For most Americans, the month of September marks a turning point where the fall season is in clear sight – leaves slowly begin turning colors, the morning air has a subtle unmistakable crispness, and social media fills with friends’ shameless promotions of pumpkin spice lattes. However, I can’t help but reflect upon how empty our contemporary “fall symbolism” has become.
Our love for all things fall seems now almost exclusively tied to nostalgia and an attachment to quaint traditions, and unfortunately, most of us are not equipped to appreciate the historic significance of fall celebrations. This is because fall celebrations were once connected directly to the harvest, a phenomenon that the average person living in our post-industrial digital age is not able to understand or appreciate from personal experience.
Now, I’m not going to suggest that we all need to become farmers or wear sackcloth and ashes instead of fall sweaters. However, I do want to make a rather bold claim: I believe that our disconnect from farming and harvest has contributed to one of our most widespread spiritual plagues: the sin of acedia.
What is the sin of acedia? Spiritual sloth. If you’ve only heard this name attributed to the animal, you’re half-way there. Acedia or sloth is often associated with laziness or laxity (the animal by this name does indeed provide a wonderful representative visual).
Unfortunately, “laziness” is too simplistic of a definition. St. Thomas Aquinas insightfully describes acedia as a passion of sadness in relation to spiritual goods. Think for a moment of the rich man who came to Christ to ask what he must do to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. When he was told he must sell his possessions and give to the poor, he went away sad (See Mark 10:17-22).
Why was he sad? Because he couldn’t see what was being offered him: the Kingdom of Heaven – Friendship with Christ – something incomparably greater than any material wealth or comfort. So, in a sense, his sadness comes from spiritual blindness – a myopic vision that fails to recognize the fullness of reality – of truth. It is like a young child who cries because you want him to eat healthy food or take a bath or go to bed. The child is only seeing and desiring what is immediately in front of him and cannot yet recognize what is, in truth, good for him.
What happens when we have this spiritual blindness and sadness of the soul? The symptoms are numerous, but oh, all too familiar for most of us. We become disinterested in doing spiritual activities; we find receiving the sacraments or praying a drudgery. We might procrastinate in fulfilling our responsibilities. We distract ourselves (perhaps through web surfing or watching TV) and try to avoid silence or contemplation (so we keep an endless stream of music and podcasts playing in the background). We feel depressed and anxious, and we might even turn to other unhealthy or sinful behaviors to ease our pain. Does any of that sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone.
However, there is hope, which brings me back to the fall harvest. I really believe that our spiritual blindness as witnessed through the sin of acedia is related to our blindness of and disconnect from nature. In the Theology of the Body, there is often reference to material reality as having a sacramental character – that is, that outward physical signs can be seen as integrally signifying or expressing some spiritual reality.
This is to say that certain physical actions are inseparable from having a spiritual meaning. A hug or a handshake are signs of welcome and love. Even more so, sexual intercourse is a conjugal act because it expresses and signifies the love and covenant of marriage.
God has created humans such that we are a unity of matter and spirit – body and soul. As such, God has designed us to learn and experience spiritual realities through physical signs. And this, my friends, is why Theology of the Body and gardening is so needed today.
Whoa – gardening? Yes. And I am certainly not unique in making this assertion. See, for instance, Anthony Esolen making the same claim in his book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, or, in a more poetic way, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s classic, The Secret Garden.
Why is gardening so special? Because gardening is an activity that can rebuild our lost connection to nature and help us come to grasp some incredibly important spiritual truths. I was blessed to grow up near farmers, and my family engaged in some rather serious landscaping and gardening projects together. I remember (much to my chagrin at the time), my mother pointing out how weeding was a good reminder of our need to uproot sin in our lives.
As a child, I only focused on the toil of the labor, yet I have since come to appreciate my mother’s wisdom. Beyond this, however, there remain countless other lessons, and I would go so far as to say that the garden is a natural way we can experience an embodied reflection of God’s Trinitarian and Redemptive love. God’s self-giving, receiving, and fruitful love is all imaged in the work of tending to the plants of a garden.
The gardener gives his or her labor, by preparing the soil, digging, weeding, and then planting, watering, fertilizing. When all goes well, the plants are able to receive these “gifts,” and in return, bear fruit (or as is often the case – vegetables).
However, any gardener knows that plants don’t easily receive the “gifts” given. Perhaps some fungus or pestilence spreads. Weeds are a constant threat. And sometimes the weather is unforgiving.
Yet through all of this, we learn important truths. The gardener who perseveres through the arduous challenges, images God and His Redemptive Love. Gardening also images the real spiritual battle that is experienced as we seek to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (see Phil. 2:12).
It is no coincidence that from the first moment of their creation, Adam and Eve were in a garden, and were given the task of tending to it. Note that their charge to care for the garden was not the punishment of original sin. Rather, the punishment of original sin is that we now experience work to be difficult – toil and sweat are now interwoven into the labor of cultivating the land (see Gen. 3:17-19).
This original placement of man and woman in the garden shows that we are meant for this work of cultivating nature, and furthermore, because of our fallen state, we are (in this life) meant to toil and sweat as we undertake the tending of the garden.
In this light, the common expression, “No pain, no gain” can ring true. Furthermore, notice how St. John’s Gospel points out how our redemption (Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection) occurred again in a garden (see John 19:41).
These lessons that we learn through the physical, embodied experience of gardening are a powerful antidote to the vicious tendency of acedia. Acedia is afraid of the ugliness of the cross, of the toil and ardor that are interwoven into the path of following Christ to Golgotha – to the Garden. However, gardening engages our senses and allows us to experience how this labor and sweat are, in fact, the path of love and redemption. It is through this labor of love that fruit is born, and the joy of the harvest can occur!
I encourage everyone, and even more so those with children, to take up gardening. (Yes—start planning now for the spring!) Perhaps you’ll have to begin with a houseplant or a small flowerbed. Or perhaps, it is merely tending extra to the current landscaping of your yard. However, it is my hope that through this engagement with nature, you will come to contemplate and experience more deeply the spiritual mysteries that are ever-present to us.
Like the rich young man in the Gospel, each of us is given the call to follow Christ and to let go of our attachments to what is lower so that we can receive what is greater. May we pray for the grace to have eyes of faith so that we will respond in joy to this invitation of love and follow our Lord to the Garden – the place where Death has been put to death and New Life is born.