I’ve been feeling restless recently. I chalked it up to the fact that it was my last semester of grad school and that I was juggling a demanding part-time job with school work and decisions about the future. That it was just this season and my circumstances – and this is, in part, true. But as I thought some more about it I realized that it had a lot to do with my schedule, and with the absence of one particular practice: gardening.
The past two years I’ve worked in Duke Gardens as a work-study student, spending ten to twelve hours a week in their organic vegetable garden. I’d show up to work at 7 am on a Monday morning and be assigned to anything from sprinkling “feather meal” (a fairly foul-smelling organic fertilizer made entirely of ground-up chicken feathers) to composting or planting kale. And then I’d come to class wearing Carharrts and smelling like dirt. Although working in the garden was one of my favorite aspects of this season at Duke, this spring I had to say “goodbye” to that work-study job in order to welcome new work responsibilities.
What I’ve been discovering in the wake of the decision is that gardening was more than just a work-study job; it was an opportunity to rest. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, gardening acted as my sabbath. Though I left sweaty and soil-covered, with muscles that often ached from lifting or tilling, I also left work feeling invigorated, restored and ready to face the daily grind.
That’s because, in the garden, I entered a different kind of sphere – one that didn’t prioritize productivity and analysis as much as attentive care. I could put my left-brain on the back-burner and simply let my hands do the work. I could dwell deeply for a while with one patch or plant and then move on to the next — without the incessant pressure to perform or assess.
More importantly, gardening nurtured in me an attitude of delight and gratitude. I was constantly stumbling on beautiful things – unexpected colors in a cabbage leaf or a teeming colony of worms writhing beneath a rock. The sheer beauty of the landscape filled-up my beauty-starved soul and evoked a child-like wonder, the kind of wonder that our rushed-world of Metro-travel and gray tunnels drives out … but the kind of wonder our soul desperately needs. Because when you’re filled-up with delight and wonder, you’re bound to burst forth in praise.
Gardening might not look like rest (it certainly doesn’t fit the typical American definition of rest-as-leisure) nor does it fit our typical picture of Christian worship – but, for me, it was both. It gave me an opportunity to be, and behold all that God had made; and in beholding, be reminded that I, like the cabbage leaf or the wriggling worm, am just a wee-little-thing in the grand scope of God’s creation. It humbled and reoriented me: teaching me to look out and up to the God who is glorious and good.
In his book Living the Sabbath, Norman Wirzba argues that the opposite of rest is not inactivity but restlessness; thus sabbath rest is not as much about stopping as it is about embracing the kinds of things that still our restless souls and turn our attention to God. For me (and for so many others) gardening is that kind of sabbath activity. It engages me so fully that, by the grace of God, I lose myself and – in exchange – gain gratitude and wonder. In the garden, I rest, remembering that I am loved and well-cared for; just like the lily, I have no need to fear.
On April 23, in honor of Earth Day, Tara and I will be hosting a retreat in the Corhaven garden in which we’ll invite you into this kind of Sabbath practice. We’ll talk a little bit about the theology that undergirds the work of the gardener but mostly we’ll just dwell in the dirt. And then we’ll do what Corhaven does best: which is to offer God’s-love-made-delectable (to borrow a Wirzba phrase) in a feast by Tara.
I encourage you to join us – to press the pause button in the midst of a busy spring in order to celebrate, and delight, in the life that teems around us, and to dwell with the God who holds it all. I trust you’ll leave feeling anchored, enlivened and brimming with hope. —Abigail