Monday, June 8, 2009

Keep a garden in your heart. A Benedictine oblate blog

Bok Tower Sanctuary, Florida, USA

[Click picture to enlarge]

St. Benedict’s monks were often in their monastic gardens and he mentions the monastery's garden in parts of the Rule as illustrating a monk’s daily life.

The word “garden” (Latin “hortus”) is mentioned three times in the Rule of St. Benedict.

In the first two instances, the Rule gives short lists of locations and then instructs monks on proper conduct while monks are engaged in work.
In chapter 7 on the twelve degrees of humility, the garden is included in the twelfth degree as one of the places a monk should have humility not only in his heart, but also in his very appearance. A monk should have his head bowed with his eyes toward the ground.

In chapter 46 on reporting mistakes to the abbot, the garden is listed among the places a monk might be working and is used to illustrate that a monk must not fail to report mistakes wherever he works.

In chapter 66 on porters and reading the Rule often there is also the practical and perhaps theological advice that necessary facilities: water, mill, garden and various workshops should be within the monastery enclosure.
The garden within the monastic enclosure was an essential part of the monastery because monks mostly ate vegetables. Within the monastery the garden was probably further enclosed within a separate fenced or walled enclosure.

Monasteries had a food garden and a medicinal garden. The food garden was what we would call the kitchen/spice garden. Monks grew onions, leeks, celery, coriander, dill, poppy, radishes, chard, garlic, shallot, parsley, chervil, lettuce, pepperwort, parsnip, cabbage, and fennel.

The heavier food crops of beans, carrots, lentils, and beets were grown in larger fields outside the monastery.

Although the kitchen garden was for food and its flavoring, the monks certainly appreciated God’s beauty in what they grew for their sustenance. I am actively and contemplatively trying to cultivate such a spirit within my own life. I want to be very aware of what is around me — what surrounds where I live and what sustains me.

The world may see monasticism as a restricted life, but that may be like saying learning how to read and write restricts a person’s natural ability to see letters and draw letters in complete freedom.

The Plan of St. Gall is a famous monastic blueprint from the early 800s AD.(1) The Plan contains the notation next to the garden, “Here the planted vegetables flourish in beauty.”

The Plan of St. Gall is a 30 inch x 44 inch (77 x 112 cm) sheet of calf-skin vellum on which is drawn a comprehensive plan for a monastery and all of its facilities. It never served as the plan for a complete monastery, but like a utopian model its principles did serve as the plan for monasteries for centuries. As an ideal vision of the perfect monastery which could be applied and adapted to the particular circumstances in each local, its genius is not unlike that found in the Rule of St. Benedict — the monastic rule that would be followed in monasteries using the St. Gall Plan.

The Plan of St. Gall is “the oldest surviving and most extraordinary visualization of a building complex produced in the Middle Ages. It contains ground plans for some forty buildings, ranging from a church, monastic school, abbot’s residence, and infirmary, to such [closely integrated] elements as a water mill, stables, and poultry houses.”(2)

The kitchen garden (food/spice garden) in the Plan of St. Gall is at the eastern end of the Plan and south of the protecting fruit trees planted in the cemetery. The Plan of St. Gall web site provides a detailed view of the plan and reveals the remarkably orderliness of the monastic mind. The placement of the two gardens, medicinal and food, shows how the gardens were part of a harmony of function within the monastic enclosure.

Monks are linked to their sources of nourishment and monks saw gardens as part of God’s cycle of beauty during the year. Silence, music, reading, the divine office, and lectio divina can each be a garden to our spirit. We do not grow our own food, but thanks to my dear wife, outside our home is a flower garden that feeds our souls in the same way.

I hope your prayers and work lead you to create a monastic garden in your life. Ora et labora (prayer and work) is an ancient blueprint for whatever you plant within your monastic soul.



(1) “The Plan of St. Gall has been preserved in the Monastic Library of St. Gall (Switzerland). Indeed, its presence there was singled out by UNESCO as a reason that the library, the repository of over 2000 late antique and medieval manuscripts, was designated a World Heritage site in 1983.” Source

(2) Plan of St. Gall at UCLA.

The first part of a book on the Plan of St. Gall is here with all of its navigation aids, but the single pages I found most interesting on gardens were the following (these pages are direct links without the navigation to go forward and back to other pages):

Vol II, page 203

Vol II, page 205

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