Renewing the Garden of the Heart

The time of Easter and the season of spring is intended to be an awakening from the dormancy of winter. Yet in the midst of an unrelenting pandemic, it seems that a season of weariness continues, with a time of relief uncertain. While the situation affects many people in different ways, there seems to be a pervasive fatigue, a tiredness that lingers, an uncertainty about the time and kind of outcome, a sense of isolation, and an edginess with one another. All of these factors are like a weight upon us that wears us down.

At the same time, the world of nature around us is reawakening. Crocuses, hyacinths, daffodils and narcissus are emerging in full colour, and the days are a little warner. In some ways, this renewal may both sadden us because it seems difficult to experience it on our own lives. Yet it may also give us hope that renewal, if not imminent for us, is not too far away. Perhaps it may be helpful to dwell a little on times of reawakening.

The folk tales and myths operate at many levels, one of which is the cycle of seasons. In the story of Sleeping Beauty, the hedge of thorns gives way to the awakening the rose. In the myth of Narcissus, the flower with the sun at its centre emerges after a seeming death. In the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the return of the young woman from the underworld gives rise to the harvest. In Oscar Wilde’s more modern foktale, The Selfish Giant, it is the entry of the children, the new life, through cracks in the wall that ushers in a new springtime of flowers. I once saw a striking time-lapse photography film of flowers awakening, with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, as background music. It gave a solid impression of the inner strength of unfolding life. My son, Bill, added these thoughts on The Selfish Giant. “Children represent a sense of wonder, new life, and beauty, that the giant has not experienced in some time. An awakening of the giant’s inner child allows him once again to see the beauty and wonder of life.”

What is remarkable in these stories is that the reawakening, the newness of life, the time of transition, is preceded by a time of loss or sorrow. Whether thorn, watery depths, the underworld, or walls–all of these signal a kind of death, an ending, that precedes a new birth or a new beginning.

While many of us feel a mood of prolonged winter, these stories, as well as the cycle of seasons themselves, and the teachings of many religions, see this darkness as a prelude to light and invite as to move at least tentatively n the direction of hope.

In this vein, the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, writes: “Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.”

A marvellous example of this process is found in the story, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and captured as well in the 1993 film, and in the later musical. In the film, two main characters have experienced a wrenching death, Mary, a young girl, has recently lost both parents, and Archie, her uncle, has lost his wife, Lily, ten years previously. In his grief, her Archie has closed and locked the garden–both the outer garden where Lily died and the inner garden of his heart. In doing so, he has closed himself to life, reflected in the sickness of his son, Colin, and the deadness of the entire household.

Mary’s feisty anger, on the other hand is an indication not only of her hurt, but also of her struggle for life. The garden of her heart is still open to the possibility of new life, but it needs cultivation and support. She senses that the locked garden is the key, and with the help of her young friend, Dickon, and the robin he has tamed, discovers the door and the key to the outer garden, and everything unfolds from there.

Assisted by Dickon, Mary enters the outer garden, and , though overgrown, still has the roots, ready to spring again more fully into life. In the process, she is getting in touch with te secret garden of her own heart, her own inner core, and finding and fostering the life that is already there.

Gradually they awaken Archie’s son, Colin, from the deadness that has been imposed upon him, reflected in his gradual process of standing, walking, and running. He has in fact entered the secret garden of his heart and discovered and opened himself to the life and let it flower in love. Finally, Archie himself, who, at the beginning of The Secret Garden , has not only locked the outer garden, but also the inner garden of his heart. At the end, the love he had for Lily is unlocked and begins to flower in Colin and Mary.

Like the words of Rumi, The Secret Garden suggests that if we pass through the sufferings, betrayals, and deaths, that are part of life, and into the secret garden of our heart, we will discover the seeds of new life that flourish in wisdom and love, and move towards a fuller and richer meaning, one that finds expression in an ever expanding outreach in justice and compassion. While this approach does include resistance to hurt and injustice done to self and others, and may exclude or end some personal relationships, it always contains a recognition of the secret garden, the inner core of sacredness of the other person or persons, and the hope that they may discover and live according to that sacredness.

Bill also added these thoughts on The Secret Garden. “As a garden, a person may also be overgrown in some sense. Yet with care and compassion their roots are able to generate new life. After Colin has been closeted for many years, he is able to be outside and witness the life and beauty in the garden. This experience awakens his sense of hope and allows him to find new life in himself, expressed in his new found ability to walk and even to run.”

May any hardship or sorrow you are experiencing now give way to a new and deeper understanding and caring that enriches your own heart and the hearts of those whose lives touch upon your own.

Norman King, April 12, 2021