25 Oct 2005 09:34 AM

An Inner Garden

Sermon preached by Deacon Sue Mosher 16 Oct 2005

Now that autumn is truly here, we can turn our attention to one of the key questions of the season just passed: Do you carefully spit out every watermelon seed? Or do you worry, as a child might, that a stray seed left unspat might germinate and grow into a vine, entangling the intestines, and rupturing into fruit. Maybe we should check one of the urban legends Web sites to make sure that hasn’t already happened.

Fortunately, the inner garden I want to talk about this morning is not one that entwines your entrails. But it’s not just mental image either. It involves the senses and the spirit.

If Emerson were writing today, he might say that we are hardwired to connect with nature. We are predisposed to appreciate nature’s beauty. Do we not in fact define beauty in the very language of nature? – her lips as red as a rose, his eyes with blue-green depths as cool as a forest pool. This attunement to the natural world makes it possible for God to occasionally shake us into self-awareness, jolting us out of our boredom or self-absorption with a scene that takes our breath away, or in Emerson’s words, makes us “glad to the brink of fear.”

Our innate relationship with the earth is so basic that I believe that we can consciously cultivate an “inner garden” – either an ideal space or the image of a real place – that calms the soul or opens it to new possibilities. This can take the form of a spiritual discipline, providing a mental room for meditation, or it can be part of your personal toolkit for tough times.

Let me give you an example of how one of my inner gardens helped me recently. At least a few of you can sympathize with the unfortunate fact that, the older we get, the more time we spend on an examining table at the doctor’s office. And so, a few weeks ago, I spent an hour or so staring at the ceiling, assured that “this wouldn’t hurt a bit” and wondering if that would turn out to be true. Now -- in my backyard is a corner with two benches in the shade, placed where the grass hardly grows. It’s the most enclosed part of the yard, yet it is just steps from the basement door and thus provides a perfect place to pause in private, and I often sit there for just a few minutes when my Saturday gardening chores are done. As I waited for the doctor to finish his work, my mind entered this special place and felt the hardness of the metal bench. The rustling of the bamboo leaves and the bright light just outside the circle of stepping stones bathed me with calm, and the procedure was soon over without incident.

This mind garden is the mirror image of a real one that I know very well. Your ideal inward garden might be one from your past or even totally from your imagination, perhaps incorporating images of a film or a book. To cultivate such a garden, we begin not with a green thumb, but with the sensibilities of a child.

For, a child sees a garden not as a planted enclosure that adds to the list of weekend chores, but as a place for discovery and enchanted dreams. Landscapes recalled from our childhood contain powerful images of our first adventures into the outside world. Julie Moir Messervy, in her book The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning, suggests that, “We each carry personal memories of beloved places from our past. Each place carries associations of our emotional state while in a particular setting, which still affects us: where we feel comfortable, where we choose to sit, to walk, to dwell.” Can you close your eyes and picture your favorite climbing tree and the way it hid you from the rest of the world? Or the stream that you tried all summer to dam up, succeeding at last in creating a pool deep enough to wade in? Such memories are the building blocks of interior spaces that can help sustain us when the earth is shaking, the water is rising, the fluorescent light is too glaring, or the walls feel like they are closing in.

The same intensity of place memory can also arise from the places we visit, and here we have a good example: Jesus, we are taught, retreated into the landscape at the beginning and the end of his ministry – into the wilderness and into the Garden of Gethsemane. Even though His passion dwarfs our cares and sufferings, we too can benefit from such retreats.

I seem to need to go to Colorado at least once every ten years, to stand not so much in a high place, but in a wide one, where the sunset fills the sky with flame. In my kitchen cupboard is a tin of “Desert Sage” tea, which exactly recalls the smell of my favorite mesa and its low-growing plants that yield up their ruby-throated wonders only when you find a warm rock and sit on the ground with them. The smell of the beach in winter could be the key that opens the door to your special inward garden. Can you hold it in your heart?

As a first practical step toward finding your favorite inward garden, Julie Moir Messervy outlines seven “archetypical vantage points from which we experience the joyfulness of space at an early age” and as we grow into adolescents, then adults. Each of us may relate more strongly to one vantage point than the others, but I think it might be helpful to visit each of them briefly.

Our first landscape, according to Messervy, is the sea, that enclosed warm space within our mother’s womb. While we cannot see the womb in our mind’s eye, that sense of immersion, she suggests, may be found deep in a forest or in a fog.

A mobile child quickly learns the pleasure of snuggling, being inside but still able to see outside. In the landscape, the same sensations may come from a cave, or a pergola covered with wisteria or Carolina jasmine.

On our parents’ laps, we encounter the third archetypical scene -- the harbor, from which you get a 180-degree view, still with the reassurance of protection at your back. Valleys, hedges, even the fence around the yard can conjure that “circle of safety.”

The walking and adventuring child goes forth to find a promontory, venturing to the very edge of the yard to explore its farthest corner. Bluffs and balconies are among the many landscape elements that give us that sense of a 270-degree view.

The fifth archetype can be equally thrilling to some and unsettling to others. It is the island, where we are separated from the world and can lie down and look up at the sky and float away. Some find it in a meadow, some on a backyard deck. And yet it may even be hidden while in plain sight. A few years ago, we were vacationing in northern Ireland and visited one of the many ancient circular earthworks there. After we walked up and stood on its rim, my daughter Annie said impatiently as only a teenager can, “I don’t see any circle.” We silently waved our hands in a wide arc to show her that the circle was big enough to swallow our entire house and most of the yard. She joined us in quiet marvel. I still wonder how the worshippers inside that circle felt with the sky above them and the earthen berms guarding them from the ocean of everyday life.

The last two archetypes are the mountain and the sky, which require little explanation. The mountain is that place of solitude and wisdom suspended between earth and heaven. The Chinese and the Japanese are particularly adept at incorporating mountains into their gardens, at an exquisitely small scale.

Finally, the sky, we cannot attain unaided, and so we always long for it. We never tire of looking at sunsets or the stars.

The mountains and the sea, the forest and the desert, are all wonderful places, but we cannot stay there. We need a place closer to home to which we can return often.

To construct an inward garden that you can visit whenever you like, you might start by rehearsing the qualities and feelings that linger from childhood. Where were you when you experienced joy? Or the intense curiosity of a budding young naturalist? Or stood in the rain laughing with friends, wondering if the moment was ripe for that first kiss from a special friend? Perhaps you have postcards or photos that remind you of places that were special enough for you to want to bring their images home.

Another technique that Messervy suggests is to walk in the landscape silently. Walk around your yard, or visit one of the Washington area’s wonderful gardens. Notice your reactions to the light, the colors, the sounds, the smells, the sensation of going up or down a hill. Which beckon strongest to you? Come back to those memories of your walk after you go back inside, and see which persist in the mind’s eye. As you visit familiar walks in different seasons, some elements may draw you back again and again, entreating you to make them part of your inward garden.

I talked earlier about how I have used my inward garden as a place of refuge in times of stress. What else shall we do with our gardens of the mind? The same opportunities await us there as in those places where we dig in the dirt. Those of us who do not paint or sing may find that by nurturing even a mental bower, we can become servants to Beauty. We pay homage to creation and thus to the Creator. Or, perhaps we can be like the fig tree and simply wait, watching the seasons and the signs that retell the story of God’s care for us. In such waiting, there is possibility.

Sometimes when I pause on my favorite bench, I begin to experience the transformation that Emerson describes as taking place as the eye of Reason opens: What were merely the “sharp outlines and colored surfaces” of my garden plants soften to exhibit their “grace and expression,” then Nature withdraws in reverence so that God can be revealed, as in the words of the hymn:

Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where God’s feet pass.

The gap that looks out from my little harbor of benches and stones lies ready and waiting for the Beloved to enter. I wait and watch and then the moment passes, and I carry it away again in my inward garden.

Call to Worship
Song of Songs 4:12, 15-16

A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
a garden locked, a fountain sealed.

The fountain in my garden
is a spring of running water
flowing down from Lebanon.

Awake, O winds, and blow upon my garden
to spread its spices abroad.

That my beloved may come into the garden,
and taste its choicest fruits.


Mark 13:28-34

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature:

Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.

Posted by Sue Mosher at October 25, 2005 09:34 AM
Posted to Sermons