I walk to my allotment in the community garden and say hello to other gardeners I pass along the way. We talk briefly about the tomatoes, the zucchini, the weather. At Stephen’s plot however, there is silence, and the look of an old man undone hunched over his weeds, frozen in time. Stephen is young, fit, strong, but today he looks 100. “Hi Stephen,” I say with good cheer. Nothing. He is crouching on all fours, staring at the ground. This feels unusual. I step over the wooden frame that separates his garden from the pathway and boldly just sit down beside him, cross-legged, in the rich black earth. I say, “Is it okay if I just sit here awhile?” Stephen nods. We stay that way for at least 10 minutes. It feels like a long time. I eventually ask him, “Are you okay?” He shakes his head. “Would you like me to stay here with you?” He nods his head.
Time passes slowly on this languid day. Stephen decides to look at me at some point and speak, “My wife just died. She was 32. I do not know how to survive.”
I feel the intake of breath and the prick of tears. “Oh Stephen, I’m so sorry…” In time, Stephen tells me that she was 32, that they’d been together for 8 years, married for 4, and that she fought breast cancer for 3. Overflowing with tears, he whispers, “We had all the ingredients to grow old together.” Of all the bittersweet things I’ve heard, this is one in a category of its own. I ask what I can do for him, but he doesn’t want visitors or food. I tell him that I am a spiritual director, that I accompany people on their journeys, and that I am not unfamiliar with grief. I ask him if I can pray for him. When he looks dubious I say, “By praying for you, what I mean is that I will think of you often, and when I do I will ask the universe to surround you with positive energy and all the strength and courage you need for this difficult path.” He says, “That is not my tradition, but when you explain it that way, yes, please pray for me.”
We talk about his idea to spend the summer travelling. Stephen feels pulled to remote places, to wander alone and perhaps find his footing again in the wilderness. I ask him about watering and weeding his garden plot, as neglected plots are given away. “Could I water and weed for you this summer, so you are free to travel?” His tears tell me how much that means to him. “Yes, yes, that would be very good,” he says.
A few days later, I am telling my band of garden helpers this story. They don’t look up. No one catches the eye of another. Like snow geese lifting as one from the marsh, the helpers silently pick up their tools and move to Stephen’s plot. Just like that. And as the summer unfolds, we add love and positive energy to our own plants, and do the same on Stephen’s plot – unspoken compassion for the garden and the grieving man.
At home, I light a candle for Stephen in the evenings. I send him text messages and pictures of the garden. He tells me he loves The Hobbit and that he is still out in the wild. I send him quotes from J.R.R. Tolkien. (“All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.” or “Still round the corner there may await, a new road or a secret gate.”) He sends me pictures of his dog, the salmon he catches, the wilderness, and he tells me of his pain on the hardest of days. In an unexpected alchemy, we accompany each other these long months of summer.
Of all the formal – and very meaningful – spiritual direction sessions I offer, it’s the surprising encounters like this that teach me God’s deepest soul-guiding lessons of love in action.
Today: I notice what is growing in my inner garden.
All photography by Chris Mann. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris is an alumni of the Pacific Jubilee Program. She provides 1-1 accompaniment to those who wish to deepen their awareness of the Divine and their connection with the Holy. She experiences God in every precious part of creation reflected in her camera lens, in the harmonies of every song she sings, and in every miraculous chance encounter.