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I made a garden for God
Ruth Burrows
I made a garden for God.
No, do not misunderstand me
It was not on some lovely estate or even in a pretty suburb.
I made a garden for God
in the slum of my heart
a sunless space between grimy walls
the reek of cabbage water in the air
refuse strewn on the cracked asphalt….
the ground of my garden!
This was where I laboured
night and day
over the long years
in dismal smog and cold…..
there was nothing to show for my toil.
Like a child I could have pretended:
my slum transformed…..
an oasis of flowers and graceful trees
how pleasant to work in such a garden!
I could have lost heart
and neglected my garden
to do something else for God.
But I was making a garden for God
not for myself
for his delight not mine
and so I worked on in the slum of my heart.
Was he concerned with my garden?
Did he see my labour and tears?
I never saw him looking
never felt him there
Yet I knew (though it felt as if I did not know)
that he was there with me
He has come into his garden
Is it beautiful at last?
Are there flowers and perfumes?
I do not know
the garden is not mine but his—
God asked only for my little space
to be prepared and given.
This is ‘garden’ for him
and my joy is full.

I had never heard of Ruth Burrows until Father Steve Sundborg mentioned her in a homily a few weeks ago. Ruth Burrows is the pen name of Rachel Gregory, an English Carmelite nun who is now approaching her 98th birthday. Her story might seem a simple one. As a teenager, she experienced a call to religious life, and at age 18, she turned down a place at Oxford and entered a Carmelite monastery instead. The end! Of course, that is not how the story goes! She has written, “If one measures experience merely by such things as the number of countries one has visited, jobs one has held down and so on, then my experience is nil. But if it is measured by penetration into life, into human nature, then mine is great.” Sister Rachel became the prioress of her Carmel, and helped guide her community through the reform and renewal of the Second Vatican Council. She published her first book in 1975, at the age of 52, and many more books have followed.
Sister Rachel did not find the religious life easy. As Michelle Jones has written, “Rachel yearned for ‘inside’ prayer, for union with the living God,” but she “experienced herself to be a living contradiction and a failure.” Her experience in prayer was “total nothingness.” Eventually, she realized that “this raw nothingness is the very place where Jesus dwelt and uttered his self-emptying ‘Yes’ to the Father’s outpoured love. While conventional wisdom would tell her somehow to get a grip, the secret was rather to abide empty-handed in Jesus, in him surrendering her poverty to God in trust.” (Ruth Burrows: Essential Writings, edited by Michelle Jones)
I think that provides some context for some of the surprises of this poem of Ruth Burrows, “I made a garden for God.” In some ways, this poem is utterly conventional. The image of the spiritual life as a garden which we tend and maintain is not a new one. It would certainly have been familiar to Sister Rachel in her years of formation as a Carmelite. St. Therese frequently uses similar imagery – famously comparing herself to a “little flower,” hence her familiar nickname! But Sister Rachel immediately takes the image in a surprising direction. “Do not misunderstand me,” she says. “It was not on some lovely estate or even in a pretty suburb. / I made a garden for God / in the slum of my heart.” It is not that she chooses the slum over the estate or the suburb; the slum is all she has. And so, in this “sunless space between grimy walls,” smelly and dirty as it is, she “labored / night and day / over the long years.” The result? There are no results: “there was nothing to show for my toil.” What could grow there, without light, without sun, without grass? But she refuses to pretend, like a child. She refuses to give up and do something else. She simply keeps on.
“Was he concerned with my garden? / Did he see my labour and tears?” she asks. “I never saw him looking / never felt him there.” The garden is for God, but she has no idea if God is there or if he cares about the garden or the labor she is expending on it. But in a curious way, this not knowing is a way of knowing. “Yet I knew (though it felt as if I did not know) / that he was there with me / waiting.”
She feels that God is absent; but she knows that God is present. And this is all the satisfaction we are going to get. At the end of the poem, she says, “he has come into his garden.” But what God finds, we do not know. Has she been able to grow beautiful flowers? Has the smell of “cabbage water” been replaced with “perfumes”? Even at the end, she relinquishes any sort of satisfaction. “God asked only for my little space / to be prepared and given. / This is my ‘garden’ for him / and my joy is full.”
It is in her own spiritual emptiness, in her lack of spiritual satisfaction, if you will, that Ruth Burrows finds her greatest insight into the mystery of Christian life. In her own poverty, she recognized all human weakness and poverty, and our need for a Savior. She discovers the secret of coming before God with empty hands.
As we continue through this season of Lent, I think Ruth Burrows is a good companion. In Lent, we commit ourselves to prayer, fasting, and works of mercy . But Lent is really like preparing that garden in the slum of the heart. We carry out our Lenten practices not because we think our efforts will be self-improving or somehow worthy of God, but simply because God asks them of us, and God is there. Ruth Burrows invites us to a spirituality that lets go of the need to see results, whether here or hereafter.
Read an interview with Ruth Burrows here:



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Seattle, Washington  98104
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