Today’s blog is by Bill Dietrich

Recently someone who knows I enjoy gardening asked what I did during winter when there was “nothing to do in the garden.” I found myself reacting impulsively with a “to do” list of garden tasks: pruning, raking, protecting tender plants, building retaining walls, tidying up the compost pile, and, foremost, repairing the fence to foil the deer who’d begun munching some newly planted azaleas. The list grew steadily in proportion to the energy I gave it. As my family knows all too well, I’ve had an obsession with things of the garden. It’s such good and noble stuff. “One’s nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth,” the old prayer goes. And anything that invites so much prayer can’t possibly be wrong. My romanticized notions of gardening have seduced me time and again.

By grace alone I resisted the urge to plunge immediately into fence-fixing. I prayed a bit on my friend’s question and began to touch a deeper invitation of this year’s winter garden. What I soon realized is that what most needed pruning and cleaning was my own agenda. Instead of more busyness, however noble I might imagine it, what I sensed called to in this winter’s garden is simply to appreciate, to gaze, to take the time to see what was there and what it could teach me.

Icons abound in the winter garden. It invites a time for looking deeply into the essential structure of things, a time for touching more deeply our naked desire for the only thing that can fulfill us. One icon that can almost be missed is the common snowdrop, the first flower to bloom in my garden. Galanthus nivalis grows at best eight inches tall, emerging in clumps that slowly expand over time in woodsy soil. Its flower consists of three snowy white petals drooping downward at the end of a long thin stem amidst several strap-like leaves. The flower and stem look every bit like those candle snifters used in church—except when the weather turns warm and the petals flare outward to reveal its jewel-like real flower, a miniature version of the outer petals but intricately edged in green. Snowdrops are solitary souls. Like cloistered monks, they stand alone in the winter garden and then retreat into the earth as other plants emerge in spring’s advance.

This year a clump of snowdrops, nestled at the foot of a tall scrub pine, emerged in early December, earlier than normal, lured awake by the long, warm autumn. I imagined them encouraged also by several inches of new compost I’d heaped over the garden in October. That rich humus, the decayed stuff of last year’s abundant growth, both feeds and protects new growth, the wonder of God’s economy in the garden. I thought about how my own new growth emerges from all the stuff of my past, my gifts, my foibles, my missteps, my graced moments of awareness. The spontaneous heat of the compost pile calls to mind that deep transforming process that results from giving over all the stuff of life to God’s mercy in prayer.

By Christmas the clump’s leaves were well displayed above the black leaf mold, and slivers of white began to show from the tips of the stems. But when it turned bitter cold, I began to fear for them. Their fragile stems and leaves had drooped low in a frozen tangled mess, their green now taking on a blackish hue. I tried to untangle the plants but soon gave up as they flopped over despite my efforts. Finally I plucked one stem and brought it in the house to sit in warm water on a sunny window. At least I would enjoy this one, I thought, and wondered about the fate of the rest. But the plucked flower languished in the window, and the flower dried and shriveled rather than open. I mused that this must be some cruel divine joke, or perhaps more evidence of global warming confusing God’s orderly plan.

Two weeks passed and milder weather came, coaxing me out into the garden again. There I beheld the clump of snowdrops, standing tall, blooming brightly against the rich black leaf mold, their flowers held proud above erect, green leaves. They seemed to be looking sideways at me with knowing smiles, as if to say that my concerns for them were just that—my concerns and not theirs, and certainly not God’s. The flower I picked was not ripe, its time not right. It was being cared for in ways I couldn’t see and didn’t trust. Had I left it alone, it would be there singing in the choir with the rest. My willfulness, by “doing,” had gotten me again.

Snowdrops have shown me God’s mercy, compassion, and faithfulness. They remind me to trust and live more fully into my own desire for God, to live fearlessly, to risk being who I am in God even when the elements seem against me. They know that Love is sustaining, protecting them. Can I know that too and resist the urge to usurp God’s action for my own? I can but pray for continued grace to recognize my own romanticized notions of doing for what they are.

A longer version of this blog appeared in the Shalem News, Winter 2002.

December 12, 2019 by Bill Dietrich 1 Comment
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Jean Sweeney
Jean Sweeney
4 years ago

Oh my. I love this. Christmas Love to you and yours, Bill,
Jeanie Sweeney


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