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.
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.