20 August 2021

Over the last few weeks, we have been working on our new 'Garden of Hope'. Back in 2018, Fr Kevin Alban started a series of reflections on the symbols of Carmel, and because we are creating this new garden, we wanted to republish his reflection on gardens, below:

Carmelite Symbols – A Way to Prayer
The Garden

by Fr Kevin Alban, O.Carm

I would like to look at the idea of Carmel itself. This is a Hebrew word which means “freshly planted” or “vineyard”. (Sometimes writers claim it means “God’s vineyard”, but that would be “Carmiel”, with an “i”.) The point in the Bible is that God has marked out an area which He has planted, cultivated and protects. It denotes some kind of reserved garden where God offers a refuge and a place of safety. A garden is a place of shade, a place where flowers and fruit grow for pleasure and for sustenance, a place of heady aromas and bright colours. It is also clear that these gardens have been created by God for human gratification and they are maintained by Him for the well-being of humanity.

The fundamental garden in the Hebrew Scriptures is, of course, the Garden of Eden which is described in the book of Genesis. This is a place that God has created for Adam and Eve, which He causes to be watered, to be cultivated and to be fruitful. This is the place where the first human community of a man and a woman is created. It is also a place where God and humanity meet, interact and know one another intimately. This is the reason why Adam and Eve are naked: there is nothing between them and God. When the first couple turn away from God and towards themselves, they create a block between themselves and God. That’s why they feel ashamed of their nakedness – something has come between them and God. The author at this points notes that “…the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” (Gen. 3:8). There is a sense in which this is not a one-off description of God’s presence in the garden, but it seems to indicate an habitual practice: humanity’s relationship with God is likened to a walk in the garden in the cool of the day. A stroll with a friend in easy conversation, no obstacles or impediments to the chat, a freedom of expression where anything can be said.

This reminds me very powerfully of Saint Teresa’s famous definition of prayer: “Mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.” (Life 8:7). An intimate sharing and taking time to be with the one who loves us: these are the ways in which we foster a relationship with God. The garden of Carmel is a place where we are secure and protected as we embark on cultivating this bond of love. God provides a space where we can feel safe, where the flowers and fruits are no longer simply physical nourishment and visual beauty, but are food for the soul and reminders of the beauty of God.

The second garden I wish to look at is found in the gospels – the Garden of Gethsemane (in Mark and Matthew) which is across the Cedron Valley, on the Mount of Olives (in Luke). This is the place where Jesus prayed in a very personal and intimate way to his Father: “’Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me.’” (Mark 14:36) Matthew and Luke have similar expressions of Jesus’ evident anguish at the prospect of his death by crucifixion. The word that Jesus uses to address his Father is the personal and familiar expression, “Abba”. Not so much ‘daddy’ perhaps, but the word used to claim a privileged relationship with a father as son and heir. It is a strong indication that Jesus really considered himself “Son of God”.

Jesus experiences a real human fear when he realises what his destiny is to be. In first-century, occupied Palestine, it did not require much imagination or powers of prediction to work out that those who challenged the Romans would be dealt with extremely harshly. As a man growing up in Nazareth and making regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Jesus would have seen this terrible punishment meted out to rebels and rabble-rousers.

His fear and apprehension are quite normal and perfectly human. Jesus uses the symbol of a cup, probably understood as the cup of suffering. He uses the same expression in Matthew’s gospel when talking to James and John: “Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’” (Matthew 20:22).

However, since Jesus acknowledges that everything is possible for God and yet God does not seem about to free him from his fate, there must be some deeper purpose here. In the fear and pain, Jesus realises that his Father has a plan and a design which will give meaning to the suffering. Perhaps Jesus does not see this fully at this stage, but the dominant attitude is one of submission to God’s purpose: “…not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39). This has been the hallmark of Jesus’ entire ministry and the foundation of his image of the Father. This is the pattern that Jesus sets for all interactions between God and humanity. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus understands his mission from a very young age. He reminds his parents: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49).

In the Hebrew Scriptures there is a constant struggle between the desire of humanity to understand, to dominate, to control even God. When things are going well, the human race is happy to acknowledge the primacy of God’s will and to accept His plans. When things go against humanity and challenge that desire to dominate and control, then there is resistance and bitterness. The story of Job is all about this. While Job is prosperous and has all his material and personal possessions, then he is devout and blesses God. In order to test Job’s true nature, God takes away all his goods, cattle and even family. Job refuses to curse God for what has happened, yet he cannot accept his situation: he calls on God to explain himself and to justify his attitude towards his faithful and upright servant, Job. At the end of the book, God replies:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?” (Job 38: 4-5).

Can Job, in all his suffering, put himself on the same level as God and demand an explanation of his predicament? Can Job challenge God to give an account of his behaviour? Job has a moment of clarity and understanding:

“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted”.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
“Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
“Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.”
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.” 
(Job 42: 2-6).

It takes Job forty-two chapters to realise that God’s will is supreme and human understanding is limited. 

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus acknowledges that everything is subordinate to God’s plan in an instant.

The garden in Carmelite thinking is a safe place of encounter with God. 

It is the place where humanity strolls with God in conversation in the cool of the day. 

It is the place where fears and anxieties can be expressed directly and simply. 

It is the place where humanity comes to a greater and stronger understanding of the primacy of God’s will. 
It is the place where humanity can offer itself as a willing partner in God’s plan.

Fr Kevin Alban died in 2021. Our book 'A New Hope' - a book of reflections - is dedicated to him.