We transform our gardens and yards into sacred space when we understand them as places of growth not only for plants and trees, but for our inner selves. What is “sacred space?” It is a place for dedication, where the miracles of life and growth are acknowledged as evidence of something larger than we are. That “something larger” can be called by many different names – I prefer to call it Lord. The Latin word for “sacred” gives us the word “sanctuary,” denoting not only a sacred space but also a place of refuge and protection. The garden can become a place where we can restore our emotional and spiritual balance and nourish ours senses and souls, away from the noise of everyday life.
Creating sacred space moves us beyond mere decorating in the outdoors. When we garden for the soul, we use the experiences in the garden to tend our inner landscapes and foster the growth of spirit. In the spiritual garden, with the miracle in mind, we consciously and deliberately restore the meaning and symbolic intent of what might otherwise be considered ordinary tasks: digging, planting, watering, tending and maintaining the outer landscape.
I don’t know precisely when the first human planted a seed and became an active participant in the mystery and magic of the cycle of nature, capable of transforming the landscape. I know when I began again in the garden and rediscovered gardening as an instrument of grace.
Nineteen years ago my sisters and I faced a terminal illness with our mother. She was in the hospital for 30 days and upon her discharge, she went home where around-the-clock care had to be provided. During this time, I desperately searched for a way to relieve the stresses not only from my normal day-to-day responsibilities, but also from the added responsibility and heartache that came with mom’s illness. I turned to our yard and began the journey for cultivating something different in our yard. My husband, Lewis, had done most of our yard work and design, with some input from me, but suddenly, I needed to be a part of this with him. It was during this time of work in our yard that I realized the release of tension, stress and worry as I worked in the soil.
Gardening also helps us come to terms with the cycle of human life. As mom approached the end of her life, I struggled with the loss of this wonderful mother, friend, teacher and spiritual master gardener. I brought plants from her yard and integrated them into ours so I could have something permanent and tangible as part of my life – the plants that she loved. This connection and cycle continues as I share her plants with my daughter for her yard.
The following year brought me face-to-face with two devastating blows. I thought the death of my youngest child, Mike, would be the single, most devastating blow I would ever have to face. However, eight months later I came face to face with another devastating blow – the tragic loss of my oldest child, Bobby. I found myself lost in a dark pathway I didn’t recognize nor want to cultivate.
In the blackness of this grief, I not only reached out for counseling, to my pastor, my family of faith and I reached out to our yard – a familiar and a safe place. It was during this time that I used prayer as part of my gardening. Most gardeners work in silence and in this time that I would spend outside, I would plant, nurture, prune, cultivate and pray.
After reading an article on prayer flags, I decided to make some for our yard. One of our flags has a quote that I took from my sister, Jane’s, home, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” We have several prayer flags that hang from bamboo poles in our yard. The bamboo plant is rich in symbolism. Like the Tree of Life, it connects heaven and earth. In great winds it bends but doesn’t break, so it reminds us to be “rooted, yet flexible,” to endure, survive and conquer adversity. It is also a symbol of graceful aging because it remains evergreen, unchanging with the seasons, and grows more beautiful with maturity. There are flags that we have made in memory of loved ones no longer here, flags in honor of loved ones still here, flags that display our Christian faith and flags that remind us of special seasons in our lives. As I work in the garden and whisper a prayer, I am comforted by an ancient belief that these flags will take my prayers and swiftly carry them to the heavens.
Water is an important part in our garden. The sound of falling water soothes the soul and relaxes the body; it purifies and cleanses. The waterfall is the emblem of continuous and ever-changing motion, the whirlpool of life’s difficulties, the stream of its steady progress and the pond of its mystery and depth. We are relaxed and soothed by the sound of water falling over the rocks from a fountain in our koi pond. This sound can wash the worries of the world from one’s shoulders and offers a cooling touch to tired feet after a long day in the garden.
Lewis did all of the manual work for the first pond and designed it to be viewed from the yard as well as our porch. It was a wonderful and peaceful addition to our garden. However, he wanted a larger pond, as most koi lovers do, so plans began the latter part of the summer for a new addition. The pond is now in place, the addition of a viewing deck has been completed and the fish have, ever so slowly, adjusted and have spawned and we have many babies. They no longer hide in the deep part of the pool, but welcome the opportunity to be social and part of our lives.
One of my delights has been to wait for the dragonflies to come to our pool. They come and hover above the pool and are, to me, the delight of the insect world – shimmering and iridescence in motion. It’s easy to see why the dragonfly was once a symbol of the soul. I did not know this when this symbol was introduced to our garden. A story on dragonflies was given to me after Mike’s death, and they have become a symbol of our garden and for me, personally.
In our yard, closed off from everyday distractions, the soft sounds of wind chimes and water help us to hear in the silence. While there are sacred spaces that encourage us to meditate through movement and activity, in our garden, we learned to let go of our need to act, do and accomplish as part of the spiritual journey. In this garden, a path is introduced as a visual reminders that true spiritual energy is based in tranquility. Along this path, sometimes covered over with flowers, we have placed rocks with words carved such as “remembered”, “peace”, “wisdom”, “faith”, and “mercy.” As we walk through the yard, weaving in and out of the azaleas, we are reminded to focus on what is meaningful in our lives.
Gardening has been a healing instrument in my life. It has not always been the way it is now. As I mentioned earlier, I began my gardening while mother was ill and found healing and solace in this. It became an even more integral part of my time at home after the death of Mike and Bobby. When people stand on our back porch and look out over the yard, the biggest compliment that we are given is that our yard feels peaceful. At first these comments caught me off guard, because most of my work came during a time of heartache and pain and peace was completely unthinkable.
If there is anything that characterizes most of our lives, it is the daylong bombardment of stimuli. From the moment our alarms go off in the morning to the time we turn off the lights at night and only the hum of the refrigerator or air conditioner remains, we are surrounded by sound – cars honking, people talking, phones and faxes ringing, children clamoring, a steady background of radio and television. Smells envelop us – from the exhaust of cars to a stranger’s perfume or the wafting airs from a sidewalk food cart. The lights of the office, the glare of the computer screen, and the insistent barrage of brightly colored graphics everywhere we look dull our eyes to visual pleasure. Most of us have learned to “tune out” whenever we can. But of course, tuning out doesn’t mean that we aren’t being affected. It simply means we’ve chosen not to be aware of how much our spirit is affected by uninvited influences.
A garden is a place where we are invited to make a relationship with nature. A sacred space in a garden needs to be made with great love and with great intention and commitment. I think it is most powerful and meaningful when we invite in friends and family members that we love, and with their energy, the sacredness of the garden comes to life even more. There is a love that can be kindled between two people that is regenerative; it is like the love that we can feel from our Creator. Working in this sacred space the spirit is healed. Old wounds can be healed and the soul can be healed, and love continues to nurture even when we don’t see the source.
When we feel a comfort and a relationship in nature, this gives us regeneration. This gives us the link to the life-death-life cycle. And gardens provide us the opportunity to have a deep relationship with nature. In this way, with our love we can know the eternal. We can actually be a part of the continuation of the universe. We can make beautiful places where we feel the healing in ourselves and others – where joy is sparked and where renewal happens. Like any spiritual work, it can’t just be done once and then left. It is a daily process.
Although our yard is “under construction” since the death of my husband, Lewis at this time, it still is a place that I escape and can be alone with God. I learn as we create, I change as I garden and I find peace in cultivating my own sacred space and as I continue to become the “new normal” of who God is calling me to be.