His garden known is unstainable yet compelling (SA, Book 16, Ch. 4).

The Rain:  Being in Union

The fourth way of watering is by means of rain.  All labor from the gardener is done away with at this moment.  The heavens have opened and union now fully exists between the garden and the water.  The gardener, as he tends the garden, is covered with the rain of the heavens.  Ecstasy, an unbridled joy, rises in the gardener as his garden is covered equally and fully from a source beyond his control.  All the gardener can do is rest and be saturated by the rain.  Through the rain, the beauty and the dignity of the garden are acknowledged and celebrated by the heavens themselves.

The beauty of the spring rain has dawned upon the garden, and the praise of the gardener is made known: “Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth” (Hosea 6:3).  Now, the heart of the gardener rests upon the heart of the Lord of the garden, and the two can just be together in a blessed union as the seeds grow of their own accord.  Though this rest may only be for a second, the seeds have fully ripened and now the harvest is ready for all those in need.

Who is the Garden For?

“He never tires of giving, nor can He exhaust His mercies” (SA, Book 19, Ch. 15).

As gardeners, may we never forget that no matter which way we have been called to water at this moment in our lives, the water is never our own.  As we tend to the garden, which is our heart, we open the precious ground so it may receive that gift of life from the Lord.  We are called to offer Him praise because every drop of water given through the Spirit is a sincere gift from the Lord.   As the Lord has called forth life from the dirt, He continues to do so within us today.  St. Teresa teaches us that the journey of prayer brings us from the desire of always “doing” for the Lord to the place where we can simply “be” with the Lord.  Thus, through the growth of the seeds He has given us, through Him we are able to feed an untold amount of people.

The life of prayer, which helps build the Kingdom through care of a garden, is never a selfish endeavor. It is a means for the charity and nourishment of the Lord to be made manifest to all those that seek His care, for through the harvest of the garden, His love is made known.  As St. Teresa of Avila aptly explains: “[…] in this prayer it can also be Martha in such a way that it is as though engaged in both the active and contemplative life together” (SA, Book 17, Ch. 4)!

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8 thoughts on “The Life of a Gardener: Prayer and St. Teresa of Avila”

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