Teach a thing its loveliness


I can’t keep out of the garden.  I am not a natural gardener – ‘gardening’ feels a bit domestic for my taste, all that taming and tidying, a bit like doing housework outside.

But something is changing in me.

After five years here I’m beginning to get to grips with the big plot behind our house, developing an intimacy with its trees and soil, bulbs and wild flowers. The gradual clearing of brambles and over-large trees means some shrubs are flowering spectacularly for the first time since moving in.

And the sheer radiance of this spring in East Kent, keeps drawing me outside to weed, dig, snip, mow, tie up and perform many other small intimacies with plants and soil. And here we’re surrounded by creatures, finches, tits, chaffinches, a tame robin and blackbird, woodpeckers nearby, foxes, slow worms, toads, bats at dusk.

Mary Oliver, in her collection Red Bird has a poem called Sometimes, one section of which reads:

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Write about it.

(I like those full stops.)

And the poem in my head today is Galway Kinell’s St Francis and the Sow – which opens with an image of buds and flowering and describes the miracle of looking, looking being a form of love.

In the more esoteric reaches of ecopsychology, writers conjecture whether, as well as us being transformed by looking at, say, trees, the trees are in turn changed by our gaze. The Secret Life of Plants makes claims about plant sentience that are controversial but even the BBC documents some startling examples such as here.

These ideas of what ‘looking’ might mean came to mind at the Lent reflection last night at St Stephens where Canon Christopher Irvine of Canterbury Cathedral invited us to meditate on an image of the Cross of St Damiano. The actual cross is the one that spoke to St Francis, setting him on his mission to ‘rebuild the church’ (even though he eschewed actual buildings).

The comments people made were reminiscent of a poetry therapy session – everyone’s looking being personal and active – seeing suffering or smiling, surrender or weightlessness, and reflecting personal aesthetic tastes.

I found that as I gazed at the beautiful face of the Christ, it became more androgynous then feminine. It took me into another time, the vision of an unknown painter in around 1100, and back to now, as the painter may well have been a Syrian monk, possibly a refugee settled in Umbria.  It also connected me with Canterbury where there has been a Franciscan community since 1223.

Later in his life, St Francis returned to the church where he had his early vision, to recover from illness and there he wrote his famous canticle. And off I go again, out into the garden where they gather: Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Sister Water and Brother Wind and I look at each new flower in awe and gratitude.