Living in the glorious Northwest, we all know how beautiful are the summers. The days are long, and the sunny sky is a most pure shade of blue. With all the moisture we get during the fall, winter and spring, the humidity goes away and all things green and flowery grow with gusto. Portland and the whole Willamette Valley become one large garden. I would like to dedicate this Newsletter to talking about our relationship with God’s creation. Since summertime is a time for gardening and outdoor activities, it is good to be reminded of our sacramental and mystical relationship with the environment. Patriarch Bartholomew states, “The way we relate to material things directly reflects the way we relate to God. The sensitivity with which we handle worldly things clearly mirrors the sacredness that we reserve for heavenly things.” In a similar way, the newly canonized Paisios of the Holy Mountain says, “Anything that you see or hear in this world, you should use it to reach up to Heaven; let it transport you there. Climb up step by step, from the creation all the way to the Creator.”
For those of us who live in dwellings with yards, we have the opportunity to be like God, the Master Gardener. It is not accidental or coincidental that God called Paradise, before the Fall, the Garden of Eden. “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” (Gen.2:8-9) Notice that God cared that the things He created and planted were both pleasant to look at and also good for food. God has revealed Himself to us in part through His creation. “The entire world contains seeds and traces of the living God. Moreover, the material and natural creation was granted by God to humanity as a gift, with the command to ‘serve and preserve the earth.’” (Patriarch Bartholomew) The fact that forests, meadows, mountains, lakes, rivers and the oceans are so beautiful, orderly and balanced reveals to us much about the character of God.
He could have created everything to be merely functional and practical, which is good, but instead, God made everything with artistry, grandeur and vivid color, which is very good. In a way, God put Himself, by way of signature, into what He created. This is part of how we understand God’s creation as “Paradise.” When we look at the carpet thick forest at the base of Mt. Hood or a Cascade volcano reflected in the calm of a high cascade mountain lake or the brilliant sunset lying low on the horizon of the rustic Pacific Ocean we recognize in these inspiring masterpieces the fathomless love of God for us. Each one of these and countless other intricate wonders of nature are God’s gift to us for our pleasure and to inspire within us and activate the very same image of this wondrous Artist and Gardener. “Because the earth is sacred, then our relationship with the natural environment is mystical or sacramental. This is why we should view the world as a gift of encounter and communion with God and with the rest of creation.” (Patriarch Bartholomew) It is for this reason that God commanded the first man, Adam, to also be a gardener. “And the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and preserve it.” (Gen.2:15)
By taking something ordinary and with creativity and the sweat of the brow transforming it into a “piece of paradise,” we become co-creators with God. We imitate Him and thereby take another small step toward God-likeness. On the part of humanity, this is an act of thanksgiving, and “above all, human beings are eucharistic creatures, capable of gratitude and endowed with the power to bless God for the gifts of creation.” (Patriarch Bartholomew) This is clearly evident in the Orthodox theology that comes through our hymnology and liturgical prayers. In one of the hymns of Theophany this truth is proclaimed: The nature of waters is sanctified, the earth is blessed, and the heavens are enlightened…so that by the elements of creation, and by the angels, and by human beings, by things both visible and invisible, God’s most holy name may be glorified.
God cares very much about cleanliness, order and beauty, and those who are close to Him manifest this Godly care in their stewardship over their dwellings and their surrounding environment. This is what is meant by God’s command for humanity to “till and preserve” His creation. Obedience to this command is especially evident in monastic communities. Those who traveled this past Fall to Mt. Athos were amazed and inspired by the gardens, both vegetable and flower, the orchards, and the combination of green space and stone paths that made up the overall properties of each monastery. This is also true of the three monasteries here on the west coast in our own Metropolis. Every visitor walks away feeling like they have just had a taste of the heavenly paradise that awaits them in Heaven. In a very real way, the cleanliness, order and love of beauty seen by the senses reflects the state of the interior life of those who dwell in such places.
Furthermore, a proper stewardship of God’s creation reflects the image of God in man as an expression of love for God, for the things He created, and especially for the rest of humanity. St. Isaac the Syrian claims, “the aim of the spiritual life is to acquire a merciful heart, one which burns with love for the whole of creation, for all of God’s creatures.” In his classic book, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky echoes this same truth: “Love all God’s creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.”
Just as we can never approach our veneration of the environment apart from our worship of God, so too we must also acknowledge that the entire world was created by God for the privilege of all and as a mystery of communion with the rest of humanity. In other words, veneration of the environment necessitates love for one’s neighbor. “As a gift from God to humanity, creation becomes our companion, given to us for the sake of living in harmony with it and in communion with others. We are to use its resources in moderation and frugality, to cultivate it in love and humility, and to preserve it in accordance with the scriptural command to till and preserve from Genesis 2:15.” (Patriarch Bartholomew) Our ascetic effort to live simply and exercise self-control and a healthy degree of self-denial should be a direct effort to love and care for our neighbor. An attitude and lifestyle of greed and self-centered consumerism at the expense of our neighbor reflects neither gratitude to God nor a spirit of communion with the rest of our brothers and sisters.
As we enjoy the beautiful weather of the Portland summer, and we spend more time outside in our gardens and in the extended garden of God’s wondrous creation, let us be ever-mindful that this great treasure is a gift from God. His creation is a constant expression of His love for us. The “very goodness” of the created world bears God’s signature and reveals to us much about His loving character. The way in which we interact and exercise care and stewardship of the environment has a direct effect upon our relationship with the Creator and His creation, including our fellow brothers and sisters. The true nature of God is love. It is out of love for us that He created. It is through this same expression of God’s love that we are endowed with the ability to co-create and to act as stewards and gardeners. We imitate God when we make the environment around us beautiful, orderly and preserve and protect it. As Eucharistic beings, our whole life should reflect this prayer of the Divine Liturgy: “In offering to Thee, Thine own from Thine own, in all and for all, we praise Thee, we bless Thee, and we give thanks to Thee, O Lord.” Then and only then are we able to more fully embrace God, as well as embrace all people and all things, not with fear or necessity, but with love, joy and gratitude. Now, go outside and enjoy the “gardens” of God’s creation!