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The constant gardener: we all need a bit of spiritual pruning if we are to bloom where we're planted.

SOMEBODY TOLD ME RECENTLY THAT THERE ARE TWO kinds of people: gardens and gardeners. Gardens are in need of care and nurture, and gardeners have the I tools and know-how to provide such attention. The secret about gardeners, of course, is that they were once gardens themselves. Someone patiently watered and fertilized, pruned, and sunned them so that they could become the capable people they are today. So a deeper truth might be to recognize we all start out as gardens and hold the potential to become gardeners.

What does this have to do with the gospel? A lot, if you count all the stories that Jesus tells about seeds and planting, trees and fruit, wheat and vineyards. Jesus seems fascinated by the fields and orchards around him as he travels the roads between Galilee and Jerusalem. Everywhere he goes, he tells stories about the soil, about things that grow, and about things that fail to thrive or produce fruit. And he uses these analogies to illustrate the realities of the kingdom he has come to announce. If we want to know more about the realm of God, perhaps we ought to pay more attention to the back yard.

No back yard is technically required, of course. I grew up in a house without one. My father planted flower boxes along the perimeter of the porch. This made it possible to watch the cycle of seeds pushed into the earth, shoots sprouting upward, buds forming on slender branches and finally bursting into bloom. I observed the hierarchy of plants, too--how some crowded out others, claiming water and nutrients at the expense of less aggressive species that would die unless the aggressor was restrained. Some plants dominated the spring and others summer or fall. Nearly all bowed to the finality of winter, surrendering flowers, leaves, color, and frequently their lives.

I also saw the central role my father played in orchestrating the society within these boxes. The perennials awakened each warming spring in response to their inner sense of time. But most plants began their lives by my father's decree: He chose the seed, pushed his finger into the ground to the right depth, and offered this tiny cocoon of life the possibility to germinate.

When there was no rain he provided the water. When the soil grew depleted he added a little Miracle-Gro. When growth was too rapid or lopsided, he pruned and fussed. Without my father's daily vigilance, those boxes of dirt would have been sprawling, brown, or barren. His pleasure in each blossom and his tender caress of every pretty leaf, I swear, awakened in those plants the desire to delight him more with their colorful performance.

I'D LIKE TO SAY MY FATHER'S CARE FOR HIS FLOWERS MADE ME a natural gardener myself. I regret to say, however, that I've been a mass murderer of the plant kingdom. The potted plants and decorative trees that have made their way into my many apartments have known the perils of over-watering and drought, burned to a crisp in sunny windows or dying of jaundice in dark corners. They've grown leggy and exhausted with no pruning or been hatcheted by my too-zealous shears. When it comes to sins of commission and omission, I've perpetrated both religiously on many potted victims.

When it comes to the gardens of our lives, many of us have suffered from the neglect or zeal of our many gardeners. Some parents were frankly AWOL, others maddeningly hypervigilant. Teachers may have ignored us or nagged ceaselessly. Pastors, mentors, friends, and suitors gave us what they had, but not always what we needed. We may have matured quite unevenly: overgrown and overcompensating here, startlingly beautiful there, and barren in some hidden center that no one else may see.

HAPPILY FOR US, JESUS IS A BETTER GARDENER THAN THOSE we have known and sometimes endured. He knows precisely why we are shaggy and shapeless in places, and where the aching need for nurture lies. When others pronounce our existence a mere "exhaustion of the soil," Jesus sees only our potential.

So the Lord of Second Chances gets to work, pulling out minerals and chemicals, hoses and stakes, rakes and hoes and cutting implements. The process can seem formidable, and the transformation will not come without cost. But we can trust these gentle, knowing hands to do what must be done to bring us to our fulfillment.

But wait. If Jesus is such a good gardener, then why are our churches not full of perfectly manicured gardens? Why don't we look across the assembly and see nothing but riotous blooms and fruitful trees? And since successful gardens produce able gardeners for others, as the theory goes, why isn't our planet awash in a vibrant and healthy humanity?

Instead we all seem to know a lot of people dying on the vine. We have family members who, despite all our care and attention, are withering away in a sunless reality. We see the pews stacked with people so sick in body, mind, and spirit it's as if they had never met Jesus. Whole segments of society appear cut off and lifeless, just inches away from prosperity and promise. Entire nations live in moral and political deserts that were once lands of opportunity and hope.

Clearly other forces are at work that oppose the efforts of every gardener. Molds and insect infestations, animal attacks and accidents, and unusually harsh weather can all undermine the progress of the healthiest plant. And some living things are inherently weaker and more vulnerable. One great challenge to their well-being, and they are doomed.

So many things can go wrong, in fact, that it takes the combined efforts of every gardener to nurture and sustain life in such a dangerous world. The task laid before us in the gospels is simple: Let Jesus into your garden. Take the time, make the room, accept the challenge, and endure the often painful process of correction and redirection.

Of course it will be costly. Healing is an expensive proposition. It might cost the pruning away of a job, a lifestyle, a relationship, or a cherished worldview. But once we are whole and strong and blooming--and not a moment before, so let's not kid ourselves--we can become part of the healing process for others. Healing comes from God, and we have to get it first in order to reveal it to others. We can't manufacture it out of our own desire; heaven knows how many of us have tried.

AND ONCE WE COOPERATE WITH THE GARDENING PROCESS, we can expect miracles. A stick in my present yard confirmed this for me. This stick was once a pretty little plant but apparently it died, despite or because of my many attempts to nurture it. Every flower dropped off, then every leaf, and finally every branch. All that was left was a stick straight up in the dirt, which drew laughter from my neighbor every time I came out to water it. I poured water around that stick every day, wind or calm, heat or cold, with absolute fidelity. For four months I watered that stick, and for four months my hopefulness attracted the derision of the neighbor.

And then one day, incredibly, I saw a nub on the stick, then another, and then a half dozen little bumps. And the bumps budded and shot out tender branches, which produced tiny leaves, and within two months the darn thing was nodding in the breeze with great heads of flowers dancing and swaying. And every time those huge flowers nodded at me, I felt they were saying yes, yes, yes to my faith in them.

I have to admit it wasn't my faith in the flowers to come that made me dump water on that hopeless stick day after day. It was the memory of a time when I was myself a barren stick, yielding nothing, without promise, but cared for nonetheless.

By ALICE CAMILLE, author of Seven Last Words (ACTA Publications) and co-author with Joel Schorn of A Faith Interrupted: An Honest Conversation with Alienated Catholics (Loyola Press).
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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