It felt good to get out into my flower beds this weekend. As I was pulling up weeds, doing a little pruning and planting pots of annuals, I thought about all of the spiritual lessons I have learned over the years in the garden. Weeds have taught me a lot.
When my children were little and we lived in an area with better water and soil, we grew a small vegetable garden. When the vegetables would first sprout, they were small and delicate. Often, they would need to be thinned. And even more often, the weeds would be sprouting right alongside the lettuce, spinach, and other plants. As I would carefully pull those plants we did not want, while carefully trying to protect the little seedlings we did, it occurred to me that there was an analogy to parenting in this task.
As parents we do many things to give our children the rich soil and water they need to thrive. We provide them with our unconditional love and support, food, shelter, education and a variety of activities to help them learn and grow. But we also have the great task of guiding them to a life of virtue; of weeding out the vices that are part of every person because of our fallen human nature. It occurred to me, while crouched down in the midst of a row of new lettuce, that this weeding must be done gently and carefully. If we are rushed; if we are impatient; if we are inattentive, we may very well damage the small shoot we are working so hard to protect. Also, sometimes it is difficult to sort the weeds from the vegetables when they are both so small. Therefore, all of this pruning has to be done with care. It was an image that would come back to me repeatedly as my children grew and it encouraged me to pray for discernment and wisdom to see the “weeds” for what they were and to know the best way to gently remove them.
Another memory I have comes from long hours weeding the 1000-tree shelter belt we have behind and next to our house. After twenty years of care and growth, it provides us some very good protection against the wind and the snow, but initially it was a large swath of bare ground with A LOT of little twigs we hoped would grow into trees and bushes one day. The first year they were in, we were also busy building the house we now live in and the trees did not get all the attention they deserved. I remember heading into them one day after a particularly rainy stretch and the trees in some places had completely disappeared under a canopy of bindweed. We crawled down the rows on hands and knees pulling the weeds away and unraveling them from the little saplings. If weeds in my musings represent vice, the lesson here is do not turn your back on them! If you ignore them they can soon overwhelm much that is good in your life. In fact, they have the power to choke the life out of you.
In general, all of my tree hoeing taught me that weeds come up much easier the quicker you attack them. The lesson I see is: don’t wait and allow them to take root! The same is true of vice in our lives. Tackling them early on is a much easier task than waiting until they are ingrained habits.
Similarly, St. Ignatius in his Rules of Discernment advises us to resist the temptations of the Enemy quickly and boldly, for when we do, he flees. However, if we do not resist initially, we allow him a stronghold which is harder to dislodge later. This image reminds me often that in our battle to live virtuously, little things matter. Discipline in small things, brings strength to tackle greater challenges. And rooting out bad habits at their beginning prove easier than battling them after they have a hold on our lives. Which brings me to another memory of something I read that touched me so much I printed it and had it on my refrigerator for years: “Discipline is remembering what you really want.”
Today most of my weeding is confined to the area surrounding our front porch where we have a variety of bushes and perennials among the rocks. I spend a bit of most Saturdays out there, doing what I often call “perpetual battle with bindweed.” It seems you cannot ever rid yourself of it entirely. I think the root systems go halfway to China. And it is tenacious in how it works its way around the best landscaping fabric. I find a lesson for the spiritual life here too. Life is a battle.
The pursuit of Christian perfection is a lifetime adventure. And it is done best when we are attentive, persistent, hard-working, diligent and allow ourselves space and time to be quiet and listen. Sometimes my time is spent on the equally reoccurring skirmish with misplaced grass. We struggle to keep some semblance of a lawn in our south facing front yard given the clay soil and limited (and very hard) well water. But that never seems to stop it from cropping up where you don’t want it. My lesson here? Sometimes our biggest struggles come out of the right thing in the wrong place. For instance, sometimes we have developed coping mechanisms that served us well in a time of great pain or protected us when life’s hurts assail us. But then we have trouble not taking those behaviors into the new day. The Magnificat reflections during Morning Prayer sometimes
remind us not to let “yesterdays demons spoil today.” Pulling up grass reminds me to seek healing from the Lord for past hurts; to let go of resentments and grudges so that I am free to meet each new day ready to receive all that the Lord desires to give and to generously and lovingly meet those he sends my way.
God is indeed in all things. Go out and find him in the weeds.