One Foot in Eden: Gardens in Scripture – Br. James Koester

Every year in August, the Brothers gather together for a community retreat at Emery House. During this month, in lieu of posting sermons, we will be sharing with you some of the Brothers’ recent reflections from Cowley magazine on the topic of our relationship with the Creation, which will be the main theme of the Brothers’ teaching for the coming year.

In September, we’ll look forward to sharing Br. James Koester’s Monastic Wisdom article,  “Living in Rhythm: Following Nature’s Rule.” And we hope you’ll share word of our upcoming 2016 Lenten series, “Growing a Rule of Life,” which offers guidance and inspiration for individuals, parishes, and groups.

Br. James Koester delves into the scriptural meaning of gardens and how they reflect our deepest longings.

8735353734_f2fa08dbb0_o Gardens and farms have been associated with monastic communities since the beginning of the monastic movement in the Church. We read stories of the Desert Ammas and Abbas tending their gardens. We know from the history of gardening that the monasteries of Europe were always associated with gardening (and in some cases plans and inventories have survived telling us, for instance, that garlic was one of the most popular things grown in English monasteries before the Reformation!) This connection between monasteries and gardens was for practical, theological, and spiritual reasons.

Practically speaking monasteries needed to feed themselves and the extended communities that grew up around them. As they are today, monasteries were centers of hospitality and mission, and there were always people who needed a bed, a meal, and a listening heart. Then, as now, food played an integral role in the daily life of any monastic community. What could not be produced by the monastery needed to be purchased, and so a surplus of what could be produced was used to buy or trade for what could not be produced. By the late middle ages, some monasteries in Europe had become great landholders, employing hundreds of people to farm and tend the land. In some cases land management and tenant relationships became a major preoccupation for many of the monks.

DOC090508-001 - 3Spiritually speaking, the gardens, and especially those within the immediate confines of the monastery, took on an “other worldly” character. The cloister garden assumed an Eden-like quality with its lush plantings of trees and flowers and often a pond or fountain interlaced with foot paths. Frequently the cloister garden was divided into four quadrants to represent the four rivers of Eden, or the four elements of creation (earth, wind, fire, and water). It is interesting to note that some of the earliest sketches of the Monastery in Cambridge include just such an imagined cloister garden, complete with a “well” or fountain in the middle.

It is no accident that in the midst of many monastic complexes there exists a garden that calls to mind our first home. Since our original parents were first cast out, humanity has longed to return to paradise. This search for paradise is deeply imbedded in our spiritual DNA. For some this search has literally propelled them to the far ends of the globe. For others it has sent them into their own backyard to recreate for themselves an Eden-like paradise.

DOC090508-008 - 2We probably all have our own ideas about what paradise would look like. For me, among the many qualities of paradise, four stand out: beauty, union, intimacy, and encounter. With these, paradise becomes a place and a search for restoration and reconciliation. In my imagination, Eden, our first home, was a place of beauty, union, intimacy, and encounter, and Adam and Eve, who wanted not simply to enjoy it but to control it, fell from grace and were expelled.

It may come as a surprise that I place beauty at the top of my list of the qualities of paradise, and thus essential for restoration and reconciliation. Fortunately we have come a long way since the days of Father Benson, who took great pride that the original Mission House was the “ugliest building in Oxford.” Today beauty is an essential characteristic of our community, and we hold before us the importance of beauty in our ministry of hospitality when we say “our houses have simple beauty” (Ch. 34). Beauty is not simply an aesthetic quality. In and of itself it can be a grace-filled ministry that brings comfort, healing, and restoration. While we don’t know what Eden might have looked like, in my imagination it is exquisitely beautiful, and knowing that, my heart can find healing, wholeness, and rest. It is healing, wholeness, and rest that I search for when I search for the beauty of Eden.

For a long time I assumed that Adam lived in harmony with all creation in Eden, but I wonder today if the word I am searching for is not union. Harmony implies, at least to me, a degree of equality, and we know that Adam did not find an equal in the animal kingdom because for him “there was not found a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:20). Instead what Adam found was a degree of union or communion with those with which he shared Eden because he joined with God in the work of naming all living things. To name something, or to be named by someone, is to enter into a relationship with them. When we name or are named, we enter into communion with the other. That is why names are so powerful: They convey not simply an identity but a relationship as well. It is communion that I search for when I search for the union of Eden.

DOC090508 - 4One of my favorite lines in scripture comes from the story of Eden: “[Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze” (Gen 3:8). It seems that God, at the end of a long day, was in the habit of taking a stroll around the block before bed. The memory of similar walks with my parents at the end of a long, hot summer day as things began to cool down for the night fills my mind as I imagine similar walks in Eden. These summer evening walks with my parents, sometimes wordless, sometimes hand in hand, were in many ways sacramental, because they were outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual intimacy I now seek in my relationship with God. Yet, like Adam and Eve, having lost my childhood innocence I now sometimes hide from God in fear and shame. The call of Eden, however, is to lose my shame, recover my innocence and walk again with God, naked and unashamed. It is intimacy that I search for when I search for the cool evening breeze of Eden.

There is, however, another tradition that is woven into the fabric of monastic gardens and that is the tradition of the Garden of the Resurrection. Just as gardens represent for us Eden, the Garden of Paradise, so too do they represent for us the Garden of the Resurrection and a place of encounter with the Divine. It was in the Garden of the Resurrection that Mary Magdalene recognized the gardener as the Risen Lord in the speaking of her name: “Mary.” She replies, “Rabbouni,” and then declares, “I have seen the Lord.” Mary knew the Risen Lord not by what he looked like or what he wore, but what he said and what he sounded like. Several years ago I had the experience of calling a distant cousin on the phone. When she answered I introduced myself by saying, “Hello, this is James Koester speaking.” There was a long pause and she finally asked, “Who did you say you were?” I repeated my name and explained who I was. She finally laughed and told me she had a brother named James and she thought I was playing a joke on her. My cousin did not recognize me in the speaking of her name, because I sounded all wrong. Mary, bewildered by this stranger standing in front of her, knew instantly who he was when he opened his mouth and spoke her name: Mary. Rabbouni. I have seen the Lord. It is this sense of knowing and being known that I search for when I open myself up to an encounter with the Risen Lord.

There is a third garden in scripture which few of us wish to cultivate but all of us have experienced: the Garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane is a place of struggle, betrayal, and submission. It was there that Jesus struggled with his destiny. It was there that he was betrayed. It was there that he finally submitted to his Father’s will. Few of us relish the thought of struggle. We are hurt and offended when we are betrayed. We resist submitting to the will of another at all costs. Yet wherever our personal Gethsemanes are, we cannot discover our Garden of Resurrection or return to our Garden of Eden without first experiencing our Garden of Gethsemane. It is no accident that prominent in our new Cloister Garden is a large crucifix. It is no accident that high above the Merrimac River and deep in the woods here at Emery House are two crucifixes, one a traditional European woodcarving and the other made in Haiti from a used oil drum. It is no accident that these three crucifixes have a prominent place in our monastic gardens and, before them, many have stopped struggling and laid down their burdens; many have forgiven past hurts and betrayals; many have finally surrendered to God’s will for their lives.

The Gardens of Eden, Resurrection, and Gethsemane all appear in the pages of scripture, and they appear in the scripture of our lives. We enter them every time we seek the solace of beauty, know communion, find intimacy, and encounter the One who speaks our name. We find ourselves in them whenever we struggle, or are betrayed, or surrender our wills. The search for Eden takes us through Gethsemane before we finally find ourselves saying with Mary at the Empty Tomb: “I have seen the Lord.”

Support SSJE

Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.

Click here to Donate


  1. Nicki on September 1, 2015 at 14:28

    Thank you Brother James. Gardening is a part of who I am. After nearly 80 years of gardening at home, I still do flowers for our apartment building, but in my community vegetable garden I still receive a stillness of communication with birds, toads, and this year even a vole who hardly has left her mark on anything important, and one swift snake. Working in the soil and watching my seeds grow and produce feels like the most important place for me to be. Leaving is always a wrenching experience, event though dictated by fatigue and a strong sense that I shouldn’t try to do more that day. Walking in the woods or at the ocean’s edge are closely related, but arrival at my garden feels like I’ve come home. Your sermon is greatly appreciated.

  2. Liisa Wallace on August 19, 2015 at 06:56

    This was beautiful and evocative.

  3. Christina on August 17, 2015 at 10:06

    Thank you, Br. James. Christina

  4. Robert Shotton. on August 15, 2015 at 04:47

    One can always feel God,s Love in a garden – no matter how small it may be.

  5. Randy La Rosa on August 13, 2015 at 18:26

    Thank you for this. Gardens have always been special for me. After reading and thinking out this sermon they have a much more spiritual meaning ,especially the beauty of God’s Grace that we can see and feel .

Leave a Comment