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Posts from the ‘Spirit of gardens’ Category

Sanctuaries: from Assisi to Egypt

Writing about western Christianity’s monastic orders, Diarmid MacCulloch has highlighted the centrality of nature – and of gardens – to the practice of contemplation and silence:

The Carthusians had chosen to make a myriad of little paradises out of the enclosed individual gardens cultivated by their hermit-monks. The Carmelites, by contrast, remembering their mountain-wilderness, saw paradise in nature unspoilt by fallen humans.*

Throughout history there has been an intimate connection between nature, whether tamed or untamed, and the spiritual life. From rishis in forest ashrams in ancient India, to the close associations of gods and goddesses with the natural world in Egypt (e.g. the goddess Nut with the sacred sycamore tree), through to monastery gardens wherever Christianity appeared, the idea of finding sanctuary in nature has been an enduring theme.

And in our frenetic modern world, what better place to find our own sanctuary than in a quiet, well-planted garden with birds and insects for company as we collect our thoughts and spend time in quiet contemplation? Or, come to that, in a walk in the woods following in the footsteps of S. Francis?

On my recent travels, I have encountered some beautiful examples:

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From St. Francis surrounded by the thornless roses that are said to grow only in the garden of the Porziuncula Oratory close to Assisi, to the gentle atmosphere of the hermitage in the woods above the town; to the quirky garden of Andre Heller on the western shore of Lake Garda, its slopes planted with everything from bamboo groves to citrus fruits, the happy marriage of spiritual contemplation and nature’s generosity is inspirational.

In Egypt, the connection is still present, but you may have to search for it. First among the places I would turn to is the monastery of S. Antony, close to the Red Sea south of Ain Sokhna. Here you find a community of monks who cultivate a traditional garden featuring date palms, vines and a variety of vegetables such as onions and salad leaves:

S Anthony's Egypt
In the C4, Saint Antony’s main preoccupation was to get away from the crowds of enthusiastic followers who were flocking to him. Originally, he sought sanctuary in this lonely spot, choosing a cave half-way up the escarpment behind the monastery. I don’t suppose a garden was a priority for him, but it has developed along with the community of monks as a way to survive.

Finally, I would add it goes without saying that if you seek spiritual enlightenment in a holy place – a sanctum – you may encounter the unexpected. You might even meet an angel…

Angel, Assisi 5.16

Outside the church of Sa. Chiara, an angel alighted: Assisi, May 2016.


*See Silence: A Christian History by Diarmid MacCulloch published by Allen Lane, 2013

Written for the WordPress Daily Prompt, 25/7/16

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Pause for meditation

There was a beautiful surprise in store as I opened the blind of my bedroom window this morning: the guava pear tree in flower. Looking down I could see insects already at work on the blossoms. Time to run down and take a photo while the flowers were still at their best:
Guava in flower 5.16
The guava is a tree we treasure. Last year’s summer crop were amazing: fragrant, creamy, completely delicious.

I walked around the garden with Gigi the golden retriever, checking out the raised beds, dead-heading roses, picking a carnation flower or two, and adding the daily layer of dried leaves to the compost bin; Gigi, of course, was busy sniffing out cats. And there was another surprise, for while I have still to pick the last fruits on the kumquat tree, it, too, has come into bud all over!
Kumquat in flower and fruit 5.16
I was very struck by how the natural world seemed to fit with the Tao meditation for the day:

“From a bud, only a promise.
Then a gentle opening:
Rich blossoming, bursting fragrance.
The fulfillment of the center.”*

As the writer, Deng Ming-Dao, comments: “We must take care to open and bloom naturally and leisurely and keep to the center. It is from there that all the mystery snd power come, and it is good to let it unfold in its own time… We aren’t of a single character throughout our lives. We change and grow. Our identities unfold and bloom.”

Such gifts of beauty all around us! Here, at the end of my walk through the garden, was the first frangipani flower unfolding its miraculous scent and subtle colours to the world:
Frangipani 5.16


  • “365 Tao – Daily Meditations”  by Deng Ming-Dao, published by HarperOne 

A glimpse of paradise

Is there Paradise on earth?

Oh great strider

Who sows greenstone, malachite, turquoise – stars!

As you are green so may Teti be green,

Green as a living reed!

The beautiful poem, part of a Pyramid Text from King Teti’s tomb (dating to the Old Kingdom, c. 2300 BCE), refers to life after death: any natural beauty the king may wish for is in the realm beyond. In fact it is a hymn to the goddess Nut, she who bestrides the sky and strews stars with their green light across the firmament. But the allusion to green reeds, clearly by the banks of the river, is also an affirmation of life as we understand it, in the here and now. It is a wonderful example of how the ancient Egyptians viewed their universe.

Now, almost 4000 years later, the reeds remain part of the Nile environment:

Nile reeds

Aswan: islands in the Nile, sunset. In the background, the Aga Khan Mausoleum.

This brings me back to my chosen earthly form of paradise: Aswan (ancient Syene), situated on the Nile almost 900 km south of Cairo and close to the First Cataract. For me, it is a bright, green star, a wondrous oasis of peace and tranquility. To sail on the river there is to enter another dimension.

Aswan has attracted western visitors for at least two hundred years: almost in the tropics, yet possessed of a very dry climate, it is positioned at a narrow stretch of the Nile valley where Egypt – “the land of the sedge and the bee” – meets Nubia.

In the river are islands of many sizes and shapes, composed of heaps of rock  – Aswan being famous for the pink granite from which countless columns, pillars and obelisks were carved in ancient times.

Visitors have tended to be oddly dismissive. Florence Nightingale hated it, Amelia Edwards acknowledged only that it was “green.” Surprisingly, these Victorian ladies relished riding the rapids in the Cataract, perhaps a C19 version of whitewater rafting!

I could not disagree with them more. But then, Aswan has developed since their time.

For me, to visit the Botanical Garden is to step into an earthly paradise. Its origins are eccentric: an island “given” some 120 years ago to Lord Kitchener, sometime British military campaigner in Sudan, it was turned into a tropical botanical garden in this driest of climates. The collection focuses on trees of potential scientific and economic value from across the world, from Central and South America to India, Malaysia, Australia and back again to the Caribbean.

A week ago, I spent a magical morning wandering among its beautiful avenues, admiring the extraordinary forms and foliage of trees from around the world, my breath taken away by the vistas and the sense of harmony with nature.

The gardens remain important for scientific research, yet they are also a haven for wildlife, for local school kids, for visitors from Cairo and from much further afield.

The memory of stepping off the sailing boat and onto the island, of passing through the gate into this earthly paradise, will stay with me long after other details of the visit to Aswan have faded.

May all our gardens be green – green as a living reed!