Guarding and Gardening
“I watch how foolishly man guards his nothing – thereby keeping us out. Truly God is hated here.”
I originally read this quote on my friend Stan’s porch. It was written by a homeless person on a wall in Albuquerque, NM, and the author and Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr, thought it profound and prophetic, and wrote it down to share in one of his daily meditations. Stan keeps it on his porch in a frame as a reminder and a means of meditation on what truly matters and what it is that we do with our lives. In that vein, I have a birthday coming up soon, and so as most people are wont to do, I find myself reflecting on my journey and another year down.
This past year has been one of great change. Career, family, death, life, politics, elections, empires rising and falling, and on and on. Life. It moves on whether we wish it to or not. As I thought about the past year, and the work we’ve been doing in our neighborhood and with our friends and neighbors on the street, I found myself coming back again and again to this quote above, and thinking seriously about the things that I guard and hold on to, and how many times those things really amount to nothing. Possessions, power, prestige, position, perception, politics, etc. So much of what we say, do and guard in this life amounts to shadows and dust, and is instead used to create the illusion of safety and comfort. It becomes all about us, and in our attempt to numb ourselves from the knowledge that life is fragile, we overlook those who remind us of that fact. The friends I have met this past year continue to teach me that everything can change in an instant, and we can find ourselves in places we never imagined. For those who have hit rock bottom, it becomes easier to see the fallacy of both the easy pleasures of this life and the emptiness of a cheap rhetoric about a loving God who will save you from hell if only you clean yourself up and follow the rules of the tribe. These things are meaningless if you’re already in hell, isolated from the tribe, and the very people preaching about this God and his heaven are the same ones putting locks on the doors to keep you out. If God is real and God is perfect love offered freely to all, then truly that God must be hated in a place that is all about image, acquisition, conformity, and self-preservation.
Ignorance is bliss. However, once one gets “woke” it is difficult to go back to sleep, although it is a great temptation. The past several years have brought about changes that have caused me to see myself and all of life in general in a very different light. I have often felt like someone who had been dreaming for a long time and woke up to find that the very life I’d always longed for had been in front of me the entire time, but I was too busy guarding my illusion to notice. Life is beautiful and life is tragic, sometimes simultaneously, but it is the tragedy that often brings about the beauty, much like the rain and storms bring about the flowers and fruit. Or, as Leonard Cohen of blessed memory says so well, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
One of hobbies that keeps me sane in a mad world is gardening. I love playing in the dirt and sowing seeds, watering them, feeding them, and watching them grow. Gardening is simplicity to me, and serves as a reminder for how I wish to live my life, as well as what I believe to be the metaphor for life itself. Plants need good earth, water, air, light and love to grow and multiply. So do human beings. I can choose to continue to guard my nothingness, or I can tend to my garden and work to sow, water, and grow life all around me. In our inner-city urban neighborhood, one of the greatest displays of the irony of guarding things are the dilapidated houses on our blocks, boarded up and falling to pieces, but still sometimes enclosed by a fence. I take my walks and I look at them and think, “How is my life like these houses, and what must I do to raise and restore that which has fallen to pieces?”
So much of what we do in this life, we do out of fear of loss. When it comes to guarding or gardening, I think the lesson is that, in the end, while we may be able to guard something for a time, it will ultimately begin to decay because all things must pass. There are times in life that we cling tightly to what we want more than anything else, in a desperate attempt to keep it to ourselves, but in so doing we risk destroying the very thing that we sought to protect. If, instead, we choose to garden and sow seeds, learn to water and cultivate, watch and wait, fruit begins to come forth in unexpected ways. Life is a daunting thing, and especially with all that is going on in the world around us, it is easy to become overwhelmed and retreat into our walls in order to guard our sanity and feel safe; but if we stay there too long, we begin to die inside. We need light and air. We need one another. This life can and will crack you open…but that’s how the light gets in.
Be courageous and bold – live life to its fullest. Let down your guard and work on the garden instead. If it all gets to be too much, and you are tempted to give up, remember this little quote from the venerable Rabbi Tarfon below, and know that you are not alone. Others are also gardening, weeding, pruning, watering, feeding, and working the field with you. It is not always easy work, but by sowing one seed at a time, you’ll see new life grow up all around you, and finally realize that you’ve been standing in Paradise all along…