The Bema (βῆμα, בּימה ) : of Prayer and Gardens
I was on retreat in Toronto in 1988 when I met Sister Jessica. She became “Jess” when she learned we were Scottish, and her gentle accent and wit helped us adjust to silent meals, strange chapel hours and meditation times. In a day or two we felt at home, and in a place of peace and prayer.
One hot afternoon (no air conditioning!), I came across Jess, sandals kicked off, perched on a lawn chair in the shady Convent garden. Hands upward in her lap, eyes closed in concentration, she was praying. I took notice, and learned another lesson. Seek out a place for prayer, not just consistent in time, but in place. If you can, whenever and wherever. Come aside, if you can.
Early Christians treasured their gardens. Caves, even caves of the heart, were not for everyone! As Christians of every tribe and nation sought solitude, gardens were their first choice. After all, God planted the first Garden for us to have communion with him. Jesus appeared to his followers in Gethsemane. Somehow, I think the image of the Christian, trowel or rake in hand, cheek smudged, dirt under the nails, band-aid on finger (we’re talking roses here!), talking to their plants, and at the bugs, embodies and ancient tradition.
The oldest ones I have visited in Scotland, England, Ukraine and France, some long abandoned, have pavement stones worn down into ruts by the passage of sandalled feet, and the murmur of prayer, the sharing of wisdom, the air heavy with music and voice, and the songs of birds.
Early Christians also favoured prayer in the desert. One may journey inward to a prayer garden, but others must journey outwards to the most isolated, even dangerous places to pray. Our military chaplains have to take what they can find: a plywood cubicle in Kandahar or a garden made of sandbags with barbed wire for a hedge. At one Forward Base the watchtower had four upright posts with a tin roof, a machine gun and telephone. On one of the uprights someone had written, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of Death, I will fear no Evil, for Thou art with me”. Add the sound of gunships buzzing by, if you will. This prayer garden is a long, long way from Eden. But someone regularly meets His Lord there, and wants others to know it.
I keep that picture close. It teaches me not to complain about my places of prayer being less than perfect. It should keep me from complaining about my places of service to Christ being less than perfect, but it doesn’t much. I hope someday it will. But it does spur me to pray always, even in the most difficult places.
There is an icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, portraying Jesus as he comes out of the Wilderness after being tempted by the devil. His right face is full, but his left is emaciated and weary. His brown eyes show both human and divine natures in crisis and yet at peace. He is weary, hungry and thirsty, yet God has sustained him and will restore His faithful One. I keep my copy near my bed. It makes me want to pray. That is what an icon does.
When God comes to commune with us, whether in the cool of the garden, or in the midst of strife, is there a place ready to meet Him?