Thursday 30 November 2006

November 2006 - Death and Suffering, Life and Love

The first frosts, later than usual, have cut down the dahlias in the autumn border, and the tender salvias I failed to bring in. Their skeletons stand black and rotting where flowers so recently danced like bright hoors, to remind me of the fate of all created things, myself included, and all those I love.

And murder has been done on the wilderness path. A sad sprinkling of chaffinch feathers among the fallen leaves the only clue for CSI: I suspect the sparrow hawk, but a visiting cat might equally be the culprit.

Feet suddenly chilled in green wellies, I stop and stare, reaching inward to touch dark fears and anxieties. Tim, the father of two darling grandsons, lies in intensive care after surgery to replace a defective heart valve. For two years since diagnosis, we have known this time would come. We have watched his energy falter until he could no longer work, while the doctors monitored his condition, waiting for the time to be right. I so much admire Tim and my daughter for their fortitude and good sense facing this slow-building crisis, and how they have lovingly prepared their family for it. We are told his prognosis is good, and we pray that this will be so. But why, oh why, did our loving father God allow this suffering to fall on such a fine young man and his young family in what should be the prime of his life?

I cannot answer this question, perhaps the most difficult one there is; no more than anyone else can. It is clear that death and suffering go hand in hand with life and joy in this wonderful world we are a part of. CS Lewis suggests in his book The Problem of Pain that perhaps God could not have created one without the other: our freedom to respond to God’s outpouring love may depend upon it. Whatever the truth, we do know that Jesus shared our human suffering, and I believe he shows us how to make it holy.

The gardener knows that what seems like death in winter yields to new life in spring. The red leafless twigs of the limes in the alley already bear fat red buds. The daffodil bulbs I dug up by mistake already sprout white roots underground. And I know that Susanna’s beautifully tidied labyrinth beds will throw up another crop of annual weeds demanding yet more hoeing next year. The cycle of life and love will continue!

October 2006 - Harvest of Souls

The Harvest Festivals have come and gone, and we have given thanks to God for the plenty he has given us.

As I dig the last row of potatoes, I reflect on my own harvest, and start to plan for next year. The story is mixed. These knobbly tubers are the old late potato variety pink fir apple – difficult to peel, but to my taste unrivalled for flavour. The crop is good, though small due to the dry summer. It will feed us for a few months yet. The beans were another matter. The broad beans grew well, and produced hosts of flowers, but almost no pods formed. I suspect poor pollination. Bees were scarce: perhaps local swarms have been killed by the varoa mite, which is making life so difficult for beekeepers. Just three climbing French beans came up from a long row, but they and a late sowing of dwarf beans have fed us well for weeks. Last year’s seed, I tell myself: I must throw out the old and buy fresh next year. The plums were very good, the apples too. With great joy I watched the first pears form on the young espalier trees. And Susanna’s new labyrinth garden has produced a rich harvest of flowers to delight our spirits and passers-by.

In the summer arable farmers were worried by the drought, and I heard of first-cut silage being fed to beasts in July. But the Irish Farmers Journal now forecasts a 2 million tonne grain harvest, 6.8% above 2005, and after-grass is good I hear. Altogether, we all had a very great deal to give thanks for!

All Souls tide looms in the church calendar. I lean back on my fork and I wonder: What will Jesus make of his harvest, the harvest of souls? I am a sinner, and so are you, we all know that - though some of us are more miserable than others! Surely Jesus too will find the harvest mixed: among disappointments, I pray he may find some encouragement. He loves every soul, however knobbly, however poor the yield, we are assured. Jesus taught us to pray to our Father in heaven, and I take comfort that our loving-father God continues to show his love by giving us each day our daily bread. Without his grace we would have no harvest, though we do not deserve it.

September 2006 - Clouded Yellows and Swallows

Do you find God in your garden? I certainly do. I think I feel closer to God in my garden than I do anywhere else – except perhaps in the Burren, or similar great sweeps of wild landscape. Intellectually I can give my assent to the proposition that ‘He is everywhere’. But yet that sense of awe and wonder at the majesty and loving kindness of God seems more intense amidst living, growing things. Am I confessing some kind of failure of imagination?

Now, in early September, I am busying myself with the chore of strimming the wild-flower meadow, and raking up the cuttings: the plan is to allow the seeds to fall and multiply the flowers for next year. While leaning on the rake I catch sight of a yellow butterfly visiting a clump of Birds-foot Trefoil, a Clouded Yellow: not exactly rare, but a little uncommon, it is a migrant from warmer Mediterranean shores. A perfect specimen, newly emerged, it would have started life as an egg laid in June on a trefoil leaf by a female swept on southerly winds from France or Spain. Unfortunately, our winters are too cold and wet for them, and its offspring will not live to reproduce. But next year, a cousin of this beautiful maiden-aunt will visit to enchant us again.

Meanwhile, overhead, a twittering flight of swallows weave and bank, fattening themselves on flies and midges. One chases another, squealing piteously: perhaps a child of 2006 still seeking to be fed by its parent? They will leave soon, but their return next April will herald the burgeoning of another summer and lift our spirits. Gilbert White, the Rector of Selborne in Hampshire and eminent 18th century naturalist, believed that they hibernated in the mud of ponds. The truth is even more amazing: these tiny creatures fly 6000 miles, traversing the Sahara desert and the jungles of central Africa, to winter in southern Africa. And ringing studies have shown that the same birds find their way back to the very same nest the next year!

What little miracles of life these wanderers are! They are our distant cousins in the web of life, and they too are wrapped in God’s loving kindness. Matthew reports Jesus saying: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them”. How will they cope with climate change, I wonder? In our greed and thoughtlessness we human kind pollute and damage this amazing world we have been given. Experts warn us that we are causing a rise in global temperatures unknown for 55 million years, and an accelerating crisis of species extinction, with uncertain but probably nasty consequences for us and our children. We badly need a big, big miracle: we should pray for it, and try to walk a little more lightly on God’s earth!