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  • Paul Damon

To Build a Garden

I stopped to rest in a small stone church. It was dark inside and quiet. The church was simple, with rough-hewn stone floors and vaults. There were frescoes on the walls of the altar. The church was dotted with paintings and sculptures and stained glass. I read that the church dated to the 11th century. There was a soft chant recording playing. Alone in the church, I sat down to rest. The atmosphere of repose in the church, the chant music and quiet that suffused it all worked their magic on me as I was transported to a place of restoration. I felt recomposed, as if the experience had restored my sense of balance with the universe and put me in the present moment. I left the church feeling serene and content.

I wondered to myself how I could bring that experience home with me and I began to look for other sacred places where I could replicate that experience. Mircea Eliade, in his book The Sacred and the Profane, tells us that there are two ways of being in the world: one is to be in the sacred, and the other is to be in the profane world.[1] Further, he says that humans seek the sacred and finally make sacred places in the world to differentiate the sacred from the profane. This would indicate that the sacred does not pre-exist human lives but is a place where the sacred is constituted through human action. I was thinking only of churches and chapels and graveyards until I had a revelation as I left a busy boulevard and found a small, narrow street that led to a park. The park was small and completely covered by the canopies of a grid of trees. The floor was crushed gravel and the park was filled with benches for sitting. There was no turf grass, no flowers and no water feature. It was simply a place for sitting quietly, for letting the dog sniff around and for talking intimately with another. Amanda Foreman, in the book City Parks: Public Places / Private Thoughts, says the following: “Long before I could tell the hour or write the names of the months, the park existed as a living chronometer. Its springtime display was proof that time passed but did not vanish. The flowers provided reassurance that memories were not only visions but also tethers to a previous self that was not lost, simply changed. My little world had continuity and connection with the larger forces that ordered the ice cream and the deck chairs to reappear each year.”

My mind carried me back to that small church where I was similarly transported to a place of serenity. A park can restore the human soul from the nervous tension and profanity of the city, it has a healing effect on the mind and has a sacred dimension; it puts one in contact with the sacred while in the middle of the profane. One can meditate and ascend to tranquility in a park as easily as in a church. They share the same attributes.

In Sacred Sands: The Struggle for Community in the Indiana Dunes, author J. Ronald Engel describes the making of a sacred place: “Dunes park had two interconnected meanings, the first, political – as a public park, the Dunes could be preserved in common ownership by the people – the second, religious and symbolic. Dunes park in the second sense, referred to the perception of the Dunes as a sacred place. … it was in the Dunes that the creative Power of the universe was first made manifest and the “world” created, and where the promise of universal community remained embodied.”[2]

This same experience, that of making a sacred place, can be carried over into other realms. I propose a place consisting of your home and grounds. Here is where you come to rest, to cook, to reconstitute yourself for your forays out into the profane world of work and responsibilities. I suggest creating a garden in your private realm. Mircea Eliade says in his book that there is a system of cosmological images for making a sacred place. “a} a sacred place constitutes a break in the homogeneity of space; {b} this break is symbolized by an opening by which passage from one cosmic region to another is made possible; {c}communication with heaven is expressed by one or another of certain images, all of which refer to the axis mundi[3]: pillar, ladder, mountain, tree, vine, etc. and {d} around this cosmic axis lies the world {our world}, hence the axis is located “in the middle," at the navel of the earth; it is the Center of the World.”[4]

To make a garden is to bring order to the chaos; an act of creation that changes the amorphous to that which has form. It provides a fixed point of orientation. It is a place of solace, quiet contemplation, awe and mystery.

“To be at the sacred center is to be in touch with fullness of Unknown, and to be unified and healed, to be at ease in paradise. As long as the community is in contact with the center, its life has purpose and significance; its existence is fully human. In contrast, outside the center everything seems ordinary, homogeneous, profane.”[5]

In the garden the fertile earth lies below, the plant life and structures that give it form are the earthly plane and the upward focus of trees and climbing vines above one’s head create an opening to the sky. Making a garden will probably be the first sacred site that one will make with their own two hands. Imagine the possibilities. The necessary attributes of a sacred center conjure up images of entrances, intimate places to sit quietly, walkways, views within and without the garden, plantings and furniture. Imagine a sacred center as the garden of one’s home – a place where one can go for contemplation and repose. Then expand that idea. Imagine being able to walk or cycle or drive through a vibrant public realm where one can find restorative places within walking distance of wherever one finds themselves. A stroll through a park, a few quiet moments sitting in a church, walking down tree-lined streets, admiring landmark trees of age or public plantings. Your city has these things, they have just not been connected in your mind. Become aware of your surroundings in a spiritual way. Actively seek the places that you find restorative. Find ways to connect them with one another. Seek the sacred and make the world a sacred place of your own.

  1. [1]Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane, p.37. Harcourt, Inc., 1957. Translated by Willard Trask. [2] Engel, J. Ronald. Sacred Sands: The Struggle for Community in the Indiana Dunes, p.97. Wesleyan University Press, 1983 [3]The image of a universal pillar that at once connects and supports heaven and earth and whose base is fixed in the world below and is located at the center of the world. [4] Engel, J. Ronald. Sacred Sands: The Struggle for Community in the Indiana Dunes, p.97. Wesleyan University Press, 1983. [5] Ibid. p.101.

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