Keeping the Garden


by Fr. John Oliver

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins. Maybe the esteemed Mr. Hopkins came to that observation simply from gazing upon his backyard (surely more grand than the backyard upon which I gaze now); maybe he had been reading classical Christian texts through which a grandeur-charged world is a constant theme; maybe he harvested that observation from the pages of the Bible. However he came by it, Gerard Manley Hopkins is right – as right as rain.

Years ago, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Christian Church, located in Constantinople – now Istanbul, Turkey – encouraged Orthodox Christians around the world to set aside the first day of every September as a day to renew their commitment to the Creator by renewing their commitment to His creation. We admire Rembrandt for his works of art; why not admire God for His? How, exactly, would one admire Rembrandt while ignoring his paintings, or while treating them as entirely distinct from the artist himself?

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The poet Hopkins embraces the cosmic vision of St John the Theologian, for St. John wrote glowingly of God’s love not merely for what John’s Greek would call “the oikoumene,” – the inhabited world, mankind – but for the cosmos, the whole created order – from the Milky Way to the marigold. “For God so loved the cosmos…” wrote St John in chapter 3, verse 16, that He thought the entire creation worth dying for.

The need is increasingly urgent for the Christian to recover the Gospel’s cosmic vision in his heart and hand; he cannot be an integrated Christian without it. Christianity is a Faith rich in symbol, a word that means “to join together” two realities, as when bread and wine are joined with Body and Blood. Ecology is the study of connections, relationships, how an ecosystem is a unified whole. Connection, relationship, unity – this is an emphatically Christian way of seeing the world.

Ecological distress results when connections are broken, relationships are severed, unity is dissolved – as when an ecosystem breaks down. Spiritual distress results when a man sees no connection between his actions and their consequences; when he lives without concern for other living things, especially human beings; when he believes salvation is private and individualized, involving spirit but ignoring matter; then that man leads a life of self-absorption that inflames the passions and damages the world. However, St. Gregory Palamas writes, “we are responsible for the world.”

Life for the Christian is a process of forming connections, healing relationships, and restoring unity. By simple virtue of his faith, the Christian is ecological. Like his Lord, he cares about the condition of the cosmos. But that is precisely the challenge, isn’t it? To care. Sometimes, understanding helps us care. So, let’s take a look at what might be one of God’s intentions for creation and for man’s special role as steward.

From the Genesis story we learn of creation’s “very goodness,” and of man’s responsibility to maintain it accordingly. “Then the Lord God took man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.” The nuance of the “tend and keep” mandate is revealed in the original Hebrew: Adam is to abad and shamar the land in which he is placed. Abad, often translated as “to tend” or “to dress,” implies not mere improvement, but completion, as when seeds are carefully cultivated from planting to harvest. To abad the garden is to serve the garden so that the garden may fruitfully serve man.

To shamar or “keep” the garden is to be vigilant against anything that might desecrate that which is being tended or dressed. Loving watchfulness and parental protection are implied here. For a poignant description of how ancient Israel understood the shamar principle, we may turn to another biblical text to use the word:

“The Lord bless you and shamar you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

So, the creation mandate of Genesis 2:15 and Aaron’s blessing in Numbers 6:24 form a striking vision of stewardship: man is to keep the land as God keeps man. That is to say, man is to bestow upon the natural world – especially his share of it – the same good measure he receives from God – blessing, favor, grace, peace. To abad and shamar the land is to undertake its dominion lovingly, thoughtfully, sacrificially. It is to honor God Who imbued creation with this reciprocity: if man is good to the land, the land will be good to man.

Now, notice a connection. As long as man is good to the land, the land will remain productive and life-giving. Life-giving for whom? For all who partake of its bounty. An act of goodness toward the land, then, is an act of goodness toward every man, woman, and child who live by the land’s nourishment. Want to love your neighbor? Preserve the forests that clean the air he breathes; protect the land that grows the food she eats; purify the sources that provide the water she drinks. “God is emptied,” wrote St Maximus the Confessor, “and descends without change to the last extremities of nature.” Love for God is love for nature; love for nature is love for neighbor.

Clearly, this sacramental vision does not confuse the Creator with His creation – that distinction (between the Uncreated God and the Created world) is firmly in place. St Paul, in the first chapter of Romans, speaks for our Tradition when he cautions those who would “worship and serve the creature more than the Creator.” We are not idolaters, but neither are we dualists. No fundamental antagonism exists between spirit and matter, for both were assumed and both are saved by our Incarnate Lord. The Christian worships a God Who is utterly transcendent and presently immanent, and Who has filled His creation with astonishing lessons about Himself – if we just cared enough to look for them. “For from the creation of the world,” St Paul writes in the same chapter, “the invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood through the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.”

God has charged His whole creation with His glory. He has endowed each human being with the privilege to tend and keep it. The Christian who grows in theosis, in ceaseless motion toward the very likeness of God, will increasingly become a healing instrument of the Holy Ghost – that same Spirit Who, as Gerard Manley Hopkins closes his poem, “over the bent world broods with warm breast and with, ah!, bright wings.”