Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Clearing the Garden

During the summer of 1988, I spent a week at a convent in Elvas, a city in the Alentejo section of Portugal. During the summer, this region turns into a virtual desert. No rain falls, the grass turns as brown as hay and dust gets whipped up at the slightest breeze.

During that week, the sisters called on me to help them turn a section of their yard into a garden. Like much of the Alentejo, this patch of land was overgrown with brambles and the soil was rocky and dry. First we had to pull up the bushes which were not too eager to give up their territory. As we ripped them up by the roots, the branches wrapped around our forearms and legs like tentacles sinking their thorns into our flesh.

Once the thickets were cleared away, we took hoes to the dirt to dig out all the rocks which were as big as potatoes. Then, we had to quickly water down the soil or else it would dry up in the hot sun and blow away.

It was only after we had cleared the brush, pulled out all the rocks and wet the soil down that the sisters could even begin to plant their garden. It was hard, gruelling work under the hot sun. And I knew I wouldn’t be sticking around long enough to enjoy the tomatoes, onions and kale that the garden would produce.

I thought about that week I spent at the convent in Elvas while the Parable of the Sower was proclaimed at Mass this weekend. How hard at work God has been in the garden of my soul pulling up thorns, clearing away stones and keeping the soil moist. It has been slow, thankless work, but He has kept at it in His love and mercy.

If there is one type of soil in the parable that best characterizes me, it would be the shallow soil that accepts the word with joy, but when difficulty comes, the sprout shrinks up under the hot sun. I am always full of plans and resolutions about how I will put the word of God into effect in my life. But, I rarely persevere in seeing those plans through. No doubt, I make no progress in them because they are my plans inspired by nostalgia, pride or God knows what other vain sentiments. It is not always God’s plan that I am trying to enact. But, most of all, I do not persevere because I am not willing to accept the suffering necessary to see them through.

So then, how can I deepen the soil of my soul so that God’s word can sink deep roots in me? I have to accept the difficulties of my day, no matter how great or how small, without grumbling and even with joy offering them up out of love for Jesus, in reparation for my sins and in atonement for the unrepentant. All those physical pains and mental anxieties are serving to help me die to myself so that I can embrace Christ and His word more deeply into my being.

It is slow going. Preparing the soil requires much toil. And the seed grows slowly in secret. But the harvest is rich!

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