The Garden as Contemplative Space

From the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of Reflections magazine.

How We See
Shapes What We See


by the Rev. Mary Earle

My grandmothers were both dedicated gardeners, and some of my first awakenings to divine Presence came in their gardens.
Beth, my dad’s mom, came from northern Louisiana and had a big formal garden. She won prizes for her flower arrangements and was not particularly happy if my sister and I were exploring her flowers.

On the other hand, Golda, my mother’s mother, had grown up in the country west of Fort Worth. Her garden was less organized and big. Looking back on it, I have a sense that it was a hospitable place, where all kinds of roses and flowers and herbs could find welcome. I have vivid memories of watching Golda water the garden, facing east in early dawn light, backlit by the rose-gold rays of the sun. Shining droplets fell from the hose, not unlike the halos that we typically see on depictions of saints. Something about Golda’s presence, her way of being in the garden and her ease with her grandkids’ collective digging and exploring gave me an early taste of contemplation.

One of the first definitions I heard for contemplation was: “a long, loving look.” In other words, contemplation is about seeing. It’s about stopping long enough to behold and to wait for the divine Presence to be known. Contemplation, as Irish writer John O’Donohue used to say, leads us to know that “how we see shapes what we see.” The gaze with which we behold another, behold the world, behold ourselves can be potentially transformative.

When I was going on pilgrimages to Scotland, Ireland and Wales with Sister Cintra Pemberton, OSH (Order of St. Helena) she would encourage us to offer this prayer: “May I see with the eyes of Christ. May I behold all with love.”

This is no easy path. We are encouraged by our culture to see in terms of black/white, right/wrong, in/out. Those polarities wear us out and keep us from seeing the presence of the Risen Christ in and through all that exists. Make no mistake: beholding all in love, remembering that how we see shapes what we see, is a rigorous contemplative process. And this is where gardening comes in for me.

Two years ago, after my husband, Doug, and I had both retired, during the spring and Lent I enrolled in an online class from the website “Living with the Seasons,” offered by author, gardener and naturalist Waverly Fitzgerald. The class was an invitation to observe closely five plants in my own yard as winter gave way to spring. First, each student picked trees and herbs and flowers to behold on a daily basis.

Students came from all over the country, so we were reporting from the Pacific Northwest, from Texas, from New England, from the South. I decided to carefully watch a redbud tree, the yellow jasmine, the plumbagos (which had been trimmed almost to the ground after a freeze), the trumpet vine and the iris (the blue one I think of as Texas-tough; it came from my mother-in -law’s yard).

Every morning, right after my prayers, I would go out to the yard in early dawn light with the border collies, and we would make notes about the shifts that we were beholding. For the plumbago, this took the form of a change in the color of the stems, as the plant began to gather strength to grow new branches. The redbud tree was already popping its first deep fuschia buds. The yellow jasmine was getting new foliage and bringing forth buds.

The daily observation, I discovered, led to a deeper friendship with my own habitat. Long ago my friend Susan Hanson, a member of St. Mark’s in San Marcos and a naturalist, taught me to learn the names of the plants in my yard. She also encouraged me to dedicate more and more space to Texas natives. So for some time I’ve known which plants were which. The plants and I had been introduced, and we had spent good time together.

And yet.

And yet, this daily practicing of attending, beholding and noticing the stirrings of spring in my own gardens became a deeply loving look. Those yellow jasmine were planted by some prior owner. Doug and I have lived here since 1990, and I’ve tended to take the jasmine for granted. I knew it was there. I loved its yellow blossoms and the way in which it offers good cover for birds. But I’d never really observed it. I discovered a tenderness for the plant, because it is so linked to my childhood in Texas. And I found that beholding its spring offering of buds and leaves felt like a tender privilege. How we see shapes what we see.

Over time, during the course of the six weeks, I also took photos with my iPhone. This allowed me to have a record of the changes in the plants. Some of these changes were truly dramatic. The plumbago went from bare stems to leafy branches and tiny blue buds. The redbud tree went through the full cycle of blossoms giving way to leaves. And in each instance, I was made more and more aware of the Life at work in every plant, in every cell of every plant, in the elements within each cell. In Colossians 1:17 we read, “In Christ all things hold together.” I felt as if that were being preached to me by the place in which I abide, through the “words” of leaf, blossom and stem.

This practice of beholding has had its ripple effects. I find myself seeing anew in my neighborhood when I walk the dogs, and in my city, San Antonio, as I go about daily rounds. It affects the way I see other people, other cultures and the world. Contemplative practice, this way of beholding in love, can transform our way of seeing in meetings, worship, relationships, and even social policy. Beholding is a way of being open, of allowing our eyes to receive what is before us.

When we pray to see with the eyes of Christ, we come a little closer to seeing the whole world in Him and knowing that world as holy ground.

M-earleThe Rev. Mary Earle is a retired priest, author, and retreat leader. Her latest book is Marvelously Made: Gratefulness and the Body,  available from Church Publishing, from Viva Bookstore in San  Antonio, and from Amazon. Reach Mary at

To read more articles from the Fall/Winter issue of Reflections magazine, or to read the entire issue, go to this page.

arrow-sign-for-webPut It Into Practice

Engage the practice of “attending, beholding, and noticing” in your own yard as this fall turns to winter and then to spring.

Concentrate on a few plants in your yard or a single tree near where you live.

Or notice something else that changes over time — a kitten or puppy, a new baby.  They change greatly in just six months.

From The Episcopal Diocese of West Texas

%d bloggers like this: