This article was first published in the Easter 2017 edition of The Church Times
It is 25 years since the Quiet Garden Movement was conceived. Its founder, Philip Roderick, considers their spiritual importance at Eastertide for The Church Times.
ON ENTERING the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told his disciples: “Watch and pray.”
A garden is an integral element in God’s landscape. Whether they are attached to a home, church, retreat centre, monastery, school, hospice, or hospital, gardens of all shapes and sizes continue to offer solace and a place to step aside and perhaps encounter God.
In a garden, the local is discovered to be a microcosm of the global. An appreciation of a spider’s web still bedewed in the early-morning sun can sensitise us to the majestic reality of the cosmos, and to the network of all species. A prayer for a friend who is sick or facing other difficult circumstances opens our hearts to our wider human family. In a garden, we can travel from the “small” to the “all” easily.
The spiritual importance of gardens struck me 25 years ago when, after a sabbatical spent visiting Christian retreat houses and monasteries in India and North America, I was sitting with my wife in our back garden in High Wycombe on a sunny May day.
As a nature-lover, I had become aware that, often during his ministry, Jesus withdrew — alone, or with two or three of his closest disciples — from the towns and villages into the countryside, to rest in the presence of God either before or after significant moments of healing, preaching, teaching, or travelling.
My sabbatical quest led to an awareness that Jesus wanted his disciples to follow his lead, as they, too, were usually caught up in the demands of the day. “Come away to a quiet place by yourselves and rest for a while,” he says in Mark 6.32. That was the invitation and the imperative that impressed themselves upon me in my garden that day in 1992.
As the vision clarified, I called a small discernment group together to weigh up the practical and theological implications of seeking to make available simple and yet transforming open-air spaces where current generations of disciples could replicate Christ’s repeated drawing apart to solitary places away from centres of population.
I made it known that there was a need for the first home and garden to be offered for a few hours weekly, monthly, or even just quarterly. Miraculously, by the September of that year, we opened the first Quiet Garden in Stoke Poges, a stone’s throw from where Thomas Gray composed his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. This was thanks to the generous offer of Noreen and Geoffrey Cooper to make available their garden and part of their home twice a week. Today, there are more than 300 Quiet Gardens around the world.
In your own garden, it is all too easy to become consumed by the weeds and the quiet chaos. One of the gifts from visiting a Quiet Garden is that you do not have to be chore-conscious while you are there. If a group meets in a host’s house for a welcome, a prayer, a coffee, or some input before spending time in the garden, neither do they have to worry about the dust or the washing up.
This was appreciated by others of the early generation of Quiet Garden hosts: a couple from Vancouver Island, who had heard about the movement at a conference for spiritual accompaniers. On their first day as hosts, Mike found himself sitting on a bench that he had built himself, looking at a tree that he had planted 15 years earlier. A tear trickled down his face as he realised that this was the first time that he had stopped and looked at the tree. He had been so busy in the design and shaping of their home and garden that he had not given himself any time to watch and wonder.
AT EASTERTIDE — at least in the western hemisphere — a garden in springtime can prompt the watcher into a “wonderstruck beholding”: a contemplative discipleship.
The larger story of the seasons reminds us of equally significant times for weeding and seeding, testing and pruning, dying and rising, fruiting and harvesting. A place of retreat may offer, even in a day, a Holy Week in miniature. Opportunity is always present for every emotion to be expressed or interiorised, from the gift of tears to the song of joy — all in the mystery of God’s journey in Christ.
God’s invitation to each of us to participate in the divine (2 Peter 1.4) is linked in a simple and yet profound way to Jesus’s invitation to “abide in my love” (John 15.9). If truth is Trinitarian, in the greening grace of a Quiet Garden, the life, light, and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may become a felt sense, an intimate reality. Our experience of God can be deepened if, consciously, we dedicate time to spend with each person of the Trinity.
This is where a reflective time amid natural beauty can offer such potential. In what way is God the Father the source of all life? In what way is Jesus, the Son, the light of the world? In what way is the Holy Spirit the comforter? We have time and space to ponder and to experience an encounter.
The sights and sounds of a garden — birdsong, the scent of blossom, the breath or the boldness of a breeze in the trees — can be a solace and delight. In the context of Easter and the paschal mystery, in moments of reflection we find ourselves incorporated into Jesus’s temptation and his trial, his betrayal and brutalising at the hands of those who conspired against him. The raw agony of innocent dying by grace releases us into a new consciousness: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”
We apprehend that Good Friday, and all that precedes it; that Holy Saturday; and the life that breaks open the tomb in the garden. Nothing like this ever happened before. All is utterly new. The springtime of faith, of new and abundant life in Christ, can become radically and graciously present.
QUIET Gardens can be tiny or large, well-maintained or with wild edges. In many ways, Quiet Gardens attached to private homes — open, perhaps, for just a few hours a week, or even a month — are a halfway house between a retreat centre and a church, and thus sometimes more accessible, though less permanent.
Churches, retreat centres, or organisational settings that host Quiet Gardens in their grounds offer these more permanently; but all Quiet Garden hosts open their doors to people, offering something of God’s love and shalom.
But the essence of this ministry, in the garden of a home or an organisation, is to honour Christ’s pattern of withdrawal and engagement, stillness and storytelling, hospitality and healing. This is a time to nurture the human need to “be still and know”, to experience something of the interconnectedness of heaven and earth, of mutuality and restfulness.
The Quiet Garden Movement celebrates the freedom to wrestle with, and to rest in wisdom from, the great spiritual tradition that is “in Christ”. We welcome those who are longing to find meaning and direction in their lives.
In our resource-gathering for the journey of knowing and unknowing, we celebrate insights from Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants, from Eastern and Western Christians, from poetry, and from the prophetic tradition. Scripture, sacraments, and saints provide illuminating signposts along the way. Accompanied by stillness, the cycle of the Christian year turns.
Participants may become more fully awake to the sacrament of the present moment. They may also become attuned to the fruitfulness, and yet also the fragility, of the earth and her species. Whether at the edges of faith, or at its centre, we hope that all who visit will discover a new understanding of the intricacies of environment, quietude, and community.
To mark its anniversary, the Quiet Garden Movement has produced its new resource on stillness, Quiet25, with notes for leaders (www.quietgarden.org/2017/quiet25-course/).
On 20 May, there is an open invitation to join “God is in the Garden” at St John’s, Waterloo, London, from 10.30 a.m. until 5 p.m., with the Revd Lucy Winkett, the Revd Andrew Walker, and the Quiet Garden founder the Revd Philip Roderick, among others, to give thanks for the past, walk in the garden, and look to the future (www.quietgarden.org/event/annual-gathering-2017/).
To explore the possibility of becoming a Quiet Garden host, visit www.quietgarden.org/join/hosting.
This article was first published in The Church Times on 13 Apr 2017