Cultivating grace

Not everyone is a green thumb. Let’s face it; there are many of us who can look at the Pinterest boards of darling little DIY terrariums and only *wish* that was a craft of which we were capable. Yet the reality is that there are those among us who can coordinate flower colors and types with a precision that could make an artist weep… and those of us who can kill a cactus.

I am of the latter sort. I admire and swoon and long for the arbors with graceful, weeping wisteria and marvel at the cherry tomatoes with a fl avor so fresh and sublime to make one swoon. Yet, here I am…the cacti killer. In the course of mothering seven beautiful children, I have been gifted many lovely potted plants, many well-meant garden starts. But they all die. Too much water. Not enough water. Too much sun. Not enough sun. I have as many excuses as the day is long.

But I own it. And I recognize what the root of this problem is—my own neglect, my own golden calves. My own idols keeping me from the extraordinary experience of cultivating successful, healthy plants. The temptation is real to complain or joke about what a terrible gardener I am and simply accept my fate as if it has nothing to do with me at all. I was just born this way. Don’t let this fool you. All of us were born with skills and talents in some areas and weaknesses in others. How important it is to not identify ourselves as the sum of our weaknesses! Or to think nothing can be done!

Why is it so hard then, to draw the parallels necessary for me to do what I ought? In my spiritual life, I flourish if I stay close to the sacraments; if I do my spiritual reading; if I designate time and attention and research into deepening my faith life. Mostly, if I spend time simply getting to know and deepening my relationship with my Lover.


One can’t expect to have a life of glorious contemplation and virtue without putting in the blood, sweat and tears necessary to ensure growth and success. This has been my experience as a “black-thumb” among the soil and the seeds. Why has every single plant I’ve ever had failed? There is only one reason: neglect. Either I failed in my duties to learn what I needed to in order to cultivate a healthy lifestyle for my plants or I neglected to root out the weeds that sucked the very life out of them. It would be easy to think that I fail—very frankly—just because gardening doesn’t come naturally to me. “Oh, that’s just who I am…better with books and equations and abstractions than zucchini and roses. I’ll leave the fertilizer and shade ratios to those who ‘get it’.” But what folly! What pity! So many of us are the same way with the hard work of spiritual growth too. We fidget during Mass. We write mental grocery lists during Adoration. We would rather binge on Netflix than read Aquinas. We figure holiness just comes easier to some people than others.

Fine. Preferences. I get it. I hate weeding. I hate watering. I want my orchids to grow magically without any invested effort of my own. And isn’t this true of all of us? We expect that if we simply show up to Mass, exhibiting marginally better behavior than that gossipy harlot next to us, we’ll be serenaded by angelic choirs and escorted through the pearly gates by St. Peter himself. Not through our own merit of course, but simply by hoping that God grades on a bell curve. To weed out our little habits of pride, deception or impatience just doesn’t seem to be a big priority. We want to exert as little effort as possible and simply reap the rewards. As Catholics, we don’t believe that works save us of course, but that our faith is manifested through the works we show. In other words, the fullness of our faith should be overwhelming so much that it spills into actions. Jesus Christ is our deepest lover. Our strongest Man. The One whose love will never end or diminish. What is our response? Is it to know him better? To draw close to him in the sacraments? To spend time with him? To get rid of any obstacles preventing closeness to him? What kind of love do we demonstrate in response? How will our garden bloom if we simply throw seeds in the ground (or accept potted plants from neighbors) and walk away? It won’t. It will die. To save our souls by the hair of our chinny-chin-chin is one thing. But to save the world through the direct offering of beauty and grace and radiance? That requires discipline. Sacrifice. Work. Attention. Love…even if our feelings don’t necessarily follow 100 percent of the time.

We give until it hurts. Not simply to save our souls but to make our heart a resting place for others in a world that desperately needs pockets of solace among the din and discord.

My father was 5’9” and scrawny as a scarecrow. He died last November on the feast of All Saints. But this is what I want you to know about him. His sweet peas were 6’ 6”. His rhubarb was bright and virile. And his dahlias were glorious. Do you know what one of the most poignant memories I have of my dad happens to be? He studied his seed catalogues. He examined the growth conditions of particular flower species and fed those plants a special diet of homemade fertilizer and compost. He woke up early and got out of bed to water his plants before the sun had a chance to scorch them. He nipped any weeds in the bud and pulled out their roots. He was disciplined. He made his garden a place of respite, a scene of beauty for anybody who stopped by. If the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (my best dead friend) was onto *anything* when he said, “Beauty will save the world…,” he would’ve loved my father.

Beauty isn’t a chance object. Neither is an incredible garden. Neither is a grace-filled soul. The task to work on our spiritual lives may seem overwhelming at times, but true Love is not the author of anxiety. Dedication and sacrifice and discipline come easy to the person who treasures the beauty in his yard… so it is with souls filled with love for our Lord.

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