Garden’s bounty: Spirituality, joy

Called to care for creation, some gardeners find their faith here in earth

Posted: August 10, 2007

Sooner or later, there comes a gardening moment like this:

It's hot. We're alone, watering, weeding. The chores are mundane, yet we're at peace, loving the warmth and repetition, the simplicity and silence.

The garden, we come to realize, is a sacred place - not a religious experience necessarily, but a place that teaches us to truly see and authentically be. Here, too, among the lilies and tomatoes, we bear witness to ordinary events and stunning miracles - learning, from these plants and tasks, that often they are one and the same.

Kathleen and Ron Bailey have had many such epiphanies in their gardens, which are laid out around their home at the foot of what they call Serenity Hill, along Route 401 in Chester Springs.

For them, everything begins with . . . soil.

"The health of the soil is what gives life to the plants and allows a space for deep roots to grow," says Kathleen, a social worker with a master's degree in divinity. "In the same way, God provides for us to allow our spiritual roots to grow deep and strong."

This "soil" is formed by "how we relate to one another, the choices we make in relationships, how we treat each other with justice and compassion, and how we open ourselves to God's influence."

Kathleen Bailey will share her thoughts on spirituality in the garden in a sermon on Sunday at the 9:30 a.m. service at Central Baptist Church in Wayne. A visit to the Baileys' garden will follow.

The public is invited to this and other sermons by the church's gardening congregants on Aug. 19, Aug. 26 and Sept. 2. The idea was conceived by the church's pastoral team, the Rev. Marcus Pomeroy and the Rev. Laurie Sweigard, after hearing some of their members' extraordinary gardening tales.

"Gardening brings you naturally to God," Pomeroy says. "It's very cool."

Carol Kortsch will speak Aug. 26 about her garden along King of Prussia Road in Radnor, an unusual mix of water, rocks and plantings that evoke tranquillity and energy, sadness and joy.

Kortsch, a psychotherapist; her husband, Uli, an international finance consultant; and their three children built a natural pond and waterfall, along with memorials to the tragedies of the Sept. 11 attacks and Kosovo. They are interspersed with wild, romantic flower beds overflowing with the bold colors and tropical leaves of Carol's childhood in Angola.

For all its variety, the look is pure English cottage garden, to which Kortsch has a legitimate claim. Her "Mum" was British.

"My time in the garden is an active meditation," she says, a place without conversation, judgment or expectation of perfection.

It is not, however, without joy. The Kortsch gardens have celebrated friends and family around dinner parties and weddings, and wonder and delight with grandson Jack, who's almost 2.

"Life is not all about activity," Kortsch says. "You have to stop to become conscious."

Wrapped inside this 18th-century farmhouse with its storybook gardens and 21/2 acres, we'd be tempted to hide from the madness beyond. But Kortsch is not in retreat; she is exploring.

"Look deep into nature and you'll understand everything better," she says.

She describes "moments of spiritual consciousness in the garden, where you become aware of God's presence in some creature or something amazing that happens."

For Ron Bailey, a clinical psychologist and former pastor who works with autistic kids, those insights happen spontaneously and often in the gardens he and Kathleen created from scratch eight years ago.

"If I had my choice of sitting in a pew versus the garden, I'll take the garden any day," he says, calling the dulcet riffs of visiting songbirds "better than the best choir anywhere."

Like Kortsch, the Baileys experience their garden on many levels. One, the most basic, is as a source of food for their family, which includes a teenage daughter and Ron's mother. Using organic methods, they grow herbs and most of the fruits and vegetables they consume in a year: beans, beets, tomatoes, squash, peppers, spinach, raspberries and more.

The garden truly has an Eden-esque quality to it, what Cassandra Carmichael might call a "mini-God's garden." Carmichael runs environmental programs for the National Council of Churches.

"As a gardener, in caring for your garden, you're playing out the story of the Garden of Eden," says Carmichael, who once worked on a farm in Kentucky and now grows herbs and wildflowers in her small yard in Annapolis, Md.

"Gardening is a way for me to think about how God created the world," she says. "It strengthens my connection to the divine."

It also brings "peacefulness, reflection and prayerfulness," Carmichael says, "and a joy that is a connection to my joy of God, a joy I couldn't get if I was standing on concrete somewhere."

So, it turns out, we tend our inner selves in the garden, too, sustained and buoyed by the seamless cycles of planting, growing and harvesting. In this, perhaps we find redemption or, scariest of all, the courage to change.

Author Anaïs Nin, best known for her decidedly secular writings, may not have grasped the joy of digging in the dirt. But she understood change, and the power of the garden as metaphor.

"And the day came," she writes, "when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."


If You Go

Central Baptist Church is at 106 W. Lancaster Ave. in Wayne (across from the Anthony Wayne theater). Summer services are at 9:30 a.m. Child care is available. For information, go to www.cbcwayne.org or call 610-688-0664.

Kathleen Bailey will speak about spirituality and her garden in the sermon Sunday. Future speakers in the "Spirituality of Gardening" series will be the Rev. Laurie Sweigard, one of the church's pastors and a former social worker, on Aug. 19; psychotherapist Carol Kortsch on Aug. 26; and public-relations specialist Bonnie Chandler on Sept. 2. A garden visit will follow each service.


Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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