June 06, 2004
This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown. For the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. . . .
Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."
The Lord God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."
Reading from Swedenborg
Church people are like gardens of intelligence when they are engaged in the good of love from the Lord. The spiritual warmth that gives them life is love, and the spiritual light is the intelligence from it. Gardens in this world flourish under the influence of warmth and light. It is the same in heaven, where there are paradise gardens, with fruit trees according to the angels' wisdom from the good of love from the Lord. ( Apocalypse Revealed #90.5)
Poets and prisoners, peasants and professors have acknowledged a beautiful garden to be the nearest earthly reality to heaven. The person who is awake and alive instinctively feels nearer to the divine in a garden.
During the last twenty years of his life, Emanuel Swedenborg maintained one of the largest and most elaborate gardens in Sweden, attracting numerous visitors each year. In our day of English gardens that are intentionally haphazard, formal German gardens, and asymmetrical Japanese gardens, the whole realm of designing gardens has been thrown wide open. But Swedenborg had a unique approach. He designed a three-part garden that was to be experienced sequentially by a visitor, in which each succeeding part was more elaborate and more beautiful than the one before it. If you fantasize the schema for a moment, you can get a sense for why Swedenborg's garden was so hugely popular.
The visitor walks into a walled-in garden from a Stockholm street and has the first uplift of spirit. Healthy, vibrant plants and flowers immediately convey their soothing sense of peace and beauty. The wayfarer is then taken through a gate into an even more lovely and exquisite garden, quickening the spirit in a particularly exciting way, since it had been thought that the delight had already been had. Marveling over the multitudinous splendor of God's world of nature, the unsuspecting soul is then drawn into the third and inmost section, which is the grandest of all.
A wondering query inevitably poses itself: can beauty increase and surpass itself to eternity? Swedenborg's emphatic answer is yes: this is precisely the great gift of life from God. For a soul who embraces goodness and truth, the progression into ever more inward states of delight and joy never ceases.
A hundred years ago, the creators of this church at Lyon and Washington Streets had a similar experience in mind for the weary wayfarer needing respite from the busy streets of life. Their intent was that the church would not be very noticeable from a distance, so that one rather startles upon it. Seeing the low archway and realizing that a house of God lies within, perhaps the traveler in life is needing a moment of rest, or reflection, or simply spiritual peace. Knowing not what lies within, and seeing only a concrete wall, they turn in and at first perceive only a sliver of a glimpse of a garden. Ohhh! is the carefully intended effect. Just a dash of vivid pink, cool green, and sturdy cedar; the pilgrim is lured into the reservoir of divine balm contained within.
With each step down the corridor, the view of the garden widens, and the delight expands. An oasis so gently hidden here just apace off the hectic buzz of daily stresses. A bench is here. Perhaps I will rest a bit.
And finally, the wayfarer's spirit revived, the thought occurs to proceed into the sanctuary. Oh my! The humble exterior did not prepare for such a rarefied human creation. What inspired this? Gradually, noticing and appreciating the continuing theme of nature, but now in a human-crafted context, the eyes rest on the central focus, the fount of all inspiration and wisdom: the Word of God. And as the dove drinks from the water above, so also are we to draw in the divine truths that the Lord would impart to us.
It is amazing how often this sequence works exactly as the creators planned. That is the experiential aspect. But if we leave it there, we've got little more than a pleasant presentation for the local garden club. To rise to the level of a sermon, we need to go the next step, and push off from our perch on the lip of the fount. We need to drop deep into the shimmering waters of divine revelation, and feed our minds with correspondences therein.
Correspondence is Swedenborg's term for the relationship between the natural plane and the spiritual plane. Everything that exists in this physical world is an effect of something spiritual. That is, the spiritual flows into and manifests the physical in the same way that a scowl or a smile is the physical representation of an inner reality or state of being. The facial expression doesn't exist in and of itself, cut off from any other reality, but completely derives its particular form from a force existing in the intangible world. A force flowing outward from the intangible manifests and ultimates in a physical form that corresponds to that inner reality. Hence, a scowl corresponds to a troubled or irritated mind; a smile corresponds to amusement or peacefulness.
Just so, the world of nature corresponds to multitudinous aspects of the divine. And as a face can convey nearly infinite variations and nuances, each entity in nature conveys a nuance of the divine. The founding pastor of this church, and the man who is credited with the spiritual vision and fundamental conceptual design of this church, is Joseph Worcester. His nephew, William Worcester, wrote The Language of Parable--the classic work in Swedenborgian literature on the subject of correspondences. He writes in the introductory chapter, "All nature would seem to us but a veil concealing and at the same time revealing the presence of the Lord and of heaven."
How nicely he puts the dual experience we can have in nature: a sense of concealing and revealing. The natural world can appear to have a veil draped around it, showing only itself; and at other times be seen as a window into something beyond and within.
This approach to seeing the divine in nature and in the Word captured the imagination of a generation of Impressionist artists. We are fortunate that George Inness, perhaps the greatest English Impressionist, wrote extensively of his enlightenment perspective via Swedenborg's writings. In this sanctuary we need not look any further than our north wall to move into the tension of the divine being both concealed and revealed in these four paintings by William Keith, certainly the most renowned Impressionist on the West Coast. The gentle shimmering of the Impressionists was their way of suggesting and bringing out the inner reality that is in fact creating the forms of nature. Such art seeks to present its subject in both its natural and spiritual aspects.
People have asked me, "What is religious about this? A church is supposed to have the Four Evangelists or Old Testament prophets on its walls." But I tell them that the genius of our sanctuary is that it helps people to connect with the divine presence everywhere. It is indeed concealing and revealing.
When we become consciously aware of the fact and power of correspondences in nature, a garden can become an endless field of contemplation and meditation. Every shrub, tree, or flower communicates something a little different; each manifests something important about God's nature--whether thorny or smooth, hardy or tender, fast-growing or slow-growing. They all correspond to the Lord, and then by extension to our own life and spirit. We, too, are organic creatures of the world, and are not strangers to hardiness and tenderness, thorniness and smoothness.
Let us take but one example. Many of you know the old and gnarled olive tree in the corner of the garden, planted against the cornerstone of the retaining wall and overhanging the street. In the ancient Mediterranean world, the olive tree was by far the most common tree. What is its correspondence? Scripture says, "By their fruits ye shall know them" (Matthew 7:20). The fruits of the olive tree are olives. What are some of the uses of olive oil?
What is needed to remove or reduce the harmful effects of friction in human relations? Is not kindness the oil that must be applied wherever people come into contact? Is this same kindness useful to soften callous hearts, to heal wounded feelings? Oil also burns with warm, bright light. Does kindly sympathy warm the heart? And does it open our eyes to see how we may be helpful?
The aspect of kindness that God would extend to us and have us make our own is so deeply sacred that olive oil was used in sacred ceremonies, burned in sacred lamps, and mixed with spices to use in consecrating the tabernacle. The Lord himself was the Anointed One, which is the translation of "Messiah." He was the one anointed with oil because he was perfect love, and revealed that love to us in his works and words of infinite kindness.
It is in this sort of deeper penetration into the parts of nature that we can encounter a more profound sense of God's presence and leading. This is the way of correspondences. All parts of a garden may lead the sensitive one inward to God. Pulsing from every blossom here but a day, and from every tree here for a century, the Lord is saying, "Here I am. Know me."
Let our garden here, and gardens everywhere, be a conduit to the divine, eliciting from us always a response of thanksgiving.
O God, as we stroll this Garden Earth, open our minds' eyes to perceive the revelation of your loving nature that is everywhere present in the beauty and order of the natural universe. Amen.
Rev. Dr. James Lawrence