Meeting God in the garden

Dorothy Frances Gurney wrote: “You’re closer to God’s heart in a garden, than any place else on earth”. And many people have discovered this to be true, as Joanne Appleton discovers

There’s a tapestry cushion in Judy Howard’s lounge with a quotation by Francis Bacon: “God Almighty first planted a garden; and indeed it is the purest of human pleasure.  It is the greatest refreshment of the spirit of man.”

Look out of her window to the beautiful garden, and immediately you want to explore, ponder and experience that refreshment. And for several days each year, as part of the Quiet Garden Trust, Judy opens her home and garden, allowing people to do just that.

The Trust is the vision of Philip Roderick, an Anglican priest. He wanted people to experience three things through spending time in a beautiful garden setting: to provide the opportunity for silence, solitude and appreciation of beauty; to enable people to learn more about contemplative prayer; and for them to experience creativity and healing. But he also realised that expensive premises weren’t needed – just individuals who were willing to offer hospitality in their homes and gardens for a few days a year.

The first Quiet Garden opened in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire in 1992. Fifteen years later, there are now Quiet Gardens and Spaces in the UK, Europe, North and South America, India, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Judy first heard of the Trust over 11 years ago, through Esther de Waal, a patron of the movement. She says it happened at a significant time in her life.

“I had made a commitment to God, like the Benedictine vow of stability, to the place where I lived - that I would expect to find God as much in my home, my marriage and my family, as I did when I 'escaped' to 'holy' places on retreats! So it seemed really important to set aside quiet days, even if no one came.

“In addition, things in my parish church were in chaos and I was in a kind of exile. Collecting a possible community of faith from time to time looked like a way forward for me.”

Judy visited the Quiet Garden headquarters at Stoke Poges, and decided to begin opening her home. Her home, Paulmead, is in a valley in the heart of the Cotwolds (with Jilly Cooper as a neighbour!); it is, in her own words, a “dear old cosy house and a very beautiful garden.”  She has lived at Paulmead with her husband Philip for 23 years. Together with their three children, they have used their creativity and energy to create a beautiful place to ‘just be’.
While Philip is the expert gardener, having run his own gardening company for 30 years, Judy provides artistic input. Their son built the summer house, yew arbour seat, tree house, and created some sculptures.

Highlights of the garden include a stream, with an informal wilderness of cow parsley and wild flowers close by. There’s also an amazing tree house, other seats in hidden places, and lots of beautiful shrubs, trees and flowering plants. The garden looks out over fields with sheep, and even deer! Judy also keeps hens and there’s a pond with trout and, occasionally, visiting wild mallard ducks.

Between eight and 14 people attend each Quiet Day. Some are rooted in a worshipping Christian community, while a few are seekers. Some come once, others over and over again.

On a Quiet Day, nowhere is out of bounds, explains Judy. “The invitation is given to explore, find a 'den', and curl up with rugs or cushions. We have a shared time at the beginning of the day with silence and input, and I give some suggestions or ideas to explore.

“Then we walk, sit, gaze, rest, read, write, draw or sew. We wallow in silence; allow a letting go or an opening to a deeper reality or let God show us our own truth and receive value, healing, insights and love. Most of the time this process is subtle and unselfconscious. Sometimes it’s painful. It takes courage to let go of distraction and roles, and simply discover who we really are before the gaze of God's love.

“Jesus went into the wilderness to face his truth. An English garden may not look like a wilderness, but entering into silence can be a similar journey for some people.

“At midday we worship together and share a delicious bring and share lunch in silence. At the end of the day, we share insights, pray, break bread, and then chat over tea and cake.”

Not all Quiet Gardens share the rural setting and silence of Paulmead, however. Our Lady’s Garden in Stainforth, Doncaster adjoins the local Catholic Church. It’s an area that was devastated by the after-effects of the miners’ strike. According to Frank McDermott, who looks after the Garden, the area is one of the “most vandalised in the North of England” and the garden itself suffered neglect for many years.

Then in 2003 the vision of having a ‘Quiet Garden’ caught the local Christian community’s imagination. Every Saturday for several months, parishioners and their friends, together with some local prisoners released on licence, cleared the site and created a beautiful space. It opened to the public in May 2004, and has suffered no damage since.

“Local people love the garden,” says Frank. “Schools have used it for retreats, and every month on Saturdays eight or nine prisoners help tend the garden. They love their important role and take great pride in their 'work'.  Their lives have been touched, their self esteem and dignity enhanced and we have learnt much from their enthusiasm.  God is present in these human interactions and it matters.
“Three nights a week over 100 women gather for an enjoyable and safe night of entertainment (bingo!) in the hall which opens onto the garden. They love the garden and the peace it offers. Very few of them would feel comfortable in our church, but they feel complete peace in the garden - our outdoor church.

“At present hundreds of daffodils are in bloom and the 100 plus roses planted in memory of named members of our community are beginning to bud.  God is everywhere and we believe there is no distinction between the sacred and the ordinary - thus the garden is a place of peace, of stillness, of reflection and of beauty.”

‘God speaks to me through everything’

Caroline finds the Quiet Days have become an important part of her life

A friend told me about the Quiet Days at Paulmead, and I was immediately interested. She went on to say something about it being set near the Cotswolds in a lovely garden, but it was really the idea of being quiet that appealed to me.

I feel that my life, as well as everybody else’s, is so busy, but I know I hear God’s voice more clearly when I stop and be quiet.  I wanted to do that and to have a more real experience of God.

The first time I went I suppose I was a bit anxious, but I was with two friends, and Judy was very clear about the format of the day.  What struck me was the pure generosity of opening her house to complete strangers – she said we could go anywhere in the house or garden and use whatever we wanted. It was a real gift.

I’ve been several times now and every time I’ve had a very close encounter with God. One day particularly stands out for me. At the beginning Judy talked about emptying yourself of the things we tend to cling onto or think are important, in order to make space for God to fill us. 

I had a beautiful cup with me that I carried around all day. I refilled it and used it, then washed it and reused it, and through this God spoke to me. The cup was beautiful, but it was cracked and imperfect.  God showed me that even though we may feel cracked or seemingly old and useless, we are still beautiful in his eyes and can be used by him.  This happened just a couple of days before I had quite a difficult time and I really feel that was God preparing me to cope with what was ahead.

Even just being in the garden with creation all around me is wonderful and I find God speaks through everything - I watch the trees and plants, and birds soaring and hens pecking the ground, and discover things I can identify with.
I’ve realised that God speaks through his creation all the time, if I am still enough and aware enough to listen to it. The garden is a big part of it, because it’s his creation, but it’s also the generosity of the day and the expectation of meeting with God that day. The Quiet Garden days have become very important to me and they give me a calm, quiet space in my busy life.

Take it further

Find out more about the Quiet Garden Trust by writing to them at: Stoke Park Farm, Park Road, Stoke Poges, Bucks, SL2 4PG,
Tel: +44 (0)1753 643050 

The Trust is holding several one day conferences on the theme of Green Grace to celebrate its 15th anniversary.

Wisdom for the Earth: 7 July 2007 at Waltham Place, Maidenhead, Berks with Celia Deane-Drummond, Professor of Theology and Biological Sciences
at the University of Chester

Living Life as a Blessing to Creation: 15 September 2007 at Westfield Farm Sheriff Hutton, N Yorks
With Martin Palmer Secretary General Alliance of Religion & Conservation