Tuesday, July 06, 2010

theology of summer gardening

We have more cucumbers than we know what to do with.  In a week, I suspect tomatoes will start giving us the same problem.  Really, I'm not complaining.  It's a good problem to have, and we only have it because I've spent so much time watering our garden in the midst of this drought.  Those who rely on their own agriculture to survive know how devastating a dry summer can be.  I will gladly eat cucumbers every day of the week.

Our first-ever vegetable garden has added an educational edge to this spring and summer.  I have not only watered and weeded fastidiously, but I have also wondered at the strenuous task of planting and cultivating crops.  I have nurtured a deeper admiration and appreciation for the farmers who live and die by this kind of toil, and I savor the produce I purchase in the supermarket--or in the roadside stand--all the more.  It is not only hard work (and I only have an 8 x 8 plot!), but it is an anxiety-producing one.  There is both so much for the cultivator to do...and also so much over which he has no control.  It is easy to curse nature.  But it also provides more opportunity to bless and thank God.  There are fewer things that set us apart more from the rest of God's creatures.  Humans cultivate.  They don't just chase food; they entice the soil to produce it.

As I was reading in an old text from seminary days, I came across this paragraph discussing part of what it means to say that humans are created in the "image of God":
In a variety of ways--through the cultivation of the earth, through craftsmanship, through the writing of books and the painting of ikons--man gives materal things a voice and renders the creation articulate in praise of God.  It is significant that the first task of the newly-created Adam was to give names to the animals (Gen. 2:19-20).  The giving of names is in itself a creative act: until we have found a name for some object or experience, an "inevitable word" to indicate its true character, we cannot begin to understand it and to make use of it.  It is likewise significant that, when at the Eucharist we offer back to God the firstfruits of the earth, we offer them not in their original form but reshaped by the hand of man: we bring to the altar not sheaves of wheat but loaves of bread, not grapes but wine.

So man is priest of the creation through his power to give thanks and to offer the creation back to God; and he is king of the creation through his power to mould and fashion, to connect and diversify...  (The Orthodox Way, Bishop Callistos Ware, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995. p 54)
Too many cucumbers is a good problem to have.  And apparently the very task of gardening is a privilege, too.  As I placed the seeds into the soil and added the fertilizer, as I staked the vines and clipped the ripe fruit, as I took the vegetables inside and transformed them into something unique and tasty, I borrowed from the experience of millions before me who sought to make creation sing in this remarkable way.  The Italians' word for worship is "il culto," from the Latin root for "to cultivate." It makes sense: in the liturgy we are cultivated to give God proper praise. But apparently the mere act of cultivating the soil and its fruits--fashioning and moulding what God has given--is a role of our worship, too.  It is our blessed human way of helping the earth praise its Creator. 

I must admit, though, that when I've been picking the cabbage loopers off my broccoli plants and throwing them over my shoulder to feed the bluebirds in my yard, I've not really thought of myself as a "priest of creation."  I tend to think of my priestly duties as confined to the altar where I pass out bread and wine and to the pulpit where I toss out words from Scripture.  Then again, five months ago my 8 x 8 plot was but a mere section of sod.  Now it gives birth to all kinds of good things which can be fashioned and moulded to eat and enjoy.  It has been a more holy task than I've given it credit for.

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