Gardening in Paradise

by Vigen Guroian

The Palette of Guroian's Garden (Photo by Vigen Guroian)
The Palette of Guroian's Garden (Photo by Vigen Guroian)

There is an ancient Armenian tale about what happened to Adam and Eve when they were driven from the Garden of Eden:

After Adam and Eve were beguiled by the serpent and ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree, God commanded his angels to remove them from the Garden, and to guard the paths to it with a fiery sword. And so Adam and his wife were banished from the Garden and its light and abundant life and entered a place of darkness and gloom. They remained there in misery for six days, without anything to eat and no shelter. They wept inconsolably over what they had lost and where they were sent. But on the seventh day, God took pity on the couple. He sent an angel who removed them from the dark place and led them into this bright world. The messenger showed them trees from which they could eat and satisfy their hunger. And when Adam and Eve saw the light and felt the warmth of this world, they rejoiced with exceeding gladness, saying, "Even though this place cannot compare with the home we have lost and its light is not nearly as bright or its fruit half as sweet, nevertheless, we are no longer in the darkness and can go on living." So they were cheerful. —adapted from The Armenian Apocryphal Adam Literature

Some of the early Christian writers speculate that in Paradise gardening was not drudgery but sheer delight. When Adam gardened, he imitated his Maker in a purely recreative act of cultivation and care. He did not need to subdue the earth in order for it to yield fruit. Rather, the plants were Adam's palette, and the earth was his canvas. There was nothing but delight in the Garden, for Eden itself means "garden of delight." When I dug my garden in Culpeper, I was preparing a canvas. And when I arranged the flowering plants and shrubs on the freshly turned ground, I saw already the pink peony blossoms with their heads turned down toward the blue iris, and the white phlox standing straigh beside the slouching crimson bee balm. I breathed in the sweet honeysuckle and the citrus-scented bergamot. I have said on occasion that I think gardening is nearer to godliness than theology. (By "theology" I mean the kind of formal written discourse that my special guild of academic theologians does, not the praise of God and communion with divine life that ought to inspire theology at its core.) True gardeners are both iconographers and theologians insofar as these activities are the fruit of prayer "without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17, NKJV). 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.

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is professor of religious studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia. His books include The Fragrance of God and Inheriting Paradise.