Note: This entry expanded on my latest reflection in The Lanterian, published on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021.
I admit it. I am a brown thumb. Plants don’t seem to last long under my care. What would you do with a brown thumb at a retreat house with luscious grounds? … Kill stuff, of course. Five days a week, 60 minutes a day, I have pulled weeds around St. Joseph Retreat House. Somehow, amid the weeds, God was teaching insights about life. Here are three lessons from this chore.
Lesson 1: I participate in God’s creation.
When I first finished pulling the weeds in a certain area, I stood up, looked around and realized the meaning of this Scripture passage: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gn 2:15 RSV-CE). Humans are called to participate with God in ordering and governing his handiwork. My masculine heart has leaped to join God’s creative action in the world.
Of course, the weeds returned. But God’s ongoing creation required humans’ ongoing care and work.
Lesson 2: See the weeds yet acknowledge the beauty.
A few things about persistent weeds. After my recent effort on the weeds, Fr. Bill Neubecker gave me some advice.
First, there would always be weeds. If you looked for weeds, you would find them. Of course, the danger was too much focus on the negative. We lose the bigger reasons for our work. Thus, Jesus told Judas: “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (Jn 8:12). Yes, poverty is an evil. But we must keep our attention on Jesus. Same thing about scrupulosity. This excessive worry over sin could leave the Christian focusing on the self instead of turning to the merciful Jesus.
Second, once and a while, I should enjoy the beauty of the grounds. Seeing a piece of the property swept clean of weeds filled me with joy of seeing the beauty. Pulling weeds was not done for its own sake; rather, it brought out the beauty in the area. Similarly, God sees the beauty in all of us, broken, wounded and sinful. But He works to bring the beauty out of us. Here is the question: Do you know how beautiful you are to God?
Lesson 3: It’s more than you think.
An initial read of a situation would not capture the whole situation. For example, I saw a weed poking out of the ground. I could assume that a small weed had small roots, and a big weeds had big roots. But sometimes, a big weed in rocky soil had small roots. Other times, a small weed had big roots. It was never pulled out completely. The remaining root grew bigger and sprouted very quickly.
An example of powerful roots was Japanese knotweed. This prolific plant created an underground network of roots that allowed this weed to create more roots and more shoots. Even a fragment of a stem could sprout. Ideally, I should remove the plant and the underground system of roots. But time constraints limited me to hacking the knotweed stems and leaves with a machete. It bounced back in a few weeks. But at least, the plants overshadowed by the knotweed could get some sunshine.
Likewise, we misread the source of our sins. When we did something wrong, we could assume that this act was isolated from the previous times that we did it. Even if we admitted that we had developed a sinful habit, did we know the cause?
But Jesus recommended examining the wounded heart: the root of bad actions. “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, diet, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile” (Mk 7:21-23 NAB-RE).
The heart contained wounds where a person had sought love and received either nothing or pain. Failure to bring that hurt to Jesus allowed the wound to fester with lies about our identity and false beliefs about others. Those thoughts powered sinful behaviors to cover the hurt, which Jesus listed.
Failure to tend to the heart meant that bad habits stubbornly persisted. We Christians could become frustrated over the lack of progress. Sometimes, we gave up correcting our faults. “Why bother?” We told ourselves. “It has been there and will remain there.”
But if Jesus said, “Look at the heart,” he said his grace could heal the hurting heart.
There were more to our actions than it seemed.
I could go on and on about the lessons. But I saved the rest for another time.
Besides, why should I blab on about these insights when you can experience it yourself?
If any of you in the metro Boston area can help me with the weeds at St. Joseph Retreat House, please contact me through the contact page at the top of the entry.