Kevin M. DePrinzio, O.S.A.
Ex 3: 1-8a, 13-15
Psalm 103: 1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11
1 Cor 10: 1-6, 10-12
Lk 13: 1-9
Last summer, I found myself with a few of our friars at a place I never really thought I’d be interested in visiting, thinking that it would be boring. After expressing a bit of hesitation, I was convinced, invited to strongly reconsider, to accompany them to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square. Now, I certainly love nature and experience beauty in creation - I even have a few easy-to-care-for-plants in my room - but I couldn’t imagine what it would be like walking around for hours in one huge greenhouse. One of the friars even has a membership there. “A membership?” I thought. “I mean, how often would you want to go that you’d need a membership?”
I now stand corrected, and am grateful that I was forced to reconsider. It was one of the most contemplative experiences I’ve had, as I was surprised, amazed by beauty, by the uniqueness of each of the arrangements, the intricacy of the types of flowers and plants. I’m by far no way even closer to being a horticulturalist after that one experience - or ever for that matter! - but I stand here corrected and surprised by the grace of that moment.
One of the spaces that stood out for me was where the Bonsai plants were kept. These are the uniquely shaped plants and trees that originated in China and Japan. I came to learn that Bonsai isn’t the name of the plant. It’s actually the name given to the art of growing the plant. In fact, as one of the signs in the Bonsai room described, it’s called training the plant, and it can be done at any stage of the plant’s life. The age doesn’t matter. As the sign reads, “The shape of the plant determines its true character, reflecting the skill and knowledge of the gardener.”
On this Third Sunday of Lent, as we approach the halfway point of our Lenten journey, the Scriptures bring us into a room of plants, where we encounter both the Burning Bush and the Fig Tree. In this encounter, with Moses, with Jesus and his disciples, we are asked to reflect on not how we are growing or training, but on how it is that we are being grown, how it is that we are being trained, shaped and re-shaped. It is an important distinction to keep in mind and heart.
When we focus on the first - the growing and the training - we run the risk of thinking that it’s just about us and, even more, that we, in fact, are the ones doing it. When we hone in on the second - the being grown, the being trained - the focus shifts from us, to the One who is doing the cultivating, the Master Gardener, God Himself. This is an important distinction to hold onto as it determines how we enter Lent and how we journey through Lent to the glory of Easter. We can easily focus on our Lenten practices, our penances, our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving - all wonderful opportunities and practices to draw closer to the Lord. But at some point we need to be open, we need to shift our focus, not on what we are doing, but on what is being done to us and in us, how it is that the Master Gardener is cultivating us, shaping us for the sake of the Kingdom, for the life of the world.
God doesn’t do this cultivating in isolation. God plants us in community, with others. It is in community, in the art of growing in communion with one another, that we are cultivated, shaped, trained, like the Bonsai, to reflect back our true character, to reflect back the work of the Gardener. And this work of the Gardener is what we call Mercy.
It is in and through Mercy that we are trained, grown, and shaped. It is in our practicing Mercy that we are trained, grown, and shaped. It is how we experience Mercy that we are trained, grown, and shaped. None of this is easy, in fact it can be difficult. We all know this to be true - in how we hurt, or how we’ve been hurt; in how forgive and sometimes struggle to forgive; in how we hold one another accountable; in how we are humbled or practice humility; in how we love.
In one of his sermons, Augustine talks about Mercy as being “heart-sore” - that in Mercy, our heart aches for others, our heart aches for the Other, our heart aches for wholeness, so much so that we are consumed in Mercy, by Mercy, like the Burning Bush and, at the same time, are charged not to give up on one another, just as God doesn’t give up on caring for us, as we hear in the gospel about the gardener not giving up on the Fig Tree.
Lent is a time when the Church calls us to be attentive to this art of Mercy - to cultivation and to being cultivated in the garden of life. Lent is a word that in its root actually means spring. In Lent, there is always the promise of springtime, there is always the promise of Easter, where once again we can be surprised by grace and reflect back to one another the Art and the Mercy of God.