Creating a Courtyard for Contemplation Out of an Alleyway


I was walking through downtown San Francisco this morning on one of the busiest streets in the city center and I noticed this little alleyway to my left. What caught my eye is how with very little of architectural interest to work with, a few well tended plants have turned the space into a tiny little peaceful oasis in a busy city. It could have been piled high with garbage bags or the like (others I saw were) but someone has made the effort to make this little corner worth looking at. And everyone who passes, not just those who live and work down here can now have the pleasure of looking at the results of their work.

All it would need to perfect it would be little icon of Christ on the back wall, or perhaps a statue of the BVM, and a place of peace might even become a place of contemplation!


The cobblestones help too of course!






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The Christian Environmentalism the Media Chooses to Ignore - Man is the Answer, Not the Problem

We need more people in the world, not less, if we are to solve the world's problems. And we need more gardeners - I am serious here. For the true gardener is the man transformed in Christ who works in the world to raise it up to what it is meant to be.

It is common nowadays for people to think of man as an unnatural animal whose work necessarily destroys the environment. Much of the back to the land movement, I always feel, has a romantic vision of the past and assumes that only a man who lives as he did before industrialization can live in harmony with nature. This pessimistic view of modern man could be seen in various influential figures going back to to Rousseau in 18th century France who hated industrialization and thought that all modern society corrupted ideal man. The ideal for Rousseau was the noble savage  who could be conceived, unlike modern man, of living as an intrinsic part of nature as the animals do, rather than in opposition to it.

This may all sound fairly innocuous stuff - a high regard for the environment is good thing, surely? But in fact it is the neo-paganism we see today, that removes man from his a place as the highest part of creation to something separate from it, and lower than it. This false elevation of the rest of creation to something greater than man in the hierarchy of being has serious, deadly consequences. And I do mean deadly.

Man is not only part of nature, he is absolutely necessary to it - the eco-system needs the interaction of man in order to be complete. Through God's grace human activity is the answer to all the environmental problems we have, not the cause. This is the part of Pope Francis's message in his latest encyclical; a part that so many eco-warriors who were enthusiastic about the encyclical seem not to have noticed...or to have ignored. It is possible to have cities, heavy industry, mass production, and forms of capitalism that are creative expressions of the God's plan for the world, and which add to the beauty and the stability of nature. But, we do need a transformation of the culture in order to see a greater realization of this. The formation that I believe will lead to such an evangelization of the culture is derived from a liturgically centered piety and is described in the book the Way of Beauty.

For me, the flower garden is the model of natural beauty in so many ways. First, It symbolizes the true end of the natural world in which its beauty can only be realised through the inspired work of man. It symbolizes what Eden was to become. It is worth noting that Adam was the first gardener and Christ, the new Adam, prayed in the garden during the passion, was buried and resurrected in the garden and after the resurrection was mistaken by Mary Magdalene for the gardener.

Here is a quote from St Augustine from the Office of Readings on the Feast of St Lawrence, August 10th:

'The garden of the Lord, brethren, includes – yes, it truly includes – includes not only the roses of martyrs but also the lilies of virgins, and the ivy of married people, and the violets of widows. There is absolutely no kind of human beings, my dearly beloved, who need to despair of their vocation; Christ suffered for all. It was very truly written about him: who wishes all men to be saved, and to come to the acknowledgement of the truth.'

This may seem a rather innocent little quote about flowers and the things of religion - martyrs and virgins and so on, but in fact reveals so much about the difference in attitudes between one of the Faith, and the modern world. Here's how: we see Rousseau's worldview today in many of the green movements that assume that any influence that man has on the eco-system is bad, because man himself is an unnatural entrant into it, he is not part of it.


Millions of people have been killed as a result of a simple philosophical error. If we believe that  civilized man's effect on the environment is necessarily destructive, then the only method of an effective damage limitation is to limit the number of people in the world. The most effective way to do this is to control the population and, because they do not wish to dispense of the pleasure of sex, the solutions offered are contraception and abortion.

The Christian understanding of man and his interaction with the natural world is very different. The first point to make is that both are imperfect. We are fallen and we live in a fallen world. Man is part of nature, and it is certainly true that his activity can be destructive on the environment (just as he commit the gravest crimes against his fellows). However, through God's grace and the proper exercise of free will, he can choose to behave differently. He can work to perfect nature. He has the privilege of participating in the work of God that will eventually lead to the perfection of all things in Christ. Then all man does is in harmony with nature, and with the common good. This is the via pulchritudinis, the Way of Beauty.


There are so many signs in modern culture that reveal this flawed perception of the place of man in relation to his fellows, The changing attitude to the garden is one of these. Even in something that seems so far removed from the issue of abortion, we can see a change which has at its root, in my opinion, the same flaw.

What is the model of natural beauty? For the modern green, neo-pagan it is the wilderness. National parks in the US seek to preserve nature in a way that they perceive as unaffected by man (although this is an impossibility, even the most remote national park is managed wilderness!). I do not say that is a bad thing that some part of nature is preserved, or that the wilderness is not beautiful. Rather, the point is that it is not the pinnacle of nature and it is not the standard of natural beauty. When man works harmoniously with the environment, then he makes something more beautiful. Beautifully and harmoniously farmed land takes the breath away - as we might see in the countryside of France, Spain, England and Italy for example, places of which I am familiar. This the sort of landscape in which Wordsworth saw his host of wild golden daffodils.

Higher still is the garden that is cultivated for beauty alone. A garden is a symbol of the Church. Each part, each plant is in harmony with every other just as every person who is unique has his place in God's plan, as St Augustine points out in the quote given above.  Gardens will have their place in the New Jerusalem. We know this because the description of the City of God in the Book of Revelation contains gardens.

The activity of gardening for beauty is a symbolic participation in the completion of the work of God in the world for it raises creation up to what it ought to be, through God's grace. The garden itself is a sign to all others of the fact that all of creation is to be transfigured supernaturally. The act of gardening is both reflective of and points to, therefore our participation in the Sacred Liturgy by which we are transfigured and by which we participate in the work of God. Gardening for beauty is an act of love that is formed by our greatest act of love, the worship of God in the Sacred Liturgy. It can be likened to the action of Mary with our Lord, anointing his feet; and contrasted with the cultivation of the land in order to create produce to eat, which can be likened to an action of Martha. Both are good, but Mary's is the highest.


Pius X likens the activity of gardening to that of singing the Psalms in the liturgy: 'The psalms have also a wonderful power to awaken in our hearts the desire for every virtue. Athanasius says: Though all Scripture, both old and new, is divinely inspired and has its use in teaching, as we read in Scripture itself, yet the Book of Psalms, like a garden enclosing the fruits of all the other books, produces its fruits in song, and in the process of singing brings forth its own special fruits to take their place beside them.' (This is taken from the Office of Readings for August 21st, the Feast of Pius X).

The gardener is the symbol of the transfigured man who works in harmony with nature to create something greater for the delight and good of man and for the greater glory of God. The highest aspect of what he does is the beauty that he creates. This beauty has the noblest utility, one that takes into account our supernatural end for it prepares the souls of men to be receptive to the love of God in the Sacred Liturgy.




Leo XIII said in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, that man should be encouraged to cultivate the land. I have heard this cited by some Catholics in the back-to-land movement so as to imply that it is almost a moral obligation to have chickens in your backyard, to keep bees or to grow vegetables. I say, if you enjoy those things then go ahead and do it, but I feel no such obligation myself. I for one have little interest. I am perfectly happy to buy a ready-cooked chicken for under $5, jars of honey and vegetables and fruit from all over the world year round from the local supermarket.



However, what is not so often remarked upon is that Leo says that in cultivating the land, man will, 'learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them [my emphasis].' I suggest we learn to love the soil especially when it yields beauty; and when it is through our own efforts that it does so. There is no need for three acres and a cow for this to happen. For some this might mean the tiniest patch of land around your house, or if you don't have that a window box; or if you can't do that some well tended plant pots inside your high-rise apartment. We don't need to head for the outback or escape from the cities or the suburbs. However, modest our resources, this can be an act for love for the glory of God and for the enjoyment of those dear to us. When this is done it can have the profoundest effect on a neighborhood, as we can read by this example in Boston.




When the garden is enjoyed for its beauty it can be a contemplation by which we are passively open to the reception of Beauty itself. This is why it is a good thing to approach a church through a cloister that looks onto a 'garden enclosed'. The garden enclosed from the Song of Songs, is seen by the Church Fathers as a reference to Mary, the Mother of God, by whom we approach the Son.




It is no accident, I suggest that today even botanical gardens and public gardens which used to be formally laid out, are now being turned into 'natural' or wild gardens, in which the aim is, it seems, is to reduce it's beauty (although they would probably argue that it is the opposite) and resemble something that is like the wilderness - base nature, unaffected by the inspired work of man. Even the lowest form of nature is beautiful, I don't deny it. But that is not a garden. When we make the standard of natural beauty its lowest form, then such a garden is a symbol of the banishing of man from the world altogether, of Unnatural Man so to speak, and an emblem of the culture of death. The next logical step after the misguided  glorification of Unnatural Man is to strive for the absence of man altogether and this is what we see through our abortion clinics.

Who would have thought that the simple cultivation of ivy, roses, lilies and violets could say so much! I would consider it the greatest compliment if someone would mistake me for the gardener.



Cristo appare a Maria Maddalena (Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene)" by Pietro da Cortona from Wiki commons 

I have written about this painting in more detail here.

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My book the Way of Beauty is available from Angelico Press and Amazon.

Don't Beat About the Bush...Change the Culture! More on Land and the Common Good

Landowners have a duty to leave some food for the poor and give people access to get it. Or that's what it looks like at least. Here are two scriptural passages taken from the Office of Readings (part of the Liturgy of the Hours) that  caught my eye when I read them. One is from January and the other is a Lenten reading. Office of Readings 24th Jan 2011, Commemoration of St Francis de Sales: "You must not pervert justice in dealing with a stranger or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I lay this charge on you. When reaping the harvest in your field, if you have overlooked a sheaf in that field, do not go back for it. Leave it for the stranger, the orphan and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees you must not go over the branches twice. Let anything left be for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. When you harvest your vineyard you must not pick it over a second time. Let anything left be for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why I lay this charge on you." (Dueteronomy 24) And Tuesday 4th week of Lent “When you gather the harvest of your land, you are not to harvest to the very end of the field. You are not to gather the gleanings of the harvest. You are neither to strip your vine bare nor to collect the fruit that has fallen in your vineyard. You must leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord your God.(Leviticus 19) I have written on a number of occasions, here, that land is considered by the Church a common good. This means that like air and food it is something that should be available to all people. This does not mean that there should not be private property however, provided that private ownership of property is viewed as an entitlement to work the land. This privilege of ownership brings obligations. Its use should be for the benefit of the common good. This is not so completely counter cultural as it might sound at first. Generally, growing crops on a farm; and then selling anything (beyond what is needed for personal consumption) for distribution through the market is in accord with this. This entitlement, however, and this part might be counter cultural in some parts of the world, is not always seen as extending to allowing the owner to exclude others from his land all the time, as the quoted passages above indicate.


In a number of European countries (I know of England, Scotland, Spain and Italy specifically) there is public right of way preserved in law, on privately owned land. This is a tradition that goes back to medieval times. While the landowner is obliged to allow people on his land, those who go onto the land are also obliged to respect the property and the crops that are growing respecting it's function as contributing to the common good. I don't know if any applications of this extend to being in accord with the passages from the bible, which clearly allow for "the stranger, the orphan and the widow" to go onto the land and gather food.

There is an American version of this approach, as I understand it whereby in some states the default situation is that people do have access to private land to hunt. In New Hampshire there is an option to pay a higher land tax and that allows you then to bar everyone else from your land. I wouldn't be interested in hunting, just the chance of finding a walkable path across farmland. I did find one farm west of Nashua, NH when I was living there that had a notice saying. Please do come an enjoy our farm land but we ask that you respect it. I don't know if it was a coincidence, but the was a large statue of he Virgin Mary very visible next to the farmhouse as we walk off the land.

It seems that perhaps the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and those subsequently who actually revised the Office of Readings considered this an important principle for today; otherwise it would not have been included in regular readings in the Church's liturgy. I believe that access to the land is important even for those who are not so poor that they need to pick the crops for personal use. It is important for the soul, I think. And this means access to cultivated land, productive land, not the wilderness. It is good to have firsthand experience of man's productive and harmonious activities with nature. This shapes not only the view of nature, but the view of man's proper relationship with the land. olivesThis access will also, I believe raise people's wonder at the beauty of cultivated land (whether ornamental garden or agricultural) and so perhaps help to offset the neopaganism that gives rise ultimately to the culture of death.  When the only country landscape available to man is wilderness, and all else he sees is modern suburbia or a cityscape, then it reinforces the idea that the standard of beauty is that land which is untouched by man, that is wilderness. This in turn reinforces the idea that man's influence on nature is always detrimental and the natural extension of this idea is profound evil: the most effective way to restrict man's bad influence on nature, so the logic runs, is to restrict his activity through population control, which means contraception, abortion and euthanasia.

I do not believe that this alone will reverse the culture of death (abortion exists in Europe too). However, if any discussion of these ideas in both Europe and the New World is combined with the example  of what people see if they have access to cultivated land it will, I feel,  speak of man's positive impact on the natural world. This then could help to change views on man's relationship with Creation. The change will not occur through engagement in discussion, so much as through a subtle influence that seeps into the thinking of society. Then perhaps, in some small way at least, it could contribute to the transformation a culture in the reverse direction to what is happening now and which is so anti-human.

So it seems that the dictum, spare the rod and spoil the child doesn't extend to olive trees! The photograph below of the Tuscan countryside. Above that we have Spanish olive groves and an illumination from Crete dating from the Byzantine rule.

Why Men Cultivate their Masculinity When they Grow Flowers

In the Office of Readings, on the Feast of the Visitation, the first reading is from the Song of Songs.

It seems to have been a common theme  in late medieval art to portray Mary interpreted as the 'Garden Enclosed' as referred to in the Song of Songs. As someone who loves gardens I like the idea of the garden having a place in sacred art. I am talking here of the garden grown for beauty, the 'flower garden' as it would be called here in the US. In Britain, where I come from, 'garden' always means a place cultivated for beauty.

I am not aware of this being a common subject for artists to paint today and one wonders why? The first answer that comes to mind, almost as a knee-jerk response, is that genuine piety for Mary has declined and this is just one more casualty in the devotional lexicon.

It might be this, but also, it is very likely a reflection also of a different attitude to gardens and to man's place in creation that is prevalent today and especially strong in the US.

Historically, the wilderness was seen the place of untamed nature which is the home of the devil. Christ went to meet him there for 40 days and when monks and hermits went out to the desert, it was not so much as we might think today, to escape the city, but rather to engage in spiritual battle in the wilderness, the lair of the enemy. In the painting below by the Flemish artist Robert Campin (scroll down to the second last), we see the father of monasticism, Anthony Abbot (with St Catherine of Siena, John the Baptist and, I think, St Barbara), now resting in the garden having completed, one presumes, his spiritual battles in the Egyptian wilderness.

Today, however, the beauty of nature as wilderness is seen as the highest form of natural beauty, of greater beauty than cultivated nature (which would be thought of as unnatural because it is 'man altered'). Here in the US, for example, people particularly prize their national parks as places of wilderness unaffected by man. They are wonderful and beautiful places to visit, but nevertheless very different from those in countries that are of the Old World. In the UK, where I come from there is no part of the land, as far as I am aware, that is not man-affected. Our national parks preserve the look of ancient farmland. The Lake District, for example, in the northwest of England is a landscape that has been shaped by man for centuries through agriculture. It's beauty was admired by the Romantic poets - it is the place, for example, where Wordsworth saw that 'host of golden daffodils' that he wrote about.

The wilderness is beautiful, but it is part of a fallen world and we know objectively that by God's grace man can raise the beauty of nature up to something higher than the wilderness (it should be said also, that as a fallen creature with free will, he is also capable of destroying its beauty too). It is a neo-pagan philosophy that makes nature untouched by man as ultimate ideal for beauty. It arises from an attitude that man and his activity is not natural and the influence of civilization is always detrimental to nature. This attitude took hold strongly in the US due to the influence of figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

For the Christian, man is meant to cultivate the world (or large parts of it at least) and if he does so well, he elevates it's beauty because he raises it up to what it was meant to be. So farmland is more beautiful than wilderness and a garden, grown for the contemplation of beauty is more beautiful than farmland.

The second point that arises in my consideration of this is the question as to whether or not gardening is a male or a female pastime? Talking to many here in the US, the impression I get is that people see planting vegetables or rearing animals for food as a masculine thing; but growing a garden for its beauty as something intrinsically feminine. I have noticed since I have been here in the US that it seems to be a fashion among Catholic academics (especially those with distributist tendencies) who have even a small plot of land  to use it for rearing chickens, keeping bees or growing vegetables. But I don't see much interest in creating a 'garden enclosed'.

Again, this goes against the tradition and not the case elsewhere. Adam was a gardener, Christ, the new Adam, was mistaken for a gardener. Christ went to the wilderness to meet the devil, but when he wanted to pray to his Father, he went to the garden. Also, while Mary is identified with the garden itself, it was the man in the Song of Songs who cultivated that garden and gathered lilies for his love. Furthermore, to add a personal note, my great grandfather was head gardener of the Duke of Northumberland (so the family lore goes); my grandfather was and my dad still is a very keen amateur gardener (my father's garden was even featured once on national television).

Aristotle it seems to suggest that the natural home for man is not the wilderness but the city, where he lives in association with others. Scripture seems to support this: for example, in psalm 106 the city is the place of culture from which the wilderness is banished; and in the Book of Revelation, our final home will be the city of the New Jerusalem. That city, however, is not a concrete jungle, but rather is a garden city in which the Tree of Life flourishes and Eden has been restored by Christ the Head Gardener. The garden in these accounts is a place of beauty, a retreat for relaxation and contemplation for city dwellers.  Everything is grown for its beauty and to delight the senses - taste, smell, vision - as well as sustenance. The little bit of reading  about medieval gardens seems to suggest that, consistent with this, they were designed with both utility and beauty in mind (just as with architecture it seems, utility and beauty are seen as two different aspects of what is good). By this the work of man adds harmony to the hymn of the cosmos in proclaiming the glory of God.

Furthermore, Leo XIII said in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, that men  (I assume here in the sense of all humanity) should be encouraged to cultivate the land. I have heard this used as an argument by those Catholic academics to support the idea that they ought to be keeping chickens and bees in their backyard and growing vegetables. If you enjoy it then I say go ahead and do it, but I feel no such obligation myself. Frankly, I can't see the point as long as the local supermarket sells ready-cooked chickens for under $5 and jars of honey and vegetables and fruit from all over the world year round.

However, what is not so often remarked upon is that Leo says that in cultivating the land, man will, 'learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them [my emphasis].' He says specifically that he should cultivate for reasons that go beyond generation of food. This I suggest is the garden that man can contemplate for its beauty. I would even go so far to say that this is the higher goal. The Marian garden is higher than the Marthan.

In advocating that men grow flowers I am not suggesting that this should be the goal of unreconstructed men so that they can discover their 'feminine side'. On the contrary, the cultivation of beauty for contemplation should be seen as much a masculine occupation as a feminine one and a way in which the true masculinity is realized for it is part of what mankind is meant to do.

Perhaps there are parallels in the modern feminization of flower gardening with the feminization of prayer and contemplation that has lead to a drop in the number of priestly and religious vocations in the Church, and to the fact that in a typical congregation women always seem to outnumber men. Perhaps the antidote to both is the same - the reinforcement of the role of fathers in the family. In the first case, by leading the family in prayer, and in the second case by being happy once again to  cultivate natural beauty as an example to their sons...even if it is only by watering a window box to grow flowers to give to his wife!

Pictures below is  Noli me tangere by John of Flanders, 14th century - Christ with holy spade! And below that: Martin Schongauer, Madonna in Rose Garden, 15th century; and below: Gerard David, and Robert Campin, both late gothic Flemish. Picture above are from 14th century English psalters.











At Work in My Parents' Garden in Cheshire, England

photoAs an antidote to the gloom of ever shortening days I am posting some photos taken in England in the summer. I was back there in August and took these photos of my parents' garden. Some will remember that I showed photos of this garden just a year ago, in an article here called A Gardon is a Lovesome Thing, God Wot. when just in its second season. Fifteen months later and it is maturing so that the herbacious borders look packed out! I was immediately put to work doing some dead-heading and weeding. I can't claim much credit for the beauty of it, though. What is remarkable given that my Dad and Mum haven't been able to do much work on it this year, is how beautiful it is when for long periods it has just left to grow on its own. The look of it is down to careful planning in the design and planting. My parents winter in Spain and the Spanish influence is obvious with the removal of the lawn and courtyard type layout with large terracotta plants (also another labour saver as there is no lawn mowing to be done).



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Two More British Walks - Farmland in England and Wales and a 12th century Welsh castle

Here are some photographs of two more walks in the British Isles. The first is walking from my parents' house in a village called Willaston in Cheshire. This is in the north of England, close to the Welsh border and the area where I grew up. This is just a short jaunt from my parents' place through gentle, flat agricultural land viewed from a disused railway line. As with all of the British countryside, there are footpaths that you can take off this public land onto privately owned farmland. As you can see in the photographs, this is agricultural land and when I was there, the farmer was harvesting wheat. The second is rural north Wales. This is sheep pasture land and a rugged terrain in Snowdonia, and mountainous region of Wales. The highest hills are 3,000-3,500ft above sea level. The village is called Dolwyddelan (pronounced Dol-with-ellen - double ds are pronounced 'th' in Welsh).

These two places are about 60 miles apart.

First Willaston:

This little diversion took us to a pasture in which just a month ago the field was full of orchids and the dog rose was in bloom too. The following photographs were taken by my dad.

And here we have the rugged sheep country of Snowdonia...

It was a rainy day in August...well this is North Wales. We climbed out of the village into the hills along a farm track, the views opened up behind us and then we approached the ridge

Here we are close to the ridge above the village, about 2,500ft high

Flora and fauna along the way - sheep, yellow gorse and purple heather

And the cairn on the top for lunch.

And back down through the windy and rugged sheep pasture. Most of the sheep we saw were sheltering from the wind on one side of the ridge

Our return route took us via a castle that was built by the Welsh of the principality of Gwyneth. The Welsh in this part of the country resisted the Normans for two-hundred years longer than the English Saxons and were conquered by the English until the late 13th century (under Edward I). It was not used for defence but as a garrison for soldiers to help the security of travel routes for trade within the principality.

We had to climb the stairs, above, to get into the main hall inside.

And from there, we climbed up a dark stone stairway up to the top, and here's the veiw. The mountian by the way is called Moel Siabod (pronounced Moe-ell Shab-odd)

Below us, a shepherd was training his two sheep dogs

Photos of Naumkeag House and Gardens, Stockbridge, Massachussets

naumkeag19The Way of Beauty gardens reporter, Nancy Feeman has sent met me another missal, this one following a trip to Stockbridge, Massachussets. "The name of the house is Naumkeag," she tells me, "and the house itself was built in 1886. It is absolutely enchanting and charming. The gardens were redsigned from 1926 to 1955 and they are in the process of restoring them now. The idea of garden rooms is present in the design and a lot of the garden is heavily landscaped because the house sits on a hillside. The stairs are really interesting and have water flowing down to each level. Mabel Choate - the daughter who worked on the gardens - traveled to many countries for inspiration. This was was popular thing to do in the early 1900's and as a result of this she wanted a Chinese garden. The rose garden is lovely but the rose bushes are very young. In general there were not many flowers which is what I really love but nevertheless it it was still beautiful and of course the views of the nearby mountains, the Berkshires make the whole scene so picturesque. The website is here.  


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Alcazar Garden, Seville

Gardens of the Alcazar SevilleHere are some photos of the gardens of the palace - the Alcazar - in Spain. Owing much in style to the Moorish builders of the palace and gardens (like the even more well known example in Granada), it has nevertheless been since the reconquista a palace of the Spanish Royal Family and so has become reflective of something that is a much distinctively Spanish. I have wonderful memories of visiting this palace and the gardens. I went to Seville for the wedding of a friend to a Spanish lady whose family originated in Seville. The wedding was right at the beginning of September and the weather was almost unbearably hot. In the first two or three days there, we were preoccupied with the wedding and preparations. It was a wonderful occasion but by the time everything was over I was utterly exhausted. The heat was sapping and I was staying in a hostel that didn't have good air conditioning and so I hadn't slept well. We had put aside a few days for sightseeing and so the first place we headed for was this palace.

You enter through the main entrance of the palace building and then after seeing the interior move through to the courtyards in the back and then the expansive gardens beyond. Going out into the courtyard was like emerging into a new and wonderful world. First of all the temperature was controlled. The courtyards had little fountains and shade and the evapouration created a natural drop in temperature. It doesn't always look like it in the photos that I found, but my recollection is that in the gardens every walkway was predominantly shady and cool either through built archways or through high trees creating shade.

The other aspect of the garden that struck me was that the beauty of the garden was created by manipulation of light as much as through the colour of the plant leaves and flowers. So foliage could be dark or light green depending on whether or not they were in light or shade. There were additional effect created by light transmitted through the leave as the sun partially penetrated the canopy above. As well as walking at ground level a high, covered walkway was created just to allow the privileged residents (and now visitors) to stroll out above the canopy and look down on it. This created a whole new range of light effects of great beauty.

In addition, while there weren't many flowers at this point in September, there were nevertheless enough blooms to create beautiful fragrance at every turn.

I have spoken in the past of how my experience of the liturgy at the Brompton Oratory was so influential in my conversion, here. One of the aspects of this experience was how complete the liturgical experience was with art, music, incense, architecture and so on. In many ways, coming some time later, this reminded me of that experience. This is man sculpting and composing in stone and flora and through its beauty so that all my senses were engaged and even the temperature was controlled naturally.

The painting of the gardens shown above, by the way is by a Spanish artist Manuel Garcia y Rodriguez.







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Gardens of the Alcazar Seville






Photos of the Gardens of Blithwold Manor in Bristol, Rhode Island

blithewold11Blithewold Manor and is located in Bristol, Rhode Island about  an hours south of Boston on the Narragansett Bay. The first house was destroyed by fire and the second was built in 1906 in this English Country Manor style with Arts and Crafts style gardens. The photographs were sent to me by Nancy Feeman, who has written on gardens in England for this blog. Here is the website.

The house is in 33 acres of land which sits on the coast and so has spectacular views over the water. As well as the beautiful gardens there is a well developed arboretum. Thank you for sending these photos Nancy, I can't wait to go down and have look myself.














Real Men Grow and Pick Lilies...Yes They Do!

doaks-ggr-virt-15-01Is gardening for beauty and delight a male or a female occupation? Talking to many here in the US, the impression I get is that people see growing food for produce, or rearing animals for food as a masculine thing; but growing a garden for its beauty? Definitely not. They will rear chickens in their back yard, but growing flowers? No, that is for girls. In response to this I would say that the call of every man to cultivate the land, should have 'three acres and cow' is at once too narrow and too broad: narrow in that seems to imply that only a utilitarian view of cultivation; and broad in not every man is meant to be cultivating even three acres of land, but he should at least have a plant-pot and a geranium on the windowsill of his 3rd floor city-centre apartment! Adam was gardener; Christ, the new Adam, was mistaken for a gardener and my great grandfather was head gardener of the Duke of Northumberland (so the family lore goes). Also my grandfather was a keen amateur gardener and my father still is a devoted gardener, who also had a garden-nursery a garden design consultancy business. All were men! Perhaps this is a little family line of the 'Downton Abbey' old world pro aristocracy view of life in which every man has his proper place passing down through the family line, holding out against modernist utilitarian view of the land.

The garden is a place for relaxation and contemplation for city dwellers. The city being the place of culture and the natural place for man to live (according to psalm 106 and Aristotle alike). The city garden then is a sanctuary and is described in scripture as a place in which everything is grown for its beauty and to delight the senses - taste, smell, vision - rather than simply sustenance.  

Also, I note, Christ went to the Garden of Gethsemene to pray. He went to the wilderness to meet the devil; but he went to the garden to find the Father in his time of agony. The garden is a sanctuary of the natural world raised up by man to something greater, so that contemplation of its enhanced beauty raises our spirits to God and as such prompts our praise of God the Father in a way that even the beauty of the wilderness is unable to do. When Mary Magadalene saw Christ in the garden, as mentioned above, she mistook him for the gardener, which seems to me to be symbolic of who this was, she was seeing more than we might give her credit for. 

Reading the book of Revelation, that too seems to suggest that man is meant to be a city dweller, for our final home will be the liturgical city of the New Jerusalem. But this is a garden city in which the Tree of Life flourishes and Eden has been restored by Christ the Head Gardener. 

I wonder if the root cause of the idea that flowers are cissy is the same as that which has created the tendency towards the feminisation of the prayer in the Church (leading in turn to a reduction in the number of priests)? It seems to me that it is, although I can't say exactly how - perhaps this removal of anything contemplative from masculine list of activities is a common element.

geometric-gardenPerhaps then, accordingly, just as we should be encouraging fathers to lead prayer in the home we should also be encouraging boys to start growing things so that contribute to the beauty of our homes and cities and make them sanctuaries of peace as a gift for the family (even if it begins with just in a plant pot inside the house).

I am not suggesting that macho men should discover their inner femininity, rather, that we need to learn to see that cultivation for beauty is as thoroughly masculine as it is feminine. For as Leo XIII say in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, men should be encouraged to cultivate the land and in so doing will, 'learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them [my emphasis].'

Consistent of this idea of the gardener growing good things for those that are dear to him, to use Leo's phrase, we see in the Song of Songs that while the garden is identified with the lady, commonly seen  as Mary, a 'garden enclosed'; it is the man who is the gardener who woos her by growing and gathering lilies for her. What strikes me when I look at the traditional pictures of the garden enclosed shown below, is not how our attitude to Mary has changed, but how are attitude to nature and gardens, even as Christians, has changed. I wrote an article that touches on this called Come Out of the Wilderness and Into the Garden . It is this differing attitude to gardens and man's relationship to them that makes this identification of Mary as the garden enclosed so unusual to us today.

As an aside: reading again through Anton Chekhov's the Head Gardener's Tale (and I can't remember why I had cause to read through it the first time!) it is interesting to note that in this short story written in 1894, the gardener is proud of his position, for we are told he calls himself 'Head Gardener' even though he is the only gardener and has no subordinates. The scene is a sale of flowers in 'Count N's greenhouses'. He tells a tale to the narrator in  which a judge acquits a vagrant for the brutal murder of an just and beloved village doctor. The tale itself seems to my unlearned appreciation to be asking questions about how justice and mercy are balanced (and I'm not sure I'm with Checkhov in what appear to be his conclusions...perhaps some literature experts can interpret for us, the story is here  - it really is very short!) What I find particularly curious, is that Checkhov made the narrator of the tale, who a mysterious sage, an aristocrat's gardener. Is there any significance I wonder? Comments please!

Pictures below is  Noli me tangere by John of Flanders, 14th century - Christ with holy spade! And below that: Martin Schongauer, Madonna in Rose Garden, 15th century; and below: Gerard David, early 15th century Flemish.









Head Gardener

and finally, below, the York Psalter, 12th century

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