Liturgical Gardens

February 25th, 2013
A pergola, walking paths, and bench

Since the beginning of time, the garden has been central to the human search for spiritual fulfillment and the discovery of inner peace and tranquility. For many religious traditions, the garden has emerged as that sacred place of sanctuary where one may connect with one’s own soul and experience a Creator-God-Divine power though simple acts of prayer, meditation, or contemplation.

References to gardens as oases of comfort or as a symbol of paradise or heaven are found in much of the sacred literature of major religious traditions. Human beings continue to search for that idea of a lost paradise.

In many religious traditions, the garden is revered as a sacred place, ideal for establishing a greater connection with one’s spirit or inner being. It is truly in the garden that one is able to experience an increased sense of peace and comfort through the holy acts of prayer, dialogue, and relaxation. The tasks of prayer, meditation, and contemplation become easier and more manageable in a comfortable setting that provides a sense of connection, not only to one’s inner being but also, and more importantly, to a greater power, a creating and holy power.

The many and great gardens of the world, of literature and poetry, of painting and music, of religion and architecture, all make the point as clear as possible. The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden. If you don’t want paradise, you are not human; and if you are not human, you don’t have a soul.9

The church, or other significant religious institution, has traditionally served as the locus in the community around which a diverse mix of people has gathered in prayer and worship. The building itself has typically functioned as a place of sanctuary where one may seek solace and comfort, set apart from the distractions and intrusions of the world. Such roots are found in the way the medieval cathedral builders sought to depict or convey a sense of heaven on earth within the walls of these grand structures. It is, however, in a liturgical garden where a person’s spiritual, cultural, health, and emotional needs may be met in a simple, comfortable setting.

As such, the garden can, in a very unique and positive way, function as a bridge between various religious groups, traditions, and cultures. And it is in the garden that one begins to truly discover and experience something far greater than one’s self.

Liturgical gardens, as a component of the overall institution’s development scheme, can greatly aid in enhancing one’s spiritual journey and the overall healing process. Viewing nature and relaxing in a comfortable outdoor environment is believed to enhance the healing process. When a person allows the many stresses of life to become overwhelming, the body’s immune system makes one even more vulnerable to illness and infection. Striving for peace and contentment, especially by means of a garden setting, allows the body to return to near-peak performance levels, thereby maintaining a greater sense of health and wellness. Emotional, spiritual, and physical healing then becomes one of the key benefits of time spent in a garden engaged in prayer, meditation, or contemplation.

Gardens are indeed soothing to the soul and a source of refreshment to the body and mind. Garden-based experiences serve to facilitate contentment, peace, inner harmony, and tranquility. Human beings have long sought to create sacred spaces that are reminiscent of heaven or paradise: spaces that draw one closer to a Divine presence in nature and instill a greater sense of wonder and awe in the human species. Renowned landscape historian Derek Clifford describes this on-going human search:

These sensations have led men to worship the genius of place from which it emanated. To such spots, men return again and again, ostensibly to please the Spirit with offerings, but really in order to enjoy the sensation dwarfing yet ennobling, not unlike the homes of the great deities, but every small stream became, in time, the manifestation of a nymph and every tree a resident dryad. Where this spirit was alive in the garden was not only a sanctuary but also the temple for the gods. The two emotions, joy in relief from stress and hunger for spiritual awakening, are the remote sources for leisured man’s gardenmaking.10

Gardens certainly act as centering devices that allow for a cleansing of the mind, thereby facilitating a sense of not only emotional or physical healing but also a positive spirit of re-connection to a greater power, a holy and sacred divine power. A refreshed and rejuvenated spirit is gen- uinely beneficial for body and soul.

As one is re-connected, re-awakened, and re-energized by engaging in and experiencing a sacred and holy dialogue in a garden setting, the sense of wonder and awe and the sense of a more meaningful and satisfied life increase immeasurably.

We can experience a natural religion removed from human dogma, conflict, or argument. Benches become pews, trees become preachers, water becomes soulful baptisms, and choirs of flowers sing in great joy to the wind’s organ voice.11

The overall significance of gardens is common to many religious traditions, from the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament and Tanakh of the Jewish faith to the Koran’s representations of Paradise as a heavenly garden. Buddhists too have embraced the concept of creating gardens as places for spiritual meditation and contemplation. A liturgical garden, in a symbolic way, naturally functions as that common denominator or structure that bridges the many and diverse cultures and religion traditions present in the world.

Within the garden setting, especially a garden planned and formed as an integral component of a religious institution, it is possible to provide a positive venue for the conduct of liturgical rites and rituals. Gardens fashioned in such a unique and wonderfully calming environment provide a much-needed escape from the rigors of daily life.

In facilitating one’s connection to the divine in a liturgical garden setting, an enhanced sense of hospitality is also extended to the user. It is in this generous gift of welcome and acceptance that the individual may be encouraged to visit the church and become a part of the worshiping community, thereby offering an even greater connection to the divine power being sought. In essence, the liturgical or prayer garden may provide a new and unique gateway to a more active and dynamic religious experience.

Not only does the prayer/liturgical garden facilitate one’s spiritual journey but it also serves as a means of outreach, even if in somewhat of a covert manner. For some people, walking or even driving by may be the only contact they have with the religious building. What image people perceive of the grounds surrounding the building is certainly reflective of the quality of the interior. The garden, when well-planned and executed, becomes a rather dynamic invitation to participate in the life and liturgy of the worshiping community. The garden proudly and boldly speaks of invitation and hospitality; it is a powerful statement to the broader community that, in essence, says, “We are home, we are alive, we are active, and we welcome you!”

As our communities become more and more populated, as towns and suburbs are increasingly paved over with impervious cover, as more and more of the natural world is transformed into large-scale residential developments, strip malls and other commercial enterprises and other urbanized land uses, as nature is being ravaged on a daily basis, the need to create sacred natural spaces in a quiet, relaxed atmosphere becomes increasingly acute.

Liturgical gardens and other sacred, natural spaces serve as places of sanctuary to accommodate the rituals and practices of our personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. Gardens developed as a component of a religious facility’s campus may serve a variety of functions. Not only is the liturgical garden a place for soul work and meditation but it also has the potential to function as an outdoor teaching and worship area, small group meeting place, and a joyous vessel for fellowship activities. Simple or elaborate in design, the cost of development is money and/or time well-spent in terms of human enrichment, enhancement, and enchantment.

There is a need for churches to add prayer/liturgical gardens to their setting. The result will provide a place of sanctuary for worship, prayer and meditation, for the greater community. Although with slightly a different meaning, my friend Leonard Sweet has urged, “Let’s get the church out-of-doors!”

9. Thomas Moore, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1966), 102.

10. Derek Clifford, The History of Garden Design (New York: Praeger, 1967), 24.

11. Christopher Forrest McDowell and Tricia Clark McDowell, The Sanctuary Garden: Creating a Place of Refuge in Your Yard or Garden (New York: Simon & Schuster (A Fireside Book), 1998), 20.

excerpted from: Worship in the Garden: Services for Outdoor Worship by J. Wayne Pratt ©2013 Abingdon Press. Order information below.

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