Thoughts of a Catholic Gardener

Somehow a garden is not complete without a statue—and it’s interesting to note how many religious statues work their way into local gardens.

I have a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in my front yard. He stands surrounded by a ring of giant hosta beneath our Mountain Ash tree.

Now—I was told that he is St. Francis, but he looks suspiciously like a statue of St. Fiocre that a Jesuit friend of mine kept in his own garden. When it comes to Catholic statuary, male saints tend to look alike: bearded, rugged, rustic and gentle, all at the same time.

That’s fine with me. It gives me something to live up to when I put on the gloves and grab the shovel for another season.

I’ve always been mindful of God in the garden and in the beauty of our growing season. Working a garden brings me closer to the divine energy that animated the world and still pours into our hearts like sun on a summer day. God is, after all, the light of the world.

I also keep a small Celtic cross in the backyard to keep me company with my weeding and to bless those hot summer days in the shade. The cross is fittingly broken like an ancient Irish grave stone, but in this case it was a gray squirrel that rudely knocked it over while chasing after a hickory nut.

Catholic garden statuary is a lot of fun as well as a sign of our bonds with creation. St. Francis is still the most popular of green saints. He appears with a menagerie of animals. You can find him standing with horses, wolves, birds and rabbits to name a few. The holy man attracted all living things towards him because of his love for God and his recognition of God in all things. His “Canticle of Brother Sun” is one of the most moving and joyful prayers in the Western tradition. In it he thanks God for Brother Sun, Brother Wind, Sister Water, and Mother Earth “who doth sustain us and keep us, and bring forth many fruits and flowers of many colors, and grass.”

St. Francis isn’t alone in his love for God and nature. There are many saints busy tending the fields and keeping their own sacred patch of earth. If you are thinking of becoming a vintner, you might pray to St. Urban, who had a hand for the grapes and a pallet to match his talent. Do you think that Jesus’ turning the water into wine may have been one of Urban’s favorite passages? Jesus celebrated the good things of this earth, the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands.

Work is what Catholic saints do. St. Fiocre specializes in herb and vegetable gardens. Santa Barbara is patron saint of geologists, and a good saint to pray to if you have one of those naturally rocky Connecticut yards to contend with. In Catholic statuary, the angels are immediately put to work holding baskets, collecting rain, playing the harp and generally urging on the birds and the bees in the ongoing cycle of life. St. Joseph carves posts for the garden and does any of the carpentry needed. Today he might be put to work with raised beds and arbors for Mary’s dooryard garden.

Somewhat portly monks with Buddha smiles also join the group. Monks have always known their ways around the garden and the kitchen from soups to breads. The ancient traditions of food growing and gathering remain a part of monastic life today. A monk at work in nature is a sign of God at work in us. Of course the same is true for the convent, and I would suspect that the cooking is even better. Hildegard of Bingen is represented holding a potted plant. I carry a small book of her verse with me to read when I rest in the garden.

Let’s also recall that Pope Francis has cheered the hearts of gardeners everywhere with characteristic gestures early in his papacy. On the morning of March 22, 2013, the Pope celebrated a small Mass for the Vatican’s janitors and gardeners in the Domus Sanctae Marthae chapel. The following year he opened the spectacular gardens of the papal summer residence, Castel Gondolfo, to the public.

Of course, even with a papal blessing, the garden needs protection from pests and evil spirits. For this we have the fierce St. Michael the Archangel, a holy warrior against the wiles of Satan, aphids and woodchucks. I do remind myself that God created the woodchucks too.

St. Patrick had no use for snakes in his garden and banished them from Ireland forever. The snake, of course, is a problematic figure in Eden as well as your own backyard.

Nothing is perfect on earth, but with the saints behind us, let’s all have a good year in the garden.