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Originally published August 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 18, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Garden's bounty: Spirituality, joy

Sooner or later, there comes a gardening moment like this: It's hot. We're alone, watering, weeding. The chores are mundane, yet we're at...

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Sacred garden space

It's hard to define exactly what makes a garden a sacred place, but some things work especially well to promote calm and contemplation.

Perhaps the best is water, the symbol of life energy. Both the Bailey and Kortsch gardens have good-size water features. They offer soothing sounds, shimmering reflections, unusual plant forms (such as water lilies and papyrus), and a welcoming habitat for fish, frogs, dragonflies and other inspiring creatures.

Both gardens have benches or swings for taking time out, too.

The Baileys have a giant wind chime suspended from a pergola that Ron made. Its muffled melody envelops the garden and floats upstairs to the couple's bedroom.

Scattered throughout the Kortsches' garden are rocks mined from the yard and two adjoining creeks. They're dramatic in and of themselves, while also symbolizing permanence and our small place in the universe.

"You have to dig down to find each one, and once you get it up, it's beautiful," says Carol Kortsch. "It's part of what's waiting to be discovered."

6 spiritual gifts from the garden

Once it's all put together, the garden takes on its own identity as a spiritual place. And in every detail and experience, there are lessons. The Kortsch family gardens have wild, romantic flower beds overflowing with the bold colors and tropical leaves of Carol Kortsch's childhood in Angola. From her garden, Kortsch, says, she has learned:

Courage, from digging a 16-foot-wide hole to make the water garden. So, too, "Our spiritual life is all about taking what we know and moving into action."

Contemplation, from being quiet, having a rhythm. "Life isn't all about activity."

Connectedness, from "each of us discovering who we are and playing our part. With that comes hope for change in the world."

Consciousness, from "being immersed in the garden, and having an awareness of God in nature."

Creativity, from learning about the garden's color, space, form, texture and light.

Change, from realizing that, like the seasons, we are constantly evolving.

Sooner or later, there comes a gardening moment like this:

It's hot. We're alone, watering, weeding. The chores are mundane, yet we're at peace, loving the warmth and repetition, the simplicity and silence.

The garden, we come to realize, is a sacred place — not a religious experience necessarily, but a place that teaches us to truly see and authentically be.

Kathleen and Ron Bailey have had many epiphanies in their gardens, which are laid out around their home at the foot of what they call Serenity Hill in Chester Springs, Pa.

For them, everything begins with soil.

"The health of the soil is what gives life to the plants and allows a space for deep roots to grow," says Kathleen, a social worker with a master's degree in divinity. "In the same way, God provides for us to allow our spiritual roots to grow deep and strong."

This "soil" is formed by "how we relate to one another, the choices we make in relationships, how we treat each other with justice and compassion, and how we open ourselves to God's influence."

Speakers have been planning their thoughts on spirituality in the garden in Sunday sermons at Central Baptist Church in Wayne, N.J. A visit to the Baileys' garden follows.

Carol Kortsch, a psychotherapist and a scheduled speaker at Central Baptist; her husband, Uli, an international finance consultant; and their three children built a natural pond and waterfall, along with memorials to the tragedies of the Sept. 11 attacks and Kosovo.

"My time in the garden is an active meditation," she says, a place without conversation, judgment or expectation of perfection.

Wrapped inside this 18th-century farmhouse with its storybook gardens and 2 ½ acres, we'd be tempted to hide from the madness beyond. But Kortsch is not in retreat; she is exploring.

She describes "moments of spiritual consciousness in the garden, where you become aware of God's presence in some creature or something amazing that happens."

For Ron Bailey, a clinical psychologist and former pastor who works with autistic kids, insights happen spontaneously and often in the gardens he and Kathleen created from scratch eight years ago.

"If I had my choice of sitting in a pew versus the garden, I'll take the garden any day," he says, calling the dulcet riffs of visiting songbirds "better than the best choir anywhere."

The Baileys experience their garden on many levels. One, the most basic, is as a source of food for their family, which includes a teenage daughter and Ron's mother. Using organic methods, they grow herbs and most of the fruits and vegetables they consume in a year.

The garden truly has an Eden-esque quality to it, what Cassandra Carmichael might call a "mini-God's garden." Carmichael runs environmental programs for the National Council of Churches.

"As a gardener, in caring for your garden, you're playing out the story of the Garden of Eden," says Carmichael, who once worked on a farm in Kentucky and now grows herbs and wildflowers in her small yard in Annapolis, Md.

It also brings "peacefulness, reflection and prayerfulness," Carmichael says.

So, it turns out, we tend our inner selves in the garden, too, sustained and buoyed by the seamless cycles of planting, growing and harvesting. In this, perhaps we find redemption or, scariest of all, the courage to change.

Author Anais Nin, best known for her decidedly secular writings, may not have grasped the joy of digging in the dirt. But she understood change, and the power of the garden as metaphor.

"And the day came," she writes, "when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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