"Tending the Garden of the Soul"
By Rev. Tom Reiber
August 13, 2000
Matthew 13: 3-9
A farmer went out to sow her seed. As she
was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate
it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up
quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants
were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell
among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on
good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was
sown. He who has ears, let him hear.
would like to begin with a reading taken from the
concluding pages of
The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View
intellectual milieu is riddled with tension… Despite frequent congruence of
purpose, there is little effective cohesion, no apparent means by which a
shared cultural vision could emerge, no unifying perspective cogent or
comprehensive enough to satisfy the burgeoning diversity of intellectual needs
and aspirations… In the absence of any viable, embracing cultural vision, old
assumptions remain blunderingly in force, providing an increasingly unworkable
and dangerous blueprint for human thought and activity.
intellectual question that looms over our time is whether the current state of
profound metaphysical and epistemological irresolution is something that will
continue indefinitely, or whether it represents an epochal transition to
another era altogether, bringing a new form of civilization and a new world
view with principles and ideals fundamentally different from those that have
impelled the modern world through its dramatic trajectory.
moment in history is indeed a pregnant one. As a civilization and as a species
we have come to a moment of truth, with the future of the human spirit, and the
future of the planet, hanging in the balance. If ever boldness, depth, and
clarity of vision were called for, from many, it is now. Yet perhaps it is this
very necessity that could summon forth from us the courage and imagination we
I’ve noticed that I do my best sermon preparation
while walking. The other day I was visiting my friends the Smiths and told Joy
that I wanted to take a walk by myself at some point in the afternoon to think
about my sermon. When I was getting ready to go on my walk Joy explained to her
girls what I was doing. “You know how Winnie the Pooh goes on walks when he
needs to think?” she asked. They nodded their heads. Of course. Everybody knows
When I got back, Kendall,
the four year old, asked me if I had thought while on my walk. I told her I had
and she asked what I had thought about. Wow, how do I condense my sermon into
one or two sentences for a four year old? I said I was thinking about how life
is like going to a friend’s house for the first time and feeling too scared to
really explore. So you pick one spot and get comfortable. But after a while,
you want to see more. She thought about that for a second and nodded in
Here’s the adult version.
It’s pretty amazing when
you stop and think that, after being around for roughly one million years, we
just figured out how we got here about a hundred and fifty years ago. I think
it’s safe to say we’re just beginning to grasp what that means. There was of
course great resistance to both Copernicus and Darwin early on. But eventually
it became clear that fighting the revelations of science was a losing battle.
Today in churches like ours, we have for the most part resolved the tension.
For us Science has become yet one more tool, one more lens through which we can
better understand the world and our place in it. But there’s a danger lurking
there, a certain smugness. We can start to think that we’re beyond all that
“fear of science” stuff and fail to appreciate what’s really at stake. To
better explain that I’d like to tell you about a ritual used by the Hopi
The Hopis have a series of rituals involving the
kachinas, which bear a remote similarity to our Santa Claus. The children are
told that the kachinas know when they are being bad and good, and parents use
the ever-watchfulness of the kachinas to mold behavior. Great care is taken to
hide the masks when they are not being used and to conceal the real identity of
the adults wearing the mask. But when Hopis reach adolescent there is a ritual
specifically designed to reveal to them that the kachinas are not spirit living
spirits, but adults from the tribe. But the ritual is not meant to put an end
to the spiritual sensitivities of the adolescents. It’s meant to serve as a
bridge, as a way to bring their spirituality to maturity. They learn that it
isn’t the kachinas themselves that are sacred, but all life, the wood the mask
is made of, the trees that it came from, the adults behind the mask, the earth
When I first read of that ritual I thought to
myself, what a powerful analogy to the spiritual disillusionment we’ve
undergone in western civilization. Only unlike the Hopis, our disillusionment
was not intentional; it was forced on us by the scientific revolution. First
Copernicus discovered that the earth, contrary to popular opinion, was not the
center of the universe. Then Darwin came along to show that our closest cousins
were not the angels, but the primates. These two discoveries were unimaginably
unsettling to the religious mindset of the time, unleashing a fierce
ideological battle lasting nearly four centuries—and still being waged in
pockets of Kansas.
For a while there it
looked like we were going to achieve the cultural equivalent of the Hopis
adolescent. Through the insights of science we stood on the threshold of a
mature self-evaluation, of an unprecedented appraisal of our cosmic situation
and its existential implications. Freud thought he was the man to place the
capstone on human understanding, to write the last page of our western ritual
of initiation. He boasted that his goal was to wake up humankind.
Unfortunately, he failed to realize how soundly we were sleeping. When the
Freudian alarm clock went off something was wrong. The wires weren’t all
connected. So instead of a loud ringing there was a muffled rumbling. We have
the term "Freudian slips" and we all have a basic sense that there is
an unconscious dimension to our psyches. But that’s about as far as Freud’s
grand wake-up call got us. In the final analysis, Freud blew it; he failed to
follow his own line of reasoning through to the end. That was left to one of
his disciples, Otto Rank, did. Few people know of Rank because, unlike Freud,
he didn’t have the gift for communicating his insights to a lay audience. It’s
one of the great ironies of intellectual history that Rank was left to plumb
the full implications of Freud’s thought almost entirely alone.
Rank agreed that people
were repressed sexually. But he saw that it wasn’t the social unacceptability
of sexual desire that made sex so problematic; it was rather the implications
of our sexuality. It reminds us that we are evolved animals, creatures trapped
in fleshy bodies that must eventually die. Rank understood what an awesome
burden this was to be for a self-conscious primate. And so it was that he was
able to do what Freud thought he had done, filling in the third position after
Copernicus and Darwin. Rank essentially said: this is how it feels to be a
self-conscious primate in an overwhelmingly vast cosmos.† He
understood that culture and all of its ideologies were meant to buffer us from
terror. Rank described the two basic responses open to us as the neurotic (who
seeks to shrink life down) and the creative (who opens to the vastness and
responds creatively, adding to it).
The power of Rank’s
insights is evident in their capacity to shed light on human folly. Don’t you
wonder why it is, in this day and age when we have the technological power to
treat the vast majority of illnesses, and food resources sufficient to feed the
world, thousands of children are dying every day from starvation, and disease?
We have the power to turn the entire planet into a Disney World-like paradise,
yet instead we have wars, poverty, and unchecked epidemics. Rank would say it’s
because we are a primitive species, not yet ready to be collectively self-conscious.
We are a running from the overwhelming terror of life and trampling anything or
anyone who is unfortunate enough to get in our way. Running is the most common
response. It is the way of the world, the ebb and flow of the cultural tides.
It is the rare individual who stops and turns to face the cosmos.
Opening to the vastness of it all requires one of
the most daring acts of surrender possible. Yet this is the path of the spirit.
To be spiritually alive requires a surrender of control—and let’s face it,
we’re all control freaks; some of us are just more accomplished at it than
others. But to open to life involves a deep relinquishing of control. We have
to begin to see the world not through the eyes of a scientist; but through the
eyes of a created creature, a creature that senses something larger than us is
at work here.
Jesus seemed to sense all
this intuitively. It’s a tribute to his stature as a religious genius that it
is only now, thanks to the cumulative tradition of knowledge illuminating our
basic plight in the universe, that we can grasp the full scope of just what he
was calling people to do. He used images drawn from nature to open people up
the miracle of life. His invitation is the flip side of the Rankian view of the
overwhelming terror of creation. Jesus was saying, “Yes, it’s vast and powerful
and amazing, but you are part of it”. He invoked images from Nature—the mustard
seed, vines, grapes and branches, the lilies of the field. And today’s passage
about the sower who scattered the seed. Jesus was in effect saying, “You are
part of it, part of the miracle of life.”
This is a monumental
turning point for us as a species and for us as individuals. Of course it’s not
a matter of simply saying, “Okay, I’ll open up to the terror of existence.”
Centuries of cultural and psychological defense mechanisms are there for a
reason. That’s why spirituality requires discipline and training and time. We
have to gradually turn and open, stretching ourselves to see and hold more and
more. Rank’s contribution should serve as a warning that the largess of creation is potentially
overwhelming. Like Jesus warned in the parable, if we expose ourselves to the
sun from a shallow place we will be scorched.
To tend to the garden of
the soil we must find good soil. If you’re like me, you want nothing but the
best. I want bags and bags of the real dark stuff. I want to sink my roots down
deep. For me, lately, that soil has been art. I have come to see the artists as
the greatest theologians, for it is they who really dare to live life. I’ve
been especially drawn to Rilke and van Gogh, possibly because they were living
in such close proximity to the collapse of the mythological world-view and the
rise of Science. I can see them both in the ruins of a collapsed worldview,
perhaps in the ruins of an old castle. Rilke is up on a tower, pensively
turning over words for his next verse; while down below in a field van Gogh is
I picture van Gogh in the
field because he loved nature so. He loved people, too, but he was most at home
in nature. Reading his letters to his brother, Theo, you get an intimate
glimpse Vincent’s love of nature. He writes,
“…try to walk as much as you can, and keep your love for
nature, for that is the true way to learn to understand art more and more.
Painters understand nature and love her and teach us to see her. If one really
loves nature, one can find beauty everywhere” (p. 12).
And he did find it everywhere. This is what he says about the
view from his window:
“You must imagine me sitting before my attic window as
early as four o’clock in the morning, studying with my perspective instrument
the meadows and the yard when they are lighting the fires to make the coffee in
the little cottages, and when the first workman comes loitering into it. Over
the red tile roofs a flock of white pigeons come soaring between the black
“Whether I shall succeed in the future will depend
more on my work than on anything else—on my looking calmly through my window at
the things in nature, and drawing them faithfully and lovingly” (p. 145).
Vincent suffered greatly in his life, and
it was to Nature that he often looked to find solace. He writes again to Theo:
“When one is in a somber mood, how good it is to walk
on the barren beach and to look on the greyish-green sea with the long white
streaks of the waves! But if one feels the need of something grand, something
infinite, something that makes one feel aware of God, one need not go far to
find it. …I see something deeper, more infinite, more eternal than the ocean in
the expression of the eyes of a little baby when it awakes in the morning, and
coos or laughs, because it sees the sun shine in its cradle” (p. 171).
Rilke loved nature, too, though in a different manner than van
Gogh. When Vincent describes nature it is as if he is painting it, he describes
it objectively, as if its own inherent beauty were sufficient. With Rilke,
nature is something to be communed with and he does so the boundary between God
and Nature and the poet disappear altogether:
lean over the chasm of myself—
It seems my God is dark
And like a web: a hundred roots
This is the ferment I grow out of.
More I don’t know, because my branches
Rest in deep silence, stirred only by the
After a dismal time in a military academy
for young boys, Rilke ventured off on a quest to experience life deeply through
his vocation as a writer. His journey brought him in contact with Rodin,
Tolstoy and Cezanne and in his journals he writes beautifully about them all.
But it is his own poetry that really soars. It’s as if he writes in light of
everything Rank has said, in light of all that has come before him. He turns to
face the overwhelming terror of existence, then steps to the very edge and lets
it speak through him:
The hour is striking so close above me,
So clear and sharp,
That all my senses ring with it,
I feel it now: there’s a power in me
To grasp and give shape to my world.
I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
And they come toward me, to meet and be met.
I live my life in ever widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
But I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
And I still don’t know: am I a flacon,
A storm, or a great song?
In the late 1800’s Rilke traveled to Russia and was deeply
impressed with the earthy spirituality of the people he met there. In the poems
that grew out of that trip one finds a very modern spirituality, a deep opening
to life and existence that is shorn of all myth, free of all orthodoxy, yet
pulsing with the lifeblood of nature and inspired by a pure hunger for God.
You are not surprised at the force of the storm—
You have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
Sets the boulevard streaming. And you know:
He whom they flee is the one
You move toward.
All your senses sing him, as you stand at
Summer was like your house: you knew
Where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
As onto a vast plain. Now
The immense loneliness begins.
The days go numb, the wind
Sucks the world from your senses
Like withered leaves.
Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evening song.
Be the ground lying under the sky.
Be modest now, like a thing ripened until it
So that God, who began it all
Can feel you when she reaches for you.
As much as I love Rilke, I have to say that the artist most
near and dear to my heart is van Gogh. Not everyone is aware that Vincent
started off with plans of being a minister. He came from a family of ministers
and did actually work as a missionary for a while in a mining town. But he
approached his task with such zeal he got himself in trouble. Times were tough
in that area and Vincent, moved by the plight of the miners, gave away most of
what he had and kept venturing down into the mines. A visiting church official
found Vincent living in filth, penniless and half-starved, and decided he was
unfit to be a minister.
And thank God for that. Since that was one of the pivotal events
that freed him up to pursue his other life calling as an artist. Vincent saw
God in nature with such longing and passion, it was as if he reached up and
pulled down the sun, touching the flame to sunflowers and stars. He was less
self-conscious than Rilke. He simply grabbed the truth of the image, wrestling
it onto the canvas and then left it there, moving on to another. He did it
tirelessly, yes, like a madman—but what mortal could contain that kind of
passion? He sacrificed himself in an attempt to convey the beauty of life,
accomplishing through his art what was denied him in his ministry.
Vincent never would have succeeded in producing as he did were it
not for his brother Theo. One of the most endearing aspects of their
correspondence is the tenderness and love that bound them together. Imagine if
we all had a Theo who believed in us as Vincent did.
But isn’t that precisely what Jesus was trying to tell us? Drawing
from nature, he said God knows when a sparrow falls to the ground. Won’t God
care about you just as much?
“Theo,” Greek for God. Think of it. Here we are under a vast
canopy of constellations, part of the miracle of life. And we each do have our
own personal Theo, calling out to us, believing in us, and loving us
Rilke puts it this way:
God speaks to each of us as God makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
And make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.