Back to the Garden: A New Asceticism

Fred Bahnson

Gardens will not save us. They will not fix our broken food system, redraw the lines of social disparity, or halt climate change. Why, then, do we put so much trust in them?

Around the country a growing food-and-faith movement is planting gardens to feed the hungry, increase public consciousness around healthy food, empower low-income families, provide people with meaningful work, and turn that wasted space known as lawns into food production centers. In North Carolina where I live, one county alone boasts over 100 church-supported community gardens. That’s just one county, in one state. Gardens now are everywhere.

Distraction in the Dirt

Yet I fear that planting gardens as a way to fix our social ills falls short. As a garden advocate, I’ve realized how often I’ve slipped into a kind of magical thinking: If only everyone planted a garden, all our problems would be solved. But I worry that this recent beehive of garden activity among churches has become a cultural anodyne, a distraction from the one issue we dare not face.

Just now my view overlooks a lovely half-acre hillside in western North Carolina where my wife and I cultivate our own fruits and vegetables. For the past 10 years I’ve been a public advocate of communal food gardens. In 2005 I co-founded one, and in the years since I’ve spoken at scores of churches, universities, and sustainability conferences around the country about the benefits – nutritional, psychological, spiritual – of growing food in community. I’ve traveled the western hemisphere visiting model organic gardens like the polycultural Mayan milpas of Quintana Roo or the 22-acre Vivero Alamar, an urban garden in Havana. I’ve written two books and numerous essays on the spirituality of gardens, and at the divinity school where I now teach, my classes often meet in one.

But 10 years later, I’ve realized that what ails us on a planetary scale is too big to be overcome with a little more dirt under our fingernails, a little more arugula and broccoli in our food pantries, or a bit more justice in the food system. My thinking has too often stopped at the garden gate.

113-Inch Rainfall

Perhaps it’s simply the scale of the problem that makes it difficult to apprehend. Who can really grasp, after all, that the very “dome in the midst of the waters,” as Genesis describes our atmosphere, is changing?

I’m not sure if I can point to a moment when I woke up to climate change, when my fear had moved from a vague worry over the world my grandchildren would inherit to the throat-constricting fear of the present that wakes me in the night. Maybe it was the unprecedented 113 inches of rainfall our county received last year and the realization that even our little garden cocoon was not exempt.

But reading the third National Climate Assessment, which came out in May, has at least brought immediacy to what had seemed distant and abstract. What that report confirms is that nearly all of scientists’ earlier predictions about the pace of climate change have been confirmed. “The only real surprises have been that some changes, such as sea level rise and Arctic sea ice decline, have outpaced earlier projections,” the assessment’s overview declares.

Even the staid language of government reports doesn’t obscure what’s causing it all: “Observations unequivocally show that the climate is changing and that the warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. These emissions come mainly from burning coal, oil, and gas.”

That’s disappointing to read because I really like fossil fuels. They’re a lot of fun to burn. I love flying to distant lands, spinning through the countryside at 80 mph, cutting firewood with my chainsaw, feasting on avocadoes, bananas, and chocolate that traveled great distances before landing on my plates. I love all these things. And I am loath to give them up.

Fossil-Fuel Fast

Yet give them up we must, or at least give up the oil that powers those activities. Individual choices matter, but they aren’t nearly enough. We need to fallow our fossil fuel habit on a global scale. We need to say to our leaders: Let’s keep the remaining carbon in the ground. Let’s make it so expensive to burn that we’ll think up alternatives to how we get our food, transport our bodies and our stuff, or heat and cool our homes.

God granted us agency, and it’s clear now that this agency extends even as far as the fate of the Earth. God promised never again to destroy Creation. But we might. Gardens will not save us from any of this. And yet. Gardens might still teach us what we need saving from, namely our collective sleepwalk into a warming future.

If I were preaching this as a sermon, I would fear now that my tone had become a tad strident, and so I would lower my voice, pause until the congregation leaned in, then make the turn to hope.

The hope is that we can reverse course. And what will help us wean ourselves from fossil fuels, what we need more than anything at this point in our sojourn on “this fragile Earth, our island home,” is to adopt a healthy asceticism.

Personal Divestment

In his lovely book The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Texts from the Patristic Era with Commentary (New City Press, 1996), Olivier Clément defines ascesis as “exercise, combat.” The purpose of ascesis, whether it be regular prayer or fasting from things we love like food, sex, or sleep, is “to divest oneself of surplus weight, of spiritual fat.” Climate conditions may force us to agree on a permanent fast from fossil fuels. Power down. Re-localize our eating. Keep the carbon in the ground. Trim the fat.

In his opening salvo to a chapter called “The Interior Combat” (heavily underlined in my copy), Clément describes the ascetic task, which reads to me like a précis of who we are, and who we might become: “As free human beings with a capacity to ‘create positively,’ we are challenged to keep faith with the great transformation in Christ, such that we transform likewise, in the Holy Spirit, the relationship that in this world we necessarily have with material things – our genetic inheritance, psychological and social background – so that finally we transform the materials themselves.” (my emphasis)

If we include in our ascetic consideration not only the self (genetic inheritance, psychological and social background) but the larger womb of Creation in which we live and move, then we can partake more fully in “the great transformation in Christ.” Colossians tells us that the scope of this transformation is not just personal, but cosmic. We can “create positively,” working with the grain of Christ’s cosmic redemption.

Practically that means existing ecological patterns should govern the ways we grow our food and derive our energy. Why not rely on current sunlight, rather than the ancient sunlight of fossil carbons, to fuel our lives? To create positively in this way doesn’t imply a throwback to a life of loincloths. We’re already creating positively in agriculture through such carbon-sequestering practices as agro-ecology, permaculture, mob grazing, and Natural Systems Agriculture. We can indeed transform the materials.

Sleepwalkers, Awake

Clément describes the ascetic path as “an awakening from the sleep-walking of daily life.” The ascetic path commends itself for shaking us out of our somnambulant ways.

Which brings us back to gardens. Gardens cannot save us. But here is what they can do: create a fitting place and context for our ascetic practice.

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Liturgical Press, 1984, edited by Benedicta Ward), a young monk asked Abba Moses for a word. “Go, sit in your cell,” Abba Moses replied, “and your cell will teach you everything.” Perhaps at this point in Christian history the garden is the new monastic cell. In the garden we can unlearn those slothful, consumptive habits of industrial living and learn instead those patterns that foster ecological humility, which will be the outward sign of our great transformation in Christ.

Whether we’re joiners or not (I’m not), we all from sheer necessity need to join the climate movement.

And to maintain our energy for this fight – ascesis: combat – we’re going to need regular, meaningful interactions with soil, plants, and creatures, places where we can be held in Creation’s maternal embrace. I know of no better place for such interactions than a garden. A garden is relentlessly pragmatic. It also carries the power of metaphor, the garden being the oldest of metaphors, and we cannot underestimate such power in reshaping our view of the world.

The hope for our Garden Earth is that we do not act alone. “It is the Word who acts,” writes Clément, “but we have to co-operate with him, not so much by exertion of will-power as by loving attentiveness.”

Gardens won’t save us. But the loving attentiveness we cultivate in them, a love newly awakened by the Word, just might.

Fred Bahnson is director of the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is the author of Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food & Faith (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and his essays have appeared in Orion, The Sun, Oxford American, and Best American Spiritual Writing.