For nearly thirty years, my Ethiopian mother-in-law, Kaki, has cultivated a small garden. She guards her marigolds and fuchsia against unholy infestations of pests and weeds. She sluices sun-shimmered water over the roots, holding the blooms in her watchful eyes. She prays as she labors, breathing in the incense of rosemary and rue. Amidst the ever-densening crush of Addis Ababa, Kaki’s garden is a sanctuary.
Perhaps it is the quiet that draws Kaki and me to this sacred haven. Haloed in sunrays, hemmed in by blooms like fireworks unfurling in slow motion, I cannot help but feel I am in some remnant of Eden.
The first earthly dwelling place of God, the Garden of Eden, was enchanted with divine presence. Here Adam and Eve walked with God in the evening breezes, as near to each other as Kaki and me. I wonder what it would be like to talk with God as I am talking with Kaki. To talk as God and Eve talked, gently unfolding their hearts to each other. To be near enough—body to body—to see the laughter ready at any moment to bubble from her mouth. To hear the rhythm of her breath. To be close enough to breathe her fragrance (Kaki favors Coco Chanel).
In Genesis, God gives Adam and Eve the burden of keeping the garden. As biblical scholar G.K. Beale notes, abad and shamar, the Hebrew words used in Genesis to describe the call to “cultivate” and “keep” the Garden of Eden, are the same words used to describe the priests’ call to “serve” and “guard” the Old Testament tabernacle: the second earthly dwelling place of God. Adam and Eve, it seems then, were the first priests, the Garden of Eden their sanctuary.
Imagine this airy cathedral: window-less, door-less, wall-less. Skies curving in an azure cupola. Poppy and daisy and bellflower and chicory embroidered over the earth like the red and gold and purple and blue of the tabernacle’s veils. Lilacs and roses, hyacinths and hostas offering incense. A sanctuary lit, not with a lampstand of gold, but with sunlight by day and galaxies by night. Did the ceaseless presence of God tremor every bud and blade, endlessly?
Like Adam and Eve, and like the Levitical priests of the tabernacle, believers continue this holy heritage of priesthood. We are called to be keepers of all that is good and beautiful. We are called to tend our earthly domains—family, church, community—as if they were sacred gardens, illumined with the presence of a holy God.
I imagine Kaki, gardener par excellence, fulfilling this role as priestess. She chose a plot of earth and set it apart for cultivation and restoration. She labors, tying a scrap of puce cloth over a branch to scare away nibbling birds. Unthreading vines from the throats of roses. Crumbling eggshells in the palm of her hands, sprinkling the shards in the pots of snake plant and peace lily. Just as Aaron bore twelve stones over his heart when he sought God in the Holy of Holies, Kaki bears her beloveds on her breast when she presses plants in plastic pots. In her little Eden, she talks to God, as she does everywhere.
Everywhere, divine presence pulses. Isaiah prophecies that “the whole earth is full of his glory.” His glory enchants our good green world—and gardens are no exception. Glory brims over the petals of marigolds. Glory bulges weighty in the curves of a ripe tomato. Glory billows the gowns of each jacaranda bloom.
About eight hundred years after Isaiah’s prophecy, Paul writes that Christ is holding all these glorious things: petal and fruit and bloom. It is only by divine power that anything at all exists. Divine power unbows seedlings from the soil, tilts petaled faces to the sky, lifts branches like arms raised in worship. How do meskel flowers burn yellow? How do morning glories weave such silky robes? How do lobelias unfurl in such careful geometry? Divine magic.
Though creation still groans for redemption, though the veil of the material world still obscures the full kaleidoscope of reality from human eyes, divine magic still glimmers—particularly in the beauty of gardens like Kaki’s.
Kaki attends to her Saint George’s sword and African violets with deep affection. She laments their pain, celebrates their blooms. These green beings radiating divine presence are her friends. Her tenderness invites tenderness in kind. Lavishly, they return her attention with abundant gifts: rue to bitter tiny cups of strong coffee. Rosemary to season dishes of tender beef. And beauty upon beauty upon beauty simply for gazing, for pleasure. How else to respond but in prayers of gratitude?
And awe. Walking through Kaki’s garden is like walking through a kind of church. It is beautiful. It is quiet, cloistered from the rattle and bang of the outside world. It is pregnant with a mysterious sense of the holy: at any moment the presence of God might blaze out like flames from a burning bush.
I wonder: how would I live life differently if I dressed each day in the robes of a priestess? If I labored in my own garden fully aware of its divine enchantment? To be near roots and leaves and blossoms that emanate the glory of the universe maker is a gift—and a responsibility. Beale writes that Adam and Eve’s task “was to extend the geographical boundaries to the Garden of Eden until Eden . . . covered the whole earth” so the globe might be filled with the presence of God. Embracing our role as priests may mean cultivating the gardens we’ve been given—both literal and figurative—so they might brim over with divine presence.
Gardening, then, is a kind of spiritual practice: a way of extending the presence of God in the world. I think of my own humble raised beds. Dribbling water droplets at my seedlings’ roots, mixing manure into their soil, troweling out dandelions—the labor of cultivating and keeping, serving, and guarding my small garden is imbued with a sense of dignity.
And I am, too. Muddy-kneed, feet sweating in my grandma’s castoff garden clogs, I bear the dignity of priesthood. I am guarding little tomatoes and carrots so they can grow and become bearers of the glory of God. I am cultivating order in chaos. I am reflecting the God who created me to create. Offered humbly, these small acts of service become a part of the restoration of the universe that all of creation groans for.
Until the cosmos is restored, we wait. We press dormant seeds into the earth. We prune thorny roses. We give thirsty seedlings water to drink. We garden as an act of faith, as a way of looking forward to a day when we will dwell with God once again in a redeemed garden.
I am hopeful. In Kaki’s enchanted sanctuary, I catch divine glory breaking through marigold blossoms and flashing in sunlit palms: glimpses of an ineffable glory that snatches my breath away.
Cover image by Minh Tran.