Sacred Ground

Loyola College theologian Vigen Guroian, author of 'inheriting Paradise,' preaches gardening as the best way to cultivate a deeper spirituality.


As a theologian, Vigen Guroian is an expert in talking about God.

He has written books about seeking God and teaches the subject to undergraduates at Loyola College in Maryland.

But the best place to learn about spirituality and Christian values, he believes, is not in a tome; it is in his back yard, where peonies bloom, tomatoes ripen on the vine and cornstalks tower above his head.

"I think that gardening is nearer to godliness than theology," he writes in "Inheriting Paradise," his recently published collection of meditations on the spirituality of the spade.

The connection between gardening and spirituality is hardly alien to Christian tradition. Guroian points out numerous Biblical references to gardens and natural beauty, including the earthly paradise in Eden and the hymns of praise to creation found in the Psalms. The hymnody of Guroian's Armenian Orthodox church is filled with ecological references and images.

But beyond that, he said, the activity of gardening -- of cultivating beds, planting, watering, weeding and finally harvesting -- helps to convey some of the deepest mysteries of Christian faith: birth, death and resurrection.

"One of the principal things gardening teaches is that you cannot make your garden grow. Other forces are at work," Guroian said as he inspected his handiwork in the back yard of his home in Reisterstown.

A gardener witnesses the divine creative life force at work, building on and going beyond the human toil.

"There's an experience of grace in a garden. Not just that it's beautiful, but there's an experience of God as generative," he said. "We're not at the center of creation. God is. And God gave us the garden."

The experience of gardening also teaches one humility, he said. "You have to weed. You have to cultivate. This is painful. You get blisters, you bleed, you sweat. There's something purgative in that," he said.

And there are simply things that are beyond people's control. On a recent night, some hungry deer crept into his back yard and devoured his prized deep purple morning glories. And the drought has wreaked havoc, turning his lawn brown and making it a struggle to keep plants alive, let alone thriving.

"It's devastating," he said as he broke up a clod of dry soil in his hand.

"This is real humility. Anyone who gardens knows what the farmers are going through. This is serious business."

Guroian's love of gardening dates to his childhood, where his father planted vegetables at their home in Stamford, Conn., and his mother kept annual and perennial flower borders along the edge of their front porch.

He recalled that his father grew cucumbers and squash in a low area of the yard, and after a storm filled the garden with three feet of water, a 3-year-old Vigen went swimming among the vegetables.

But the biggest and grandest garden belonged to a family friend, Baron Manoog (Manoog is Armenian for "little male child"), whom Guroian describes as a "small, wiry old man with big, callused hands." Baron Manoog's flowers and vegetables, aided by the manure of his Rhode Island Red hens, grew twice as big and twice as beautiful as Guroian's father's.

The sights and smells of his own garden can instantly transport him to these images of his childhood. "It just sort of gives me peace," he said.

Guroian started gardening as a young married man, and his motivations were somewhat practical. "Not only do the vegetables taste better, but there are savings involved," he said.

Gradually, the garden became not just a utilitarian endeavor but a way to experience and express his faith. The seasons -- the fallow ground of winter, the rebirth and planting of spring, the growth of summer, and the harvest of fall -- corresponded to church feasts such as Advent, Lent, Easter and Pentecost that commemorate the birth, death and resurrection of Christ.

And his garden was his salvation when he struggled with a bout of depression several years ago when he turned 40. For months, he couldn't sleep. He couldn't write. Still, he unenthusiastically went through the motions of turning over the soil in the vegetable garden in late March. He tied together tall saplings to make tripods for his pole beans. But everything was an excruciating effort, and he felt afflicted by an inexplicable interior pain.

But as the garden began to sprout, the cloud of darkness began to lift. By the time of the Feast of the Transfiguration in August, "when the sweet peppers turn scarlet and the purple satin skin of the eggplant shimmers in the sensual light, when Jacob's ladder in blue reaches heavenward and the golden sunflower turns to crown the Sun, I was healed," he writes.

Beyond the theological metaphors, Guroian says his garden is simply his emotional and spiritual retreat.

"The amount of labor I put into the flowers and vegetables, it's not worth it, if you look at it in crude economic, utilitarian terms," he said. "But how do you measure the joy you feel by going out to the garden and seeing the peonies have just opened?"

That, he said, is a glimpse of Paradise.

Guroian will read from "Inheriting Paradise" at 8 p.m. Aug. 20 at the Bibelot bookstore in the Timonium Crossing Shopping Center in Timonium.

Pub Date: 7/31/99

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