Of Butterflies, Sacraments and Thin Places
In the months that have passed since Hurricane Charlie devastated my home in Orlando last August, I have worked out my grief in the manner I have always dealt with major life crises: I went to the garden to touch the earth and be touched there by the divine. Besides my home, which was heavily damaged and is just now beginning to be reconstructed these long months later, the biggest loss was the 120 year old majestic oak tree which dominated our corner lot and had been the focal point of our once leafy neighborhood. It was that oak, whom we had named Laurel for the type of oak it was, which crashed through the roof of my house and across the fence into our neighbor's home as well.
The resilience of the subtropical garden I had grown over the seven years of living in our home was striking. Almost immediately the orchid trees crushed by falling trees
and the maple sawed off to allow the equipment into our yard to haul away the fallen trees began to send up shoots which now 10 months later are some 10-15 feet tall, well on their way to becoming trees once again. The lilies salvaged from beds savaged by limbs and saw dust have arisen and bloomed along with the orchid trees, a colorful act of defiance against the destructive forces of nature.
Ironically, while my home still stands damaged, blue tarped roof awaiting the builders who will remove and replace the crushed roof and walls and water damaged hardwood floors, the garden has made a miraculous recovery, once again lush enough that the house is difficult to see from the street. As I have moved around my garden, watering, fertilizing, pruning, talking to my plant children, calling them back to life, I realized more deeply than ever that this garden is a very special place.
In the very rich tradition of Celtic Christianity whose heritage my family shares, there is an understanding known as the "thin place." These were places where people felt most strongly connected with God’s presence. The early Celts believed it was in these places that the seen and unseen worlds were most closely connected and inhabitants of both worlds can momentarily touch the other. Increasingly, I see my garden as a thin place. And in the past 10 months, it has taught me a very poignant lesson about the sacramental manner in which human beings experience the divine.
Oddly enough, it is my Baptist raised-turned Methodist mother who taught me so much about sacramental theology. It was she who engrained in me the notion of the image of G_d, not in so many words, but rather in her ways of relating to people, her insistence that poverty did not disguise the humanity of people all around us in the rural community where we lived. It is Mom who taught me about the great joy of laughing. I think I hear G_d in her laughter. Sometimes I hear her laugh coming from my own lips.
My mother loves butterflies. Whenever I see one in my garden I always say "Hello, Mother!" And I smile. It's kind of like what Alice Walker said about passing the color purple and not paying one's respect: "It pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it..." Sacraments are about inward and spiritual graces encountered in outward and visible signs. My mother's laugh and the butterflies allow me to experience her presence even when she is not physically present. And I suspect that will become even stronger once she is gone.
It's not surprising that so many butterflies are in my garden. I have intentionally planted flowers which draw them - penta, lantana, milkweed, firebush, golden dew drop. And draw them they do! Hundreds of them. Birds, too. And squirrels. And maybe when the remaining, hurricane ravaged trees begin to grow back from the storm, the screech owls, bald eagle and raccoons will return to this green island in the midst of a city of nearly 2 million.
So many of my plants have come from places all over the world - the four o'clocks from Cuba, the maples from northern California, the daylilies from the mountains of North Carolina, the golden rain tree from Israel. And there are the plants given me by friends and family: the rose of Sharon from my beloved African-American nanny, Henrietta, the hibiscus from my Wiccan friend Luci, the jacaranda from the yard in San Jose of my friend, Deidre, now a Sister of Providence.
My garden is a sacrament of those not present yet whose memories and loving presence are visible in the green leaves and colorful blooms they bear and felt in my heart as I greet them. It is indeed a thin place where the presence of G-d is so palpable for me that the divine is as close as the wind blowing through the palms or in the song of the mockingbird in whose tune I still hear the voice of my now long gone six-toed orange tabby, Ratzinger.
Dorothy Frances Gurney once captured the notion of the thin place of the sacramental garden in her poem, "Garden Thoughts." A plaque with her poem will soon return to my garden once the repairmen have finished their work on my home. Gurney's poem reads:
The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.
On the science fiction channel, there is a strange advertisement of a beautiful young woman dressed in a flowing formal gown. She could well be my mother in her younger years. She was beautiful. I see why my Dad fell head over heels and remained with her these 56 years. Toward the end of the ad, a butterfly lands on the woman's hand and she turns to reach out to it as it flies away. As she does, her entire body dissolves into a flurry of butterflies scattering into the wind.
One day, my butterfly loving mother will do that, too. Probably sooner than I wish. But I will have the sacrament of the butterfly and her laughter the rest of my life. She will be there, along with G-d, amidst the trees, flowers and the butterflies. And for that I will be eternally grateful.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.