Saturday, February 1, 2014

Lessons from The Secret Garden

"The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom he had cultivate and care for it" (Genesis 2: 8, 15).

There is something very spiritual about gardening.  Cooperating with creation, one can produce new life: plants of tremendous variety and uses.

From the silent, dark earth comes a tiny sprout.  With the right conditions and care, the plant grows and develops--producing its flowers and fruit.  And then, when the plant has grown and lived its span of life, it withers and dies...shedding its seeds, which will then create new life once again.

How many countless Scripture passages refer to gardening? 

The mustard seed, the sower, the parable of the weeds and the wheat--just a few examples.  Where does Our Lord go when He desires to pray?  A garden (Gethsemane).  When Mary Magdalene is seeking Our Lord's body after finding the tomb empty, she sees Jesus, but does not recognize Him; instead, she believes Him to be the gardener.  

Gardening has been part of my family for a long time.  My great uncles owned a dairy farm, on which they grew many crops.  My father has a greenhouse and sells his produce to local restaurants.  Though quite humble in size, we have our own little garden and tending it is one of my favorite past times.

There is just something about digging in the earth...watching things grow...admiring and appreciating the beauty of creation.  

When you are on your hands and knees, pulling weeds or cultivating the plants, you notice things: the earthworm making its way along, the small bud about to burst open, and the footprint of some little critter that has found its way into your garden.

The feel of damp, cool soil...the smell of basil leaves warm in the sun...the array of colors on the silky petals of petunia plants...gardening touches all of our senses.  It is, in a very real way, part of us: we were, after all, taken from the dust of the earth.

Perhaps it is my love of gardening, or my longing for spring, or simply the need to read something shorter than The Count of Monte Cristo, that my latest read has been The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Mary Lennox is a spoiled, sourpuss ten-year-old who finds herself an orphan when her parents die from cholera.  Mary isn't particularly devastated: she didn't have much a relationship with them, or with anyone really.  She is sent to live with her uncle at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, England.  

A mysterious, gloomy place, Mary learns about a secret garden, which has been locked up for ten years following her aunt's death.  With the help of a friendly robin, Mary finds the garden.  Together with a boy named Dickon--who has a penchant for gardens and animals--she commits herself to helping the garden come back to life.  Mary also uncovers another secret: she has a cousin, Colin, who also lives at Misselthwaite.  He is bedridden, convinced that he will become a hunchback and die.  

As the book progresses, it is not just the garden that comes alive and transforms; a springtime comes into the heart of the main characters, too.

This is one of my mother's favorite books and she shared with me some the rich symbolism that she found within the story.  So, the beauty of these insights belongs entirely to her; I can take no credit!

The Garden:  The garden represents heaven, a place of exceeding beauty, peace, joy, and eternal healing.  In the garden there is harmony in nature and in creation: the animals interact with the children with no fear and the flower seeds bloom and blossom wherever they are planted.  Dickon and Mary are in this way a kind of Adam and Eve.  Additionally, when Colin first enters the garden, he reacts by proclaiming, "I shall get well!  And I shall live forever and ever and ever!"  Heaven is our eternal healing where there is no pain or suffering, but only perfect love.

Mary:  This isn't a perfect correlation, but it nevertheless does work in many ways.  Mary Lenox is a symbol for Mary, Our Blessed Mother.  Mary is the one who unlocks the garden and, once inside, she brings other people within: Dickon, Ben Weatherstaff (the gardener), Colin, and her uncle.  It is through her hands and intercession, you might say, that healing and new life occur.  Our Lord came to us as a baby in the arms of Mary and, on the cross, He gave her to us.  Now, we can most easily and quickly reach Him through her.  Our Lady draws us closer to God and, thus, guides us into the heavenly garden that is heaven.  

Dickon:  There is not a character in the book who does not think of Dickon without a certain fondness.  There is just something about him that sets him apart.  He seems to be one with nature: he can talk with the animals, who flock around him lovingly.  He also seems to understand the needs and desires of other people with compassion.  He is a great help to Mary as he brings her gardening tools and food when her appetite grows from unaccustomed exercise.  Dickon's symbolism is revealed in an argument between Mary and Colin, when the former defends Dickon by asserting, "He's nicer than any other boy that ever lived!...He's--he's like an angel!"  Dickon's protecting, guiding, supporting presence is akin to the aid that each of us receives from our guardian angel in our journey toward heaven.

Robin:  The first friend Mary makes is the red-breasted robin who sings from one of the tree branches within the secret garden.  "She stopped and listened to him and somehow his cheerful, friendly little whistle gave her a pleased feeling...the bright-breasted little bird brought a look into her sour little face which was almost a smile."  The bird awakens joy within Mary.  It is then the bird that reveals to Mary the place where the key to the secret garden is hidden.  Symbolically, the bird is the Holy Spirit, whose presence within our souls produces joy.  The Spirit sings to us, guiding us to heaven.

The Key:  The secret garden has been locked up for ten years, the key hidden in a hole in the ground.  After Mary discovers the key with the robin's aid, she finds the door that leads into the garden--a door that is extremely hidden beneath vines of ivy, along a long expanse of wall.  The hidden door is reminiscent of Our Lord's words: "For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:14).  The key to the garden symbolizes the Church, for it is to Peter that Jesus says, "I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19).

Martha:  Martha is Dickon's older sister.  She works at Misselthwaite as one of the servants, cooking and cleaning.  Might she be symbolic of the Martha, sister of Mary, who appears in the Gospels and who was "distracted with all her preparations?" (Luke 10:38-42)

Magic:  "Mary was a great believer in Magic.  Secretly she quite believed that Dickon worked Magic, of course good Magic, on everything near him and that was why people liked him so much and wild creatures knew he was their friend...Magic was working all the afternoon and making Colin look like an entirely different boy."  

Mary and Colin are convinced about the presence of "Magic" within the garden.  Colin, in fact, holds a kind of religious ceremony where he calls upon the Magic to heal him.  "Sometimes since I've been in the garden I've looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something were pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast.  Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing.  Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people.  So it must be all around us.  In this garden--in all the places."  

One could very simply replace the word "magic" with "grace."  It is God's grace (His life and love) that is present in every creature, in every place.  As St. Therese of Lisieux aptly said, "Everything is grace."

While in the garden one day, Colin experiences a rapture and exuberantly stands up, proclaiming that he wanted to shout out to "something" to express his gratitude for all that he was experiencing.  Ben Weatherstaff suggests singing the Doxology, but Colin (who has never been to church due to his assumed infirmity) knows nothing about it.  Dickon then sings out, 

"Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below, praise Him above ye Heavenly Host, praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen."

This is the most powerful aspect of gardening.  God reveals Himself to us through His Word, through the Tradition of the Church, and through His creation.  We can look at the beauty of a rose, at the wonder of a seedling growing, at the immensity of the sky and learn something about God.  

Creation tells us a great deal about the Creator.

Colin knew next to nothing about God; he never stepped foot inside a church.  Yet, he came to know a great deal about creation and, through that, the goodness of the Creator.  He called it "Magic" instead of grace, but he knew and recognized it.

The Secret Garden is called a children's story, but the innocence, simplicity, and joy of the book is a gift to adults as well.  It's a good reminder that the simplest things--such as a growing garden--can teach us a great deal about those things that are most profound.