Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Lent 3 (year C), March 3, 2013
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” – Luke 13:6-9
Ruthlessness: the one uncompromising rule of gardening – pruning, chopping, weeding, deadheading, dividing, removing the weak and sick, throwing away the plants that inhibit or crowd the others. Out go the plants that don’t produce fruit or function as a helpful neighbor to another plant. Out go plants that do not offer beauty or scent or pleasure or visual interest. Alex, one of our interns last summer, observed that “When I imagined that I’d spend my summer gardening, I never thought that so much of my day would involve killing”[ – not only plants, but harmful insects and rodents.]
In Jesus’ parable the owner of the garden observes a barren fig tree. Reasonably, he orders it yanked out. But the gardener suggests that the owner give the fig another year. In the meantime he’ll break up the hard earth, aerating the ground around it so the roots can breathe and drink and take in nourishment. He’ll put manure around it, that golden substance which is the very ground of life and fertility – changing the very soil nurturing the fig tree.
What blessed good news for my soul! Not only do I have a reprieve, but in that time I will be loved, nurtured, brought back to a life of creative regeneration. The mercy of God may not necessarily reflect good gardening practice, but proves a boon for us clueless procrastinators and late bloomers.
But in the parable, mercy has an expiration date. You can’t let the garden languish full of weeds. Repent, says Jesus. You don’t know when some tyrant or madman will take your life, or even when some building will fall on you as you walk by. (Luke 13:1-5) The land owner will come yank out that fig sooner or later. Repent. NOW.
Most people live lives so crammed with responsibility it’s necessary to push repentance into the background, like many other beautiful and important things. I have all these emergencies to deal with immediately. They occupy my attention like demons screeching and jumping up and down on my desk. Our culture demands that most people live from emergency to emergency. Some day I’ll get some time off and go to the desert for 40 days to repent.
Repent, NOW, says Jesus. You do not know the day or hour. (Matthew 25:13)The sense of immanent of Death can shake priorities. Suddenly those daily emergencies shrink in fear and slide off the desk when the Great Emergency enters the room with hooded cloak and sickle. Welcome the apparition, say the saints. Day by Day remind yourself that you are going to die, said St. Benedict in the Rule. Anchorites dug a trowel full of dirt from their grave each day, or hemmed their shrouds or slept in their coffins, not for some morbid exercise, but to emphasize life! Breathe now. Look at beauty now. Let the holy in you rise and be fruitful now. Now. Now.
Lent offers the time to develop the habit of repentance in daily life. Lent is the time of aerating the soil and adding humble manure. Time to develop habits of daily repentance. Lent is a time of taking care of things, while being taken care of.
And, to be fair, the detritus pulled from the garden goes to the compost pile. After decomposing it becomes that magic and holy humus nourishing the garden. Ultimately, you can’t lose. But you can be creative and fruitful now.