Sacred Gardens

by frankbeswick

Humans have an intuition that there can be something sacred about a garden and they have reflected this insight in religious gardens.

The Bible does not speak of the Garden of Eden, but rather says that God planted a garden in Eden, an area in modern Iran. This was after He caused the Earth to bring forth fruits. The biblical insight is therefore that the garden was something special, a holy place where humans could live in peace and abundance, enjoying fruits as they sprang from the Earth, and as they did so, walk with God and enjoy fellowship with him. Eden is mythical, but myths contain great insights about life, and in Eden we see life as it ought to be lived, a harmony between God, humans and Earth. Since then humans have tried to replicate the vision of Eden in their own gardens.

Image above courtesy of Berndt Leitner

Sacred places

The dry winds scour the sun-kissed lands of Iran until they reach a walled enclosure. Within the wall is  a garden, where fountains twinkle and shed sparkles of light in the shade of the fruit trees. Flowers blossom in luxuriant colours and shades, while the trees are heavy with fruit. People lounge in the shade, sipping drink and savouring the peaches that droop from the trees heavy in abundance. This is paradise. Paradise is a Persian word for a garden that encapsulates a dream, the reverie of the ideal existence, where humans rest and enjoy plenty under the benevolent eye of God. The word has travelled through Judaism and Christianity, having settled in Islam to give that religion its distinct vision of heaven, the garden where the blessed enjoy the presence and the blessings of God. 

This is not the only Iranian term to enter our mythology, for Eden is Iranian, though the area, now known as Edin,  is near  the border of Iran and Iraq. The Hebrews who produced the Bible cherished a folk memory of a time when their ancestors dwelt in a fertile valley in Eden, which they described as a garden, whence they were driven out by unknown pressures. This fertile valley, which has become synonymous with an idyllic state of existence, has entered Western mythology as both a myth of origin and the ideal state of life, a place where humans dwell in peace and plenty and enjoy harmony and friendship with God.  We note, though, that while the Earth was abundant in fruit, the vision of Eden is that it was somehow something more, a special place where human life came to fulfillment. While the wild was good, the garden was better and represented the divine ideal for the world.  

While we are accustomed to having great temples and churches as sacred sites, we sometimes forget that there is a rich variety of sacred sites to be found across all religions, ranging from stone edifices to groves and gardens. 

Why should we think a garden is sacred? I suggest that the answer lies in liminality. Ancient religions thought that liminal places, those on the threshold of  different spheres of life, were where the sacred was encountered. Water's edge, mountain tops, caves, springs and wells, headlands, all were edge places where the sacred is met. Gardens have a liminal character, for they are places where nature and culture meet, nature is present, but in cultivated form. For the Hebrews the wilderness was the place where they encountered the majestic theophany of Sinai, but they passed through the wilderness to the promised land and never wanted to return to it. They were a fundamentally civilized people who found the sacred in cultural products, such as cities and gardens.

For some reason lying deep in the human psyche humans have desired to replicate their sense of the sacred in the way that they garden, and according to their different ways of conceiving the sacred they design their gardens. It is a taste of this rich variety of conceptions of the sacred that I want to give in this article. 

Cloister Garden

Cloister Garden
Cloister Garden
Courtesy of Elanathewise

Monastic Gardens

If you look at the picture above you will see that at the heart of a Catholic monastery there is a cloister garden, a quadrilateral grassy space around which are corridors whose windows look inwards to the garden and along which the monks walk while meditating and thinking. Note that it is not particularly ornate, being mainly grass and shrubs, but it is intended to be an open space at the heart of the monastery. Note how carefully tended it is. It reflects the Benedictine belief in good order and neatness, while remaining in harmony with nature. The cloister garden is practical, psychologically beneficial  and symbolic. The practical side allows light and air to the heart of the monastery. Psychologically its greenery calms the mind, for greenery is known for its beneficial effects on the human emotions, and symbolically its stands for the openness of the human soul to the presence of God. Set in a well built monastery, the cloister garth combines the blessings of gardening and architecture in the cause of the human spirit's elevation to communion with God. 

A Christian garden combines the service of God and humanity, and thus monastic gardens serve more than one need. If you look at the image below you see a well tended vegetable garden in a monastery. Note that it is productive and beautiful, neat and well-ordered, reflecting the monastic ideal that all is done for the love of God and other humans. God's glory is served by the diligence of the gardener in creating something beautiful, and human needs by the beauty and the food provided. Note also that the paths are neatly trimmed, and the neatness reflects the state of mind of the monk, whose aspires to a state of peace and calm in which small tasks are subsumed into the service of the infinite and which thereby achieve transcendent significance. 

There used to be a variety of gardens in monasteries. We may have read the Cadfael tales about the monk-healer, and these hark back to the days when monasteries had their own herbalists. With modern medicine this is not necessary, and the herb garden is part of the kitchen garden, but monasteries still have some kitchen garden facilities . 

There was also  in all monasteries a paradise garden, which you see on the front of the book advertised below, Shoots Out of Eden. This was the area around the monastery church and it was supposed to be as beautiful as possible, as a memory of Eden that was and a foretaste of paradise to come, an elevation of the human spirit in its journey to communion with God. 

Sacred Gardens

Monastic Garden
Monastic Garden
Courtesy of Stemstunden

The Garden and the Wild.

Yet the Benedictine vision was not the only vision of a Christian garden, for it is a testimony to the richness of Christianity that it has produced a whole range of different garden types far beyond the scope of this single article. 

At the extreme of Christian gardening comes the tiny and now abandoned garden at Skellig Michael, a jagged fang of rock jutting from the Atlantic off Kerry, which you can see below. This  extreme site was the base for austere Celtic monks who sought isolation from the world for their strict way of life. In small spaces on this fang they managed to create a religious garden, by dragging up seaweed to form the basis of the garden, mixing it with kitchen and human waste and cultivating their sparse diet of vegetables in the lovingly tended but shallow soil. The monastery was abandoned in the thirteenth century because a severe climate period made life on the rock impossible.

But the Skellig Michael Garden was an extreme example of the Celtic garden. Irish Christianity had a closer relationship with druidic paganism than continental Christianity had, and the druids had long celebrated nature and had believed that the divine was encountered in wilderness. Thus the Celtic monks would set off to find their personal  deserts in the wilderness to  encounter God; and their personal gardens lacked the neat and trimmed character of the Benedictine foundations. Sadly no examples have survived the ages, but it is believed that they were small patches of lovingly tended neatness on the edge of the wilderness, where the Celtic monks would welcome the animals with whom they knew that they shared the world and with whom many of them had a strange rapport.

Wilder Places

Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael
Image courtesy of stefanmissing

Plants of the Marian Garden

Roses are associated with Mary
Roses are associated with Mary
Image courtesy of rosenstrauch

Marian Gardens

In the rich variety of Christian gardens the Marian garden stands out as a place of beauty. Catholics and Orthodox Christians love Mary the mother of Jesus and celebrate her place in salvation history, and they have expressed their love in art, music and gardens. Before the Reformation there were many Marian gardens planted in the monasteries and convents of England, where they thrived until the joyless iconoclasts of the Reformation wrecked the monasteries and destroyed their art and architecture, leaving the gardens to run to weeds. 

Robert Graves, writing in The White Goddess, claimed that the English love a goddess, and there is truth in the fact that the Angles at least were said by Tacitus to have been worshipers of the great goddess. But after the conversion to Christianity devotion to the goddess and the celebration of the sacred feminine became transferred to Mary. Many flowers that had mythical associations with the ancient goddess, such as Nigella Damascena [Love in a Mist] were known by Marian names, in Nigella's case Our Lady in the Shade. There was also marigold, known as Mary's Gold; and Impatiens balsamium, [Balsam] once known as Our Lady's Slipper. There is a long list of these plants, more than I can list here, but there is a list in Shoots Out of Eden, the book advertised above.  Marian gardens might also function as sacristan's gardens. the sacristan was the monastic official who organized the services, and part of his job was to select the flowers for the altar. In doing this he would link up with the gardener. But as Catholic festivals use colour coded vestments [red for martyr's feasts, white for others, etc] the selection flowers mattered. 

But pride of place often went to roses and lilies. Mary is associated with both of these plants, with the whiteness of the lily symbolizing her purity. On feast days of Mary roses and lilies would adorn the church, and scented roses would have been prized because their sweet aromas would have been regarded as conducive to prayer in a church that believes that all the senses should be involved in the worship of God. Rosemary was a herb whose connection with Mary is evident from its name. Indeed, the sacristan at Melrose in Scotland grew the rare and precious blue rosemary, and this plant was especially prized because Mary's traditional colour is blue, as you will see if you look at statues of her.

The rich variety of flowers associated with Mary, especially roses and lilies, flowers of exquisite scent  and beauty, manifest the way in which Catholicism and orthodoxy celebrate the divine feminine, the side of the sacred neglected by a theology with a somewhat patriarchal element. Regrettably, the Reformation smothered and smashed this side of Christianity in some countries. 

Plants of the Marian Garden

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells
Image courtesy of Nicholashan


I have mentioned but a sample of the variety of Christian sacred gardens, and only a small variety of the flowers with religious associations. I have not had time to discuss the gardens of other faiths, such as Islam and Buddhism, and I know that Islamic garden design has a clear and distinct character that in some ways mirrors the principles on which the design of mosques is founded. There is something sacred about a garden, and the act of gardening was for the monks and nuns an act of worship. For the mediaeval monks human activities could be divided into high, low and sinful. Hunting was a low activity; but gardening was up there with the high ones.  

Updated: 09/10/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 09/23/2015

I do not know Dubhan. But Mary is a powerful figure and image in Chrsitian religion. She took the place of the ancient goddess, and is much loved.

Yes. the Celtic Christians had gardens, but hey are not recorded, so little can be said.

Please do not expect much from me in the next day, as I am having computer problems and am not on my own computer. I think that I am going to have to replace my machine, as I suspect that it is dead. Watch this space.

DerdriuMarriner on 09/23/2015

frankbeswick, May you write more articles on sacred gardens, such as in the possibilities you suggest regarding Buddhism and Islam.
Iran would be particularly inviting since Iranian-descended emigrants and Tokharian language speakers are responsible for the oases linked with the mummies of Ürümqi.
They say in the Basque Country that one of the reasons why Catholicism is so strong there is the role of Mary.
Were gardens ever found in conjunction with the Celtic Christian community established by the Welsh monk Dubhán at the subsequent Hook Head lighthouse of Ireland?

frankbeswick on 09/10/2015

To live well we must love God, other humans and the World, with the creatures in it. Neglect of any one of these three makes life defective. A gardener is one who loves the world and nurtures a small area of it. I regret that I could only give a taste of the range of sacred gardens, but there could be more articles here.

jptanabe on 09/10/2015

Yes, gardens are wonderful! I love many different kinds as they each satisfy different emotional needs. Communing with God in nature is the best!

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