I am not what anyone would call a gardener. The reports of my ability to kill or seriously harm innocent household plants are absolutely true. So it should surprise no one that as my time in the monastery gardens has increased along with the spring temperatures, my work there is primarily taken up by a task that matches my gifts: weeding.
For a life-long city-dweller like me, however, even weeding requires education and constant supervision. Usually this thankless task falls to Sister Lynne Smith, director of formation and passionate gardener:
“Is this a weed, Lynne?”
“Yes. You can pull it out.”
“How about this one?”
“Yeah, that too. Try to get as much of the root as you can.”
“Nope. That’s a baby potato.”
While I’ve gotten better at identifying certain weeds, I’m easily confused. Often, tiny seedlings are barely distinguishable from the weeds. Sometimes I have to wait, ask questions and let everything grow up a bit before I can reliably tell plants apart and take action.
One day, as I seethed at the tendrils of bindweed strangling a little plant in the garden, I muttered: how did all these weeds get in here anyway? Without missing a beat, Sister Lynne responded, “The weeds are in the soil.” In the soil? With savage satisfaction, I yanked another out by its roots. But I had to wonder: what chance did the seeds have against weeds that grew up quicker, stronger and mean? Wasn’t this a losing battle?
In a famous parable, Jesus takes up the spiritual dimensions of the gardener’s perennial struggle. A farmer sows wheat but when the plants come up, damaging weeds appear too. The servants want to pull the offending weeds immediately, but in a surprising twist, the farmer stops them.
“No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together. At harvest time I will tell the reapers, collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” –Matt. 13:29-30 (NRSV)
Compassion and mercy for the weaker young plants dictates the wise farmer’s patient response. Christ the Good Gardener would suffer the weeds before risking the tender wheat plants that don’t have enough strength in their roots to survive an upheaval. Is Jesus really advocating a “wait and see” attitude toward the “weeds” we see in ourselves and the world?
In a self-help, life-hacker, take-no-prisoners world, Christ’s message of temperance in the midst of discernible evil can be baffling. But Thomas Merton states the principle well,
“We become saints not by violently overcoming our own weakness, but by letting [God] give us the strength and purity of God’s Spirit in exchange for our weakness and misery.”
This wise but difficult tension is embedded, too, in Benedict’s Rule:
“If a pot is scoured too vigorously to remove rust it may break…‘the bruised reed must not be broken’ (Isa. 42:3). We do not intend that the abbot allow vices to grow but he must weed them out with prudence and love, as each case demands.” –RB 64:12-14
The “wait and see” approach is not as passive as it sounds. It requires faith-filled eyes to see that things change drastically in Jesus’ parable at harvest time. We might now see the servants moving with purpose and ease through rows of waving wheat plants, removing all the weeds with swift deliberate strokes. Unafraid of harming the mature wheat stalks, they move with confidence, “coming home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (Ps 126:6).
Follow this link to read Rosy’s earlier posts: Living in Community – A Benedictine Sojourner’s Journey