The Garden and the Baobabs
If you ever stumble across a small book, called “The Little Prince,” stop whatever you’re doing and read it.
There should be a rule that every Christian reads this book before they’re 12 years old, and revisits it as often as possible, because it has something to say about life so deep that any child could grasp it and so simple that every adult needs it.
First and foremost, the Little Prince teaches us about gardening: the gardening of the soul.
The Prince is a young boy who lives up on an asteroid, so far away that no one has yet discovered it. The asteroid is his entire world, though so small that you can walk all the way across it in only a few steps. But unlike just any asteroid, this one’s unique, because it has a rose on it. One single rose grows there, which is the sole love and affection of the Little Prince. His life revolves around it, and his one job is to nurture and care for the rose.
But it’s not an easy life, because on that asteroid there’s the constant threat of a weed called baobabs.
The baobabs start out as tiny sprouts that seem innocent enough, but the minute you stop paying attention, they take root and before long, they become giant trees that drain the asteroid of all its nutrients. If the Prince were to slack from his gardening for only a day or two, he could be sure that those baobabs would cover the whole planet and destroy his precious rose.
Now isn’t this a bit like our souls.
Each of us has been given a garden, the soul, the heart, or whatever you call it, much like the Little Prince’s asteroid. The soil is rich and moist and steeped in all the nutrients we could ever need. And in this soil has been planted the very image of God and the fertilizer of the Holy Spirit.
But meanwhile, there are those pesky baobabs.
‘A sower went out to sow his seed;” our Lord and Savior explains, “and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.’ As he said this, he called out, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
What happens to us on our Christian journey?
We’re going to Church on Sundays (Check!). We’re saying our morning and evening prayers (Check!). We’re receiving the sacraments (Check...well, at least some of them…). Things are going good and then…something comes along that pulls us away.
It doesn’t take much.
Sometimes, all it takes is one rude word from another person in the pew. At times, it’s the awkward way she walks, or the unpleasant tone in his laugh, the way the preacher rubs his nose when he preaches, or the way she sings a note off key.
We like to think of spiritual warfare in a grand and lofty way. But most of the time, if we’re honest, we lose our love for God and His Church because of the small and silly things. What starts out insignificant becomes so pressing in our minds that it persuades us to break communion with God and our fellow Christians.
At other times, the temptations run deeper. Perhaps, we’ve grown old and found that life hasn’t gone the way that we had hoped. Perhaps, we’ve been hurt, very deeply, and aren’t sure how to forgive. Christ doesn’t promise us a life of ease, but a life of struggle and losses. He was crucified on the cross, so there’s no wonder that if we’re serving Him, we too may be crucified.
Or else, perhaps we’ve simply been caught up in the bustle of life and the appeal for Christ isn’t there anymore.
“Some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it.”
Each year, at the eve of Lent, the Church brings us this challenge: to spend a little extra time tending to our garden.
What are the baobabs in your life?
What are the feet that trample, the birds that pick, the rocks and thorns that threaten your soul?
What is it in your life that steals away love for God and His Church?
In his first epistle, St. Peter reminds the believers: "Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (5:8).
Our Lord Himself warns us, “Keep watch, because you do not know the day on which your Lord will come” (Matthew 24:42).
The Christian life is full of joy and peace, but it’s certainly not comfortable.
The Church teaches us that loser demons linger about, waiting for any chance to catch us off guard, and then they fire their arrows, those small, subtle thoughts that enter our heads and tempt us.
A person says one word that really annoys you. At first it’s nothing, but you allow an angry thought to take root in your mind – maybe you play around with it – maybe tease it a little and nurse it. In no time at all, you’ve come to hate that person. You come to church and try to pray, but as mass goes on all you can hear are the conversations in your head, imagining this or that which he said, or might have said, or could possibly say in the future – and all of a sudden, you can’t take it any more, the exit doors are too inviting.
Can you see how subtly the devil works?
We have to be watchful.
If you read the teachings of monks through years, you’ll find that nearly everything they have to say is about the tiny and subtle thoughts in our heads.
Elder Ephraim was a famous abbot on Mount Athos who once warned his brethren:
“We should be vigilant to always have our hand on the trigger. With the first appearance of the enemy, we should shoot. As soon as an evil thought comes to us, immediately knock it down. A dirty image comes, immediately spoil it. We shouldn’t allow it to become more vivid in colors and in appearance, because thereby we will come to immediate difficulty. When the evil is struck at the root, it is impossible to sprout and to increase. When this struggle comes about with diligence, we will cleanse our soul and thereby we will be found clean…before God.”
St. Piasios, another monk who’s known and loved throughout world, and who died not too long ago in Greece, also taught about the warfare in our heads. One day, a group of pilgrims visited him and asked for advice about the tiny thoughts that threaten us. He told them:
“When our soul lives carelessly without watching over its thoughts, it will consequently fill up with dirty and sly thoughts. As a result, people start developing psychological problems which gradually pile up.... Some people, while they are found in this situation and come face to face with the problem itself, they do not realize it, and thus are unable to humbly confess to their spiritual father their fall. Instead, they look for a “secular” solution and consult a psychiatrist... The only solution is to become aware of the problem and confess it to a spiritual father and then humbly follow his advice.”
There’s an old American phrase which says it all in fewer words: Nip it in the bud.
The baobabs don’t come out of nowhere. They always start out small, like tiny seedlings. If we nip them in the bud then we don’t have anything to worry about. But if we let them grow just a little, if we flirt with them, then before you know it they’ve taken over.
But the answer is always so simple.
Nip it in the bud, and if the seedling starts to take root, don’t try to do it on your own. Run to confession. 90% of the time, what we bring to the confessional should merely be thoughts. When we fail to confess our thoughts, then we’ll have much more serious sins to confess, and in the meanwhile, a number of people will have been hurt. But it’s never too late. God’s grace is vast.
Fr. James once told a story of a couple, whom he had known for many years. Without mentioning their names, he explained that one day they came up to him and announced that they were getting a divorce. He was shocked. They hadn’t said anything to him all along. On the outside, everything seemed normal, while in the inside their hearts had grown cold and stiff. If only they had come to him in the beginning and shared their struggles and their temptations. The baobabs had begun as subtle thoughts, but instead of casting light on them, while still small, they hid the thoughts and let them build up behind closed doors. You might as well pour miracle grow on the baobab seedlings, and then wonder why they spread.
Better to nip it in the bud.
When I lived in Greece, I was struck by the way the Christian communities lived together. They took for granted that to be Christian was to be community, and whenever they’d make a major decision, they’d first ask the abbot for his thoughts and advice. This most impressed me in the young teenage couples. Before dating, they also sought a blessing from their spiritual father. Can you imagine the problems this would save in our society? This is the Orthodox way. A sheep that wanders close to the herd is less likely to get picked off by a wolf. But the sheep that strays on it’s own is defenseless.
This is the Christian life, and this is, by all means, life in the community.
When St. Paul commands the Christians: “Do not neglect meeting together, as some have made a habit, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:25), he knew it wouldn’t be easy. People rubbed shoulders then just as they do today. But he also know that this is the only path to life.
There’s nothing cozy about Christianity, and there’s certainly nothing cozy about worshipping and living together as a community.
Sometimes, we expect Church to be like a yoga den – a place for relaxation and detachment – I’ll never understand where people get that idea. It’s certainly not in scripture.
No, Church is the field of hard work. It’s the voyage out at sea with Christ and the arena of martyrdom. When we forget that, you can be confident that just about any change, any difference, any new person will be enough to tear you apart from God.
“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this world's darkness, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms…Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (6:12).
It’s a battle, but a very good battle. So don’t let those baobabs win.
As William Wallace has said, "Every man dies. Not every man really lives."
This is our one chance to live. To bring ourselves to the front line with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and fight the good fight.
Be sober. Be vigilant. Be watchful.
Tend to the garden of your soul and never forget the beauty of the rose.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.