I have long been fascinated by Eastern Orthodox spirituality and theology, and I’m delighted to throw a spotlight on it in this holiest of Christian seasons. In engaging all the senses — with incense, iconography, and lush hymnody — Orthodox worship conveys the incarnational message of Easter as a matter of routine. In fact, in the Armenian Orthodox tradition of Vigen Guroian, every Sunday is in some sense a celebration of Easter. And in the passions of his life — as in the culture of generations of Armenians who came before him — he also tends the Easter themes year round through life, death, and resurrection in his beloved perennial garden.
There is a mystical collusion of the lofty and the literal, of sacred and earthly, in Guroian’s perspective. He describes how in Orthodox liturgy — as in gardening, as in life — “beginnings and endings” are repeatedly, transparently connected. And so an Armenian Easter commemorates the larger cosmic drama — beginning with the creation of the world, and human exile from the original garden of Eden, through eternity — that frames what the New Testament calls the “New Creation” in Jesus Christ.
That, of course, is high theology. But in Vigen Guroian’s imagination and in his garden, high theology is made three-dimensional, brought down in the most literal way to earth. So, for example, he describes the sacrificial labor of early spring, the time of Lent — the pruning, the mess, the clearing away that prepares him and his soil to “receive the gift.”
As he does so he not only evokes the grand themes of Easter, he vividly reveals the ancient, organic connections between many religious holidays of this time of year and nature’s cycles of fertility, decay, and regeneration.
At the same time, as Vigen Guroian remembers the aunts and uncles of his childhood, many of whom were survivors of the Armenian genocide of the early twentieth century, he finds a connection between the gardens they cherished and the human tenacity to insist on the possibility of new life and resurrection out of every disaster.
In closing this week, I offer a handful of readings from Vigen Guroian as meditations on ancient, sometimes hidden themes of this religious season that even the most devout of moderns might easily forget — exiled as so many of us are, by culture, from gardens.
From the essay “On Leaving the Garden” in The Fragrance of God:
“I have said on occasion that I think gardening is nearer to godliness than theology. … True gardeners are both iconographers and theologians insofar as these activities are the fruit of prayer ‘without ceasing.’ Likewise, true gardeners never cease to garden, not even in their sleep, because gardening is not just something they do. It is how they live.”
From the opening chapter of “On Leaving the Garden” in The Fragrance of God:
“In the Christian religion, sight has frequently been proffered as a metaphor for the experience of God. The medieval theologians spoke of the ‘vision of God’ as the summum bonum, the highest good of the Christian life. They singled out sight as the ‘mystical’ sense, the one that draws us deepest into communion with God. Dare I contend with souls so wise? For I have a notion that smell, not sight, is the most mystical sense. The garden has persuaded me of this.”
And, an excerpt from “Lenten Spring” in Inheriting Paradise:
“Lilies and hyacinths signify the resurrection, and I can understand why. But I have a pair of turtles that plant themselves in my garden each fall like two gigantic seeds and rise on Easter with earthen crowns upon their humbled heads. With the women at the tomb, I marvel.”