“Take care that what you have gathered does not long remain in its original form inside of you: the bees would not be glorious if they did not convert what they found into something different and better.” Petrarch Familiares 1.8
Many years ago, after my first year at Miami University, I headed out to Philmont Scout Ranch, a patch of more than one hundred thousand acres tucked into the northeastern corner of New Mexico about forty-five minutes from Taos. I did so with a spirit knotted up in doubt that people could really find common ground or any substantial basis for connection with one another. I can’t pinpoint exactly what bred that sense of isolation in me, but I know those mountains in the Sangre de Cristo range were a garden of ameliorating herbs, lush with friendship, quiet, and simplicity.
The months I spent there, drinking my water from streams, walking through flower-sprung meadows, and lying beneath the stars worked redemption in me without my even realizing it. While working as a guide, I saw fleabane open to the sun in the morning, I smelled the ponderosa pine’s butterscotch scent in warm afternoon breezes, and I felt myself moving in the world, engaging it and those with whom I shared that time backpacking.
During that first summer out west, I made a friend while taking a course in wilderness education. Liz and I were both nineteen I think, and after she had headed back to Iowa in early June, we began to correspond. The envelopes of her letters arrived decorated with stickers and colored designs, sometimes twice a week, and they pumped my heart full of helium-like joy. With a notepad stuffed in an accessible pocket of my pack, I wrote my letters to her on the trail during breaks in a day’s hike or in the evening before slipping into my bag. I can’t remember much of what I wrote, but I remember I went through more than one notebook rambling on about what seemed to me the difficulties of life and the human condition. I can see now that that writing and her receptiveness helped me to recover a sense of the world as a place of encounter, a place in which we can hope to meet one another, know one another, and care for one another. Our written exchanges worked the flourishing of my spirit.
For centuries, writing and the written word have been understood as a way of cultivating the soul’s health. Through the Middle Ages, as an aid to memory and learning, Christians preserved the classical practice of producing florilegia, books in which readers gathered together the blossoms of insight that authors had cultivated elsewhere. Preachers and professors alike made use of these collections of wise sayings in their preparation for writing, teaching, and preaching. Additionally, those collections, and the selections of texts they wove together served as a means of cultivating one’s heart and mind spiritually. Those who created the books employed a variety of organizing principles, but on occasion readers were left free to browse them like deer do fields. No single pattern had to order every reading.
While pursing my doctorate studying comparative literature, I made such books of libraries. With a dilettante’s abandon, I bent my knee to examine books hidden from sight, to smell budding lines here or there, and to note just out of curiosity what had grown up in this or that corner. Still, as I read, I gather and I drew much together in the hope of someday making something very sweet, sweet with the name of Christ. With some diligence, I still gather fragrant flowers from gardens and fields old and new, hoping for these to take root in the memory of my heart, to grow up within my soul, to bear fruit there as I cultivate its soil with the spade of prayer. I am a poor laborer, inconstant in my devotion. But in returning to my work, I aspire to make my heart a fountain, a well hewn from rocky earth, that a living faith might flow from it. Today, it is through a labyrinth of aqueducts and use of much ingenuity that I yield my water. It comes from far away with much labor and noise.
The book of Ecclesiastes reveals how all our labor under the sun, and the intricate pattern of our duties and responsibilities is a great vanity, a chase after wind, madness, and folly. Still Quoheleth, author of Ecclesiastes, urges us to toil under the sun, to busy ourselves like Martha, to pour ourselves into the affairs of the world, but to do so, with a pure zeal for the Lord, always choosing in every word, in every deed the better part, that we might rest in the transforming love of Christ as did Mary.
Wandering the forking paths of the garden of that text, reader and writer alike might discover another fountain fed by an abundant spring, lying in their inmost self often hidden beneath the broken leaves of worry, sounding too gently to be heard over the rustling of one’s own spirit. Like Augustine and Monica at Ostia, the reader and writer of that text would enter into a conversation on the eternal life of the saints, and with the mouths of their heart pant for the waters of God’s high fountain, “that being sprinkled from that fountain according to our capacity, we might in some sense meditate on so great a matter” (Confessions IX.X). With this other fount, there “is no need of any skill, nor does the building of aqueducts have to continue, but water is always flowing from the spring” (Interior Castle 4.2.3). And this is living water, fresh and cool, and at its side, like a deer, the soul may genuflect and drink in refreshing water. All may find in it spiritual sustenance which will enable each to bring to others the waters of life. Wherever this fountain’s waters reach, lush plants grow up. There, much fruit ripens on sturdy branches. There the apple tree blossoms, and lilies sprout up. May the breath of the reader blow like the winds upon that garden that its perfumes may spread abroad. “Let my lover come to the garden and eat its choice fruits” (Song of Songs 4.16).
Here this garden of words and images is already overgrown, prune back its branches. In your clearing, you will find that these verses have grown up about a little tomb. Approach it with the same zeal that Mary bore to the tomb where Jesus was lain for burial. Go to them full of longing to find your Lord in this script that your love might lead you to Jesus. Seek his presence and when you discover that he is not here, suffer his absence as Mary had at first suffered the empty tomb. Let the emptiness be a little spiritual cross upon which you suffer with longing for God. Abide in the futility of your pursuit within this chamber of tears. And you will know then that “all speech is labored” and just as the “eye is not filled with seeing” nor “is the ear filled with hearing” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). And then as you suffer the emptiness of this tomb prepared by a son of David, cry out weeping, “Where have you taken my Lord?” (Luke 24:5).
Pause then and listen. Wait for his word, and then in the garden of your heart, you will see the gardener, tilling under the sun, and he will raise his face to you and ask, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” And his question will occasion understanding, his words will roll back the heavy rock of obscurity from the tomb of these brittle vanities, so that you may enter these verses and all your earthly pursuits in truth and see them anew as a manifestation of all God’s glory, of Christ’s conquering of sin and death. And then, the tomb in which you suffered as on a cross will once again be a tomb, only now as you enter it in spirit and truth, you will find in the tomb the living God.