Proximity to the land, awareness of seasonal patterns of frost and heat, rain and shine: these are among the chief benefits of a garden, and in my ongoing cultivation of the beautiful mess where my veggies grow, I am continually renewed and inspired by the metaphors that spring forth from every aspect of life in the garden. Susan S. Phillips has captured this peaceful fruition for those who are committed to following Jesus. In The Cultivated Life, the garden as a metaphor for the life of spirituality is contrasted with the life of the circus where our souls “ceaselessly strive,” and we are pressured into assuming the role of “spectator” or “performer” in our three-ring world of anesthetized frenzy.
In garden-living, spiritual disciplines shed their associations with the guilt of toxic do-lists and become row markers, holding space in which our desire for God “can be kindled and in which we might notice God.” The cultivated life is both free and rooted. As Paul instructed believers in Colossae, we “walk in Him, rooted,” (Colossians 2:6,7), a journey that is firmly planted in truth and yet proceeds forward through steady seasons of prayer, listening, sacred reading, and spiritual friendships. The author draws on her interactions as a spiritual director and her mentoring relationships with students to breathe life into her words, drawing her readers into intimacy with the radical stop of Sabbath keeping; the healthy effort of listening and of cultivating attachment; and the mindful bending forward of ordered attention. In the embedded memoir of Susan’s experience of grieving her parents’ deaths (within three months of each other) and her celebration of their fruitful lives, there is heart-stretching truth to enhance genuine worship and holy love for a God who enriches our soil through the harsh realities as well as through the times of flourishing.
Personally, I was left breathless reading Susan’s gorgeous prose, and I frequently stopped in my tracks to ponder and apply her images:
- ” . . . we would slam on the brakes as we came upon the stop sign, [and] all our kids’ sports gear catapult[ed] forward from nether regions of the car. When we stop for Sabbath or in fallowness, we discover our baggage.”
- “In prayer, as in Sabbath keeping, we turn from so that we might turn toward.”
- “Countering strong forces in our culture, spiritual disciplines increase our capacity to choose ordered attention and attachment. Attention helps us notice what’s real, while attachment connects us to all that matters . . . It’s a circular truth: attention (for instance, noticing hints of grace) begets attachment (love), which aids attention (knowing God, the other and ourselves better), and the spiral continues.”
I read these words and then delight anew in my sunflowers, still in their leaf-forming prelude to days of attentive leaning toward the sun. With my bare hands, I pile up the rich garden humus around the bean plants and recall that I, too, am sustained by significant soil with its buried nutrients. With thanksgiving, I uproot the volunteer radishes, a pastel palette of offspring from last year’s long-forgotten root gone to seed, and I pray for my grandson, for his parents and his uncles, and for all his future siblings and cousins. They are my dear “cathedral of redwoods,” (Susan’s rich metaphor for generativity), and through reading The Cultivated Life, I am encouraged to trust for grace to enrich their lives; to pray that they will find Life in the living of it; and to believe that they, too, will choose “garden living.”
This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of Intervarsity Press in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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