The Garden of the Soul

The American Roman Catholic world of the 18th century frequently found lay folk lacking in sacramental ministers.  With this challenge to maintaining their faith through regular public worship and Mass attendance, lay faithful found ways to continue their faith through the use of home-based prayers and family (or small community) devotions.

As print material became more affordable and easily accessible, the ubiquitous volume for English-speaking Catholics was Richard Challoner’s The Garden of the Soul.  Through its many editions, this volume described its principal feature as its “completeness as a manual of devotion; for it blends solid instruction with prayer; and provides the Catholic with all that is requisite to sanctify every day, and in more special manner the Sunday, whether by public, or domestic, or personal acts of worship” (Richard Challoner, The Garden of the Soul (London: [publisher not identified], 1775), 8).

I’ve run into this volume numerous times (as readers of American Catholicism and liturgy are wont to do).  But I’ve never batted an eye at the “Garden of the Soul” theme.  It sounded pleasant—a place where one might want to walk with God and not hide away.  Or, perhaps it evoked the notion of tending and caring for something that could grow.

Today’s Gospel gives us another take on gardening the soul.  Seed falls on good ground.  Seed falls on rocky soil.  Seed falls among weeds.  Seed is scattered and sometimes it bears fruit and other times it doesn’t.

Good News Flash: All this soil is in the same garden.

I am the rocky soil.  I am full of weeds.  I bear fruit (sometimes) and other times I do not.  I am the good ground.  All at the same time.

Terry Smith:
Image from Garden Tool Box

We Westerners who like to be specific and linear have trouble with drawing analogies to something whole; we are either red or green, black or white, White Sox or Cubs.  But, the Gospel continually confronts us with the words of Jesus which defy divisions.  He knows his faith-filled disciples: the same ones who will walk on water and proclaim that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world,” will fall asleep in his greatest hour of need, and complain about mundane little nothings instead of simply listening to Jesus.

We are all these things at once—the good, the stunted, the griefs, the anxieties, the joys and the hopes.  But, the good news is that Jesus comes to save not just part of us—but all of us.

He’s here for the whole garden.

There is hope for us, not only in our public and liturgical worship, but in our families, our friends, our small communities, and our spouses.  We can practice caring for these messy gardens together.  We can practice hearing and doing God’s word.  Whether we have ready access to sacramental ministers in the 21st century or not, we can feed our souls through the source and font of our faith in the Eucharistic celebration of the Mass, and in daily prayer both by ourselves, or where two or three might be gathered.

If, as Jesus says in our parable today, the seed is the word of God—the more we might tend to hearing it and filling our lives with God’s word, the more we might create good ground and, with hope, a fruitful harvest not only for ourselves but for the whole world.

So let us pray—at home, in our hearts, and in our liturgy.  Those with ears ought to hear.

Easter Egg in the Desert

Our children had a pretty fantastic Easter.  Their Easter was primarily spectacular due to the FOUR Easter egg hunts they enjoyed.  With the blessing of seeing two aunties and a family friend, our son and daughter made out like Easter bunny bandits—chocolate chicks, jelly beans, bubbles, and various assorted treasures…at least if you’re between 3 and 5 ½.

And yet, all of these delightful goodies were contained in eye-popping plastic eggs.  These weren’t real Easter eggs.  We had decorated eggs, and the children wanted to know when we would hide those eggs.  The real ones.

I, who had never hidden a real Easter egg in my life (because I intend to eat them) tried to shift the children’s attention elsewhere—but this would not do.  After what turned into tears of pleading, I finally agreed to let them hide our painted eggs (Dad was away, mind you).

The children hid eleven eggs.

We found ten.

Here we are now, in the midst of our Easter season.  By Easter IV, our initial Easter exuberance may have begun to wane.  People seem increasingly nonplussed when you say “Happy Easter.”  We start to spot more dead lilies.  (Or maybe your parishioners scuttle off with the dying plants before the arts and environment committee tosses them in the dumpster.)  With hope, if you also dyed Easter eggs, you have long since eaten them.  We ate ours.  Well, ten of them.

And yet, we still have a long way to go in the Easter season.  How can we sustain that Easter joy in the midst of what seems to be a rapidly normalizing life of struggle, work, and hope sometimes dashed?

It has occurred to me recently that there’s perhaps a reason why walking through the raucous wonder of the Paschal Triduum into the Easter Season sometimes feels like entering a quietly deadening desert—a strangely quiet setting, given the joy the liturgical texts suggest we should be experiencing.  When our ancestors in faith walked through their own Passover night into the life of Exodus…they were not walking into unrelenting joy.  They walked into a desert.

Granted, the People of Israel had just witnessed untold miracles of God, were benefitting from the leadership of Moses, and had a literal pillar of fire to guide them.  Perhaps the exuberance they first felt when crossing the Red Sea should have sustained them.  Yet, it did not.  They also felt nonplussed by rejoicing, and wondered with increasing grumbling about the labor of freedom that lay before them.

Yet, the Easter season unrelentingly invites us to remember the joy of the Gospel—the joy that Christ alone brings.  The joy that can only come when you find that treasure in the field, that lost coin, that lost sheep…or that lost Easter egg….

That joy and relief at discovering what we thought had been lost—invites us to hold on to it.  And, unlike our Easter egg (which I would NOT recommend eating), we are invited, again and again, to dine at the Supper of the Lamb.

Happy Easter.

Get a Little Lent in your Life

Lent is not a time for giving up.  Lent is all about perseverance.  Trying again.  And some prayer, fasting, and almsgiving would be nice, too.

But, we’re in a tough space this Lent…or at least I am.  I haven’t even gotten started yet.

A bout with Covid knocked out the first week and a half of Lent.  I missed walking out in the desert…I missed the bemused Jesus gently directing the wide-eyed disciples back down from the mountaintop.

On top of all this, I’ve felt unsettled about my Lenten practice.  Do I take something on?  Give something up?  And now, time flies and it’s the Second Week of Lent.  Is it too late to begin?

The Return of the Prodigal Son | Art UK
The Return of the Prodigal Son Eric Rimmington (b.1926), accessed at

While one who is waiting in line for exclusive event tickets would surely be disappointed by attempting to hop on the train two and a half weeks late–not even nosebleed seats would be left–the pathway to God’s kingdom doesn’t quite work that way.  There seems to always be room at the table….even for the late-comers.  In fact, the banquet doesn’t even get started until the Prodigal Son returns…or the vineyard workers show up at the 11th hour.  And we know what Jesus has to say about the people who complain about those lazy, good-for-nothing late-comers.

So, I’m the late-comer this Lent.  But Lent is about persevering.  I want to show up for the party.  And, now is an acceptable time.  Now is the day of salvation.  Anyone in the boat with me can begin Lent today…and perhaps begin by practicing a little bit of mercy…toward yourself.

Happy Lent.

Give Me a Sign

I know we’re not supposed to ask for a sign, but I sure would like one or two in my life.  How about a sign about where to send our kid to kindergarten?  A sign about how our family should live out its vocation?  A sign about what to make for dinner?

I’ve been going to Mass hoping I might see or hear a thing or two which tells me what to do.  Let us pray.  Fine.  Lift up your hearts.  Okay.  The Body of Christ.  Amen.

I feel like I already know what to do about these things.  But I want to know about what to do with my worries, my hopes, my concerns, my general yawp over the roofs of the world (thanks Walt Whitman).

As you may have guessed, I am not getting any “sign.”

When we feel lost and unsure, or overwhelmed and stressed, directions and directives sure are nice.  They tell us what to do, where to go, and what to do.  But, as you likely already know, and to my own disappointment, liturgical worship isn’t about directives.  Liturgical worship is about discernment.

Discernment involves choice: about noticing what attracts (or depresses) you, and a whole lot of listening.  It’s more than a science (where a nice sign would come in super-helpful).  It’s about trying to find the will of God, pondering it in prayer, and ultimately turning a decision back to God (before you sign any paperwork).  Being filled with a sense of consolation about the choice, as Ignatius of Loyola describes, offers some confirmation that you’ve made a good choice, perhaps even among several good options.

This is a process which involves some time, of course.  Unlike the immediate mental energy with which a “sign” might task us, discernment demands an expansion of one’s heart—a choice to focus, quieting the besetting, unsettling worries which plague us—and offering our wonders to Christ.

How does the liturgy allow for discernment?

Let us pray.  There are a lot of words in the liturgy (I’ll reserve my thoughts on need for silence for another time).  But this simple invitation to pray is a key to the Christian life.  We are encouraged to choose to come to the Living God in relationship.  Prayer facilitates this relationship.  Rather than leaving us to spin in worry, the liturgy offers us a space and a time to focus on hearing how God has loved us, calls us to conversion, and offers us mercy.  That sounds like a good starting point.

Lift up your hearts.  Well, there’s nothing like trying to empty out whatever is in our overtaxed and burdened hearts and instead offer our hearts to God.  Any burden which Jesus carries, we know, is light.  Why not abandon the weight we’re carrying?  In liturgical celebration, we’re bringing whatever is in and of ourselves to God; maybe he can do something with it while we join in thanks and praise.

The Body of Christ.  Well, Jesus really does come back at us with a pretty specific answer every time we celebrate the Lord’s supper and say “Amen.”  This is Christ—with us and in us.  We become, again, part of his body—and we are all Christ’s body together.  The liturgy reminds us that we are all invited to flourish, to have dignity, to know we’re in the image of God.  We’re all invited to bring Christ’s light which first dawned on us in our baptism to others.  So, what choices can we make that will honor this reality—and this duty—today?

Sure, these aren’t “signs”—so maybe we should still be annoyed.  But signs don’t allow for growth.  Signs don’t allow for conversion.  Signs don’t even allow much for the exercise of a well-formed conscience.  Perhaps this is why neither Jesus nor the liturgy are interested in signs.  The liturgy offers us a process—and asks that we actively participate in it.

So maybe I’ll try to stop asking for weather forecasts from God when I show up at Mass.  Instead, I can try to read the signs of the times (Matthew 16:3).  What can I do—in this time—to serve the will of God?


Escaping Christmas

So, what’s your Advent been like?  Have you put the Christmas tree up?  Ours went up on November 12 (long story).  Have your online shopping done?  Maybe you share my annual battle where I try to apply coupons that actually work to a photocard-producing company (which shall remain nameless) but rhymes with “butterfly”?

How have we been doing with the other Advent “things”?  Like staying awake because we do not know the hour (Gospel, Advent I)?  Throwing off the works of darkness (Second Reading, Advent I)?  How about cultivating a spirit of wisdom and understanding (First Reading, Advent II)?  Or responding to the poor and afflicted with justice (Psalm, Advent II)?

Let’s face it.  Trying to live in Advent is depressing, because it seems so impossible. Advent runs completely against the tide of the “Holiday [aka “Christmas”] Season” in which we find ourselves.  How can we possibly get out of the crush of electronic buzz and tinsel that strangles us at every turn?

(At least the tinsel isn’t made out of lead anymore—there’s always a silver lining somewhere).

Like our baptism, the waters of Advent rush outward, toward the end of time—which began with the coming of Christ in his Incarnation.  The secularized signals of “Christmas” have little to say about that spirit.  “Christmas” on a sales flier very much points inward—to what the self can buy (or get).  Is not curving inward, with pride and selfishness, the root of all sin?

If so, then we’re really in trouble.

We’ve just celebrated the Immaculate Conception of Mary.  Let’s take Mary’s beginning in a life of grace as a signal to remind us of our own baptismal call.  Let’s get to the desert: in the clear quiet blank where we can be free of glitzy, discount buys; where we can see the stars; where we can hear the glad tidings; where we can be changed.

So, fear not.  The Lord will come and save us.  We can get past Christmas.  We can bring ourselves to the desert—and prepare the way for the Lord.