What can we learn about current changes within the institutional Church whilst turning soil, planting hedges and entering into a daily rhythm of community life and prayer?
Novice though I am to both gardening and the practices of monasticism, this was on my mind during May, when I spent four weeks living for the most part at Minsteracres, mainly to read and write for a research thesis at the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University, but also to take part in community life, the daily rhythm of services and help in the Walled Garden. I would highly recommend it.
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8)
In a context in which many parish churches are considering whether they can stay open, many church institutions are closing and some new churches get “planted”, I have been thinking about ideas of growth, new life and death for over a year now. And gardening. “What is God calling from us in this particular moment?” I have been asking.
There are some large trees at Minsteracres and some very small flowers; there are people who have lived in and around the house for decades, and some who are just passing through; there are plants and trees that are meant to bear fruit for a year (annuals), and those that are meant to bear fruit every year (perennials). There are cathedrals of nature that rise to the sky, and little garden churches that you would miss if you were not on your hands and knees.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Rev 1:8) Ours is a faith of tradition and also of the incarnation, of a God who has cultivated through history, meets us in the present and is calling us from the future. Minsteracres too embodies a time that once was, is now and a time that is emerging. Things are planted, germinate, grow and take root;
150-year-old trees, vegetables and people’s faiths. Also, unavoidably, there is passing, breaking down and death; compost is formed and renews, plants are cut back, painful memories are healed and people return to dust. There is Passion and Resurrection, subtly different to the organic death and growth we see all around us; there is service, courageous self-offering, new life that emerges solely through the grace of God.
And you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. (Isaiah 58:11)
What all this might tell us about how to respond to this season of the Church I am still contemplating. A few weeks at Minsteracres taught me a little more about gardening though. Less thinking and more doing. And as we embrace this next season of the Church’s life, it certainly helped me to more deeply appreciate how we must not store up in barns, but scatter our seeds widely, ever tending to what emerges and trusting in creativity and new life. In places like Minsteracres, on the margins, if we listen carefully enough to our surroundings and the work of our bodies, we will continue to find some of those ever-present green shoots.
Adam O’Boyle, Minsteracres Retreatant