Imagine hosting a party in which your role is to be completely still.
This article appeared in our April 2004 issue.
Like many brilliant ideas, the Quiet Garden is a simple one: Make your home the host, and your garden a place of prayer and contemplation. It is an idea that has revolutionized the concept of Christian worship and sparked a movement that now spans the globe. From Topeka, Kansas, to Nairobi, Kenya, people are offering their living rooms and backyards as "Quiet Gardens," mini-retreats open on certain days of the week or month for people in need of spiritual renewal and divine connection.
The Quiet Garden Trust is the brainchild of the Rev. Philip Roderick, a Welshman who grew up steeped in a Celtic tradition where the spiritual and the sacred are celebrated not only in churches and chapels but also in places of earthly power and beauty: in woodlands and groves, on sea shores and wind-swept cliffs. He is someone who hears the pearly song of the seas, finds direction in the wind running through the leaves, listens when the trees speak. To him, they are signs from God, signs of God.
The idea to create a worldwide network of "gardens in the heart" came to Roderick on a warm spring day in Oxford, England, in May 1992, as he sat in his own garden with his wife, Jill, having just returned from a three-month sabbatical spent in prayer and reflection in India and the United States. While contemplating the blossoming trees surrounding him, Roderick says he was suddenly struck with "a vision and a call."
"People need somewhere to go, I said to my wife, just as Jesus, in between his healing and teaching ministry, went with his core disciples to a quiet place for some rest, withdrawing into places of beauty -- always beauty, always outside. Jesus taught with words and actions but also by withdrawal into solitude and silence, so I thought this is what we need: a microcosm of the Sea of Galilee or the Mount of Olives for people who don't have access to such places. I asked myself what this microcosm would look like and I thought of a garden, which is where I was sitting, and, because it rains a lot in England, of a house as a sanctuary as well."
Roderick, a spiritual director and priest at the Church of England's Oxford Diocese, began to share with his students and colleagues this vision of establishing a new ministry of hospitality, prayer, and contemplation in the home -- anyone's home. Within two weeks, a couple had offered up their farmhouse and garden, a field away from the spot where Thomas Gray penned his now-famous "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." It was the first Quiet Garden and a particularly fitting spot since the name of the ministry also came from a line in a poem -- "A falling flower in the quiet garden" -- written by Roderick as a 14 year-old-boy. The line stuck with him, he says, because it was one his mother particularly liked.
Today, there are more than 260 Quiet Gardens in countries such as Kenya, Israel, South Africa, Uganda, Ireland, India, France, Haiti, Botswana, Australia, the United States, and of course, Great Britain. Roderick explains that these gardens, like all places of worship, are intended to ground Christians in the love of God -- without necessarily having a cross, a sermon, or a Bible in hand. "Christians have historically not done enough to earth their spirituality and theology," he says. "Here is one way this particular wisdom tradition can articulate, embody, and share the radiant presence of God pouring through the sacrament of nature."
A Ministry Called Nature
"There is a sensuality to nature as well as an asceticism; there are teachings on birth and death. Nature is nurturing, educational, challenging. It is a profound place of presence, of passivity and activity, giving and receiving. Nature can be a priest to me, ministering grace and goodness, and I can be a priest to nature, ministering love and care. We can draw each other back to God.
"Pure contemplation is the direct route to God, but nature can provide an extraordinary context where that graced moment of being unified with God can happen.... God has spoken through nature most often. The sublime mythology of the Garden of Eden, and the raw actuality of the Garden of Gethsemane, also speak through manufactured spaces of beauty. We create gardens because we are called to be co-creators with God, designers of places to fulfill the human quest for wholeness and well-being. The earth heals, so even when we are just sitting in the garden, we are touching the earth and being embraced by God’s activity.”
Quiet Gardens are as much concept as place, a respite from the world of action and noise, where the focus is on finding the beauty in stillness. “Don’t just do something, sit there!” is a Quiet Garden credo. The purpose for both hosts and participants is to simply abide, which in the Quiet Garden tradition means resting in the presence of God. It isn’t doing or thinking or acting, but a passive receiving and letting go into the divine, Roderick says.
“I went to visit this delightful retired couple in Canada not long ago,” he recalls. “On the day they opened their Quiet Garden on Vancouver Island, there were about 18 people there. The man found himself sitting under a fig tree he had planted, next to a bench he had built, and tears rolled down his cheeks as he realized that it was the first time he had just sat in and enjoyed the garden he had been working on for 15 years.”
Quiet Gardens are visited by parents in need of a day of relaxation away from home; by doctors and nurses working around the clock in hospitals; people caring for the physically or mentally ill; those with a sick or dying relative; those who want to explore Christianity but find church daunting or unappealing; and by those of us — all of us — who simply need a few hours of peace and quiet from time to time.
A perfect garden with tidy hedges is not essential; wilderness and weeds are welcome. A large garden is not required; small, quiet spaces are fine. People come to the garden to be in it, not to look at it. Even a bowl of flowers in the middle of the room can provide a sanctuary. No one is required to participate in any activity; one can choose to read, write, walk, or meditate.
“It is open to anyone,” Roderick says, “but the teaching is Christian because we haven’t been as good as other traditions at creating a contemplative practice — which, I believe, is deeply rooted in Jesus’ life. He modeled the middle path where all action is informed by the deep presence of God.”
Quiet Gardens can happen anywhere. There is one in a slum in India that is home to prostitutes and homeless children; one is on an organic farm in Kansas, another at a bishop’s house in Australia. A Kenyan minister runs a Quiet Garden in the middle of Nairobi, for a few hours a week, in a hut that is otherwise a food dispensary and a school. There is a Quiet Garden in Kampala created to provide respite and nurturing to the doctors and nurses attending to AIDS patients around the clock. In Bellevue, Washington, Nancy Mariano opens two rooms in her home, including her extensive library of music and books, and her lawn with a view of Phantom Lake, to retreatants. In Oamaru, New Zealand, Margaret Birtles holds a quiet day to help people prepare for Christmas. In Wellow, England, ministers of four Gardens representing the Augustinian, Franciscan, Celtic, and Ignatian traditions gather to share their spiritual practices.
In all these places, Roderick says, the small voice of God can be heard when people stop to listen. The Quiet Garden is designed to be a place of solace, but also of spiritual inquiry. By drawing people into a deeper communion with the holy, the Gardens are designed to catalyze reflection and faith-based action. Quiet gardens, therefore, often include Christian teachings as well as initiatives to reach out to people in need. Projects dedicated to reconciliation, leadership development, and environmental action have sprung up, enlivening the mystical Christian tradition of both action and contemplation, withdrawal and engagement, work and prayer.
“Nurturing spiritual foundations of being human frees us to be profoundly creative in the service of God and of our many neighbors,” Roderick writes. “It is the way of balance.”
Hosting a Quiet Garden in Your Home
To offer your home or garden as a place for people from any background or faith tradition to be nurtured by the spiritual teachings of Christianity, you can set up your own Quiet Garden retreat for a certain number of days a week, month, or year. You can also seek out people steeped in the Jewish and Christian wisdom traditions to teach or lead meditation, in addition to providing a place of silent reflection. For a small fee, the Quiet Garden Trust will provide materials to help you design your own ministry, advise you about how to spread the word once you have opened your home or garden, and connect you with others in the movement.
For more information on joining the movement, creating your own sanctuary for your community, or finding a Quiet Garden near you, go to QuietGarden.org.