by Fr. David May.
One of my brother priests walked by me the other day and said, "Doing any cultivating in the gardens these days? You write your best articles when you are gardening."
I don’t know. Perhaps it is true! As a matter of fact, at this writing, I am indeed spending some time early mornings most weekdays cultivating the vegetable gardens at St. Mary’s, about a kilometer down the road from here.
There’s not much to see if you were to watch me do it. I have a little push cultivator with 3 prongs behind a wheel that Chris Hanlon, our chief gardener at St. Ben’s farm, has given me to use the last few years. It reminds me of one my grandfather used in the backyard vegetable garden we used to keep in Maryland when I was a boy.
As I was saying, watching garden cultivation isn’t much to see, compared to the visuals, say, in Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, Part 1, but it’s enjoyable for a gardener. Back and forth, back and forth I go, up and down the onion rows planted in May. Soon it’ll be a matter of doing the same favor for the string beans more recently planted, and probably the rows of carrots. Thousands upon thousands of little weeds are uprooted in the process, and our crops get the jump on them and have a better chance of flourishing. So far this summer there’s been lots of rain, and now we’re getting some heat to go with it. Good growing conditions! And there’s nothing quite so beautiful as 18 rows of healthy onions (or carrots or beans or…) working on becoming food for the winter for our family.
Once you are amply protected by your garden clothes from the mosquitoes that love to accompany garden cultivators at 5:45 in the morning, you can relax into a rhythm of walking while pushing and have a space of time for praying and thinking, or thinking while praying if you will. Lately I’ve been thinking about treasuring sorrow. That likely sounds kind of strange, so let me give a bit of background.
This year our promises day, June 8th, fell on the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And the gospel reading for that day is from Luke 2: 41-51, about losing and then finding Jesus in the Temple. The long and the short of that strange story is that for a space of 3 days, it appears that Joseph and Mary have lost the Messiah, aged 12! It must have been a source of unimaginable worry and anxiety and grief for them, and you wonder what went through their minds as they searched and searched, but without success, until 3 days had passed. When they at last spot him in the Temple engaged in dialogue with the doctors of the Law, Mary says, "Son, why have you treated us this way. Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." The word translated here ‘in great anxiety’ is used as an adjective in the original text to describe Joseph and Mary as they looked for their boy. It comes from a verb meaning ‘to be in great pain’, ‘to be deeply distressed or worried’.
And then there’s that strange answer about having to be about his Father’s business or in his Father’s house, depending on how it’s translated. But even stranger is the opening phrase of the reply: "Why were you searching for me?" Why? WHY?!!! What a question! "They did not understand what he said."
I pause for a minute to gaze at the river, where the rows come to an end at their greatest distance from St. Mary’s. We have ducks, geese, gulls, and loons at this early hour, with crows chiming in from the landward side, so it isn’t a pristine silence but a cacophony of noise none of which would pass for bird song in the best sense of the term ‘song’. None of these creatures of water and air is worried about why life is what it is and why God does what he does. None of them is troubled by ‘not understanding’. And so it’s enjoyable to watch them, carefree as they appear to be. Oh well. I’m not free as a bird, but I can enjoy their kind of freedom vicariously for a time. Then I resume my trek down another row, getting as close as I can to the onions without uprooting them.
I guess I’m not ‘free as Our Lady’ either. She "treasured (or kept) all these things in her heart." That appears to be a habit of the Mother of God, to treasure everything about her Son, from the report of shepherds about choirs of angels and announcements about a Savior being born who is Christ the Lord, to baffling replies in the Temple, lack of apparent sympathy on the part of her beloved Child, and then quiet resumption of life as before for another 18 years!
I don’t know about you, but I tend to treasure most what is pleasant, beautiful, and enjoyable. I don’t retain as easily what is painful, sorrowful, and unexplained, nor do I wish to. But Mary treasured those 3 days and subsequent days as if the Christmas angels were still conducting their chorus of Glad Tidings for the whole world to enjoy. It’s like Our Lady of Sorrows at the foot of the Cross—she is really and fully there. She takes it all in, she does not flinch. She does not run away. She stands with and by her Son till the end. And then she receives from him a new child, John, and with him, all of us. Did she treasure that moment, too, keeping it in her heart, keeping all of us there?
What is it that enabled or enticed the Mother of God to treasure those terrible 3 days, or the still worse ones that followed when her Son suffered and died and was laid in a tomb? I don’t understand. Yet in this misty morning light, light is also dawning in me: she treasured not this event or that, but God at work through it all. Simply put, she believed. And so even in the most incomprehensible moments, she understood that the God of Israel would not fail to act on behalf of his people. In time, she would understand what she was meant to understand.
After nearly 40 years in Madonna House (and having spent at least a modicum of time many years going after weeds in gardens), I have accumulated a share in the sorrows of life…mostly in the suffering of those I love, with a bit of my own thrown in. In some measure I have taken it all in, and in some measure I have not. I have run ahead, run away, or at least turned away to other thoughts. Why dwell on sorrows? Who wants to become morose and sad? What kind of a witness to the gospel would that be?
But the Mother of God is taking me on a different path these days, and maybe it is a word not only for me. Seek God in your sorrow, trust him that he is there, he who alone can turn sorrow into true joy, even as he turns all things to good for those who love him.
I listen to such thoughts with a growing peace, and then I abandon them again. Back and forth, back and forth I go, while the cultivator sings its quiet song, and the crops Chris has planted offer a silent chorus of praise to the Lord of heaven and earth, who achieves his purpose in good time: "They go out, they go out, full of tears, carrying their seeds; they come back, they come back, full of song, carrying their sheaves" (Psalm 126).
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