In response to my earlier post, “Celebrating Spring with Rumi (and Pictures),” I received today the most likes and new followers for my young blog in any one day. So first, thank you all for your support. For those familiar with my blog, you may have seen two previous posts featuring photos from my garden.
Needless to say I love to garden and anyone who has experience gardening is probably familiar with its therapeutic qualities. The ancient Greeks knew this as well as is demonstrated in language. The Greek root for the English “therapy” is therapeuein which not only meant “to cure/heal,” it contained the meanings of “in service to the gods” and “to till the soil.”
As such, a post “about” gardening will find itself also in the realm of the mythic, the realm of divine.
To take first the meanings of “therapy’s” root: Therapists of course work in the healing arts–healing the psyche. In American psychology “psyche” has been taken primarily to refer to the mind. But such is a grievous mistake, for “psyche” is the Greek word for soul.
So what was psyche to the Greeks? She was the breath that gave life to humankind (like God breathing into Adam in the Bible, infusing Adam with nephesh, or soul); Psyche was the bearer of consciousness, she was the inward part of the person, she was movement, character, disposition of the individual and the “seat of perception, of desire and pleasure,” and of enjoyment (Verbrugge, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology 620). One often goes to therapy when any number of the above are in need of healing–when psyche, or the soul, is sick.
So what does a therapist do? Does not the therapist try to help heal the patient, to help them restore so that sick soul to health? Tending to what is underneath, to get rid of the weeds and the rocks, to till the compacted soil, as therapeuein implies, of ego so soul may be given the chance to thrive and new life may take root, grow, bloom, and flourish. To attract new life and to add beauty.
While any number of gods may be served in the process of therapy, to what gods is gardening in service to? If one plants and tends to a vegetable garden, one services Demeter, goddess of the grain, of “increase and decrease, protection and desertion, vision and lunacy, creation and destruction, life and death, feast and famine” (Downing The Goddess 12). To Demeter the Chinese might say yin/yang, those primordial power of “opposites” that are really complements, one always a part of the other, leading to the next, to the next in endless cycles.
But in gardening we also find Aphrodite, goddess of love and sexuality. Aphroditic gardening–the gardening of flowers–is the type of gardening I am primarily concerned with here. “Are not,” Ginette Paris asks, “flowers the most beautiful sexual organs of the universe” (Pagan Meditations 20)? Just take a look at the picture below and judge for yourself.
“To be preoccupied with flowers,” Paris continues, “or to create a pleasant garden…are all ways of honoring Aphrodite” (20). In the art of gardening, natural beauty expresses itself–that beauty being Aphrodite. The gods and goddesses, as I have previously discussed, embody experiences that are greater than us: we experience beauty in gardens–the Greeks called that experience of beauty (whether in a garden or not) “Aphrodite.”
And while Aphrodite may be best known for being beautiful and sexual, she is much more, oh so much more.
Jungian analyst Edward Edinger says that with Aphrodite exists an overlap with the Christian Holy Spirit (The Eternal Drama 47) in that both share the symbolism of the dove, they both share the
symbolism of what the alchemists called ‘blessed greenness,’ we encounter Aphrodite and her life giving capacities on the one hand, and the other, the spiritually conceiving power of the Holy Ghost, which was thought of as the color green and can be equated with the vegetation spirit belonging to the life principle of Aphrodite. (ibid)
And did not St. Augustine define the Holy Spirit as love?
Love, beauty, and greenness–the life principle.
Mythology and theology, and now onto mysticism. Of particular import to this discussion is the work of mystic-saint (and all around awesome woman) Hildegard von Bingen for whom the term viridita, literally meaning “greenness,” was synonymous with all the “life giving qualities of God’s spirit in matter, both human and non-human” (King-Lenzmeier Hildegard of Bingen: An Integrated Vision). Translated variously as greenness, lushness, God’s breath, viriditas was the animating source of all life and a central notion in Hildegard’s approach to salvation and healing. Here we find again relation between greenness, an animating life source (psyche perhaps), and healing.
Before continuing onward, below are two pictures I took of my backyard when I moved into the house I currently live in. Aside from the trees, there was nothing but dead grass and hard, compacted soil. Not a bug nor bird to be found.
Back to Hildegard, who in addition to her being a musical composer and an abbess, was a noted healer. A Middle Age healer had to have more than a strong background in medicine and theology however: they had to have mercy and compassion as these two virtues restore viriditas to the ill. With the loss of viriditas, one becomes heart hearted, static, motionless—there is no dynamism to life. Much like the above pictures. And much like, as discussed above, many find reason to seek therapy.
Personifying God’s unconditional love, mercy, according to Hildegard, allows the remedy to be effective as it restores viriditas. Furthermore, she described viriditas as new growth of spring—a healed individual is like a tree beginning to blossom after winter—both the individual and tree imbued with viriditas. Moreover, for Hildegard, mercy alone made the heart pure. At the heart of Hildegard’s medicine was the belief that the suffering person was one who wished to be restored to wholeness—a state where body and soul were balanced and in harmony—a balance and harmony reflected in the music of the heavenly spheres. One who was balanced lived in accord with respect to humankind’s relationship to nature. For Hildegard, humankind’s essential nature is to live in harmony with each other and the environment.
How then, is gardening therapeutic? How does it heal? As defined above, therapeuein meant in service to the gods. We came to find Aphrodite in relation to such service. Now, with the discussion having turned toward the monotheistic, we see too, that gardening may also serve God.
It helps prepare the way (in “tilling the soil”?) for the emergence of viriditas.
Now look at my garden two years later (pictures taken the day of writing this post):
The birds have returned and filled my backyard with song. The bees bounce around with their buzzing. Butterflies, dragonflies, wasps, and any number of little crawling things filling my backward with life.
But did I bring this new life? Am I responsible for eruption of viriditas?
Of course not. That is not my purvey. I am only human. But I tilled the soil, I broke up the hard clogs of dirt, pulled the weeds. I added the nutrient rich compost and sewed the seeds and planted the transplants.
The rest I leave up to powers that are greater than I.
Powers such as life and love.
Call them God, call them Aphrodite, call them Freyja, or Venus, or Radha.