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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel

There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »

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The Sanctuary Garden: Creating a Place of Refuge in Your Yard or Garden


The Sanctuary Garden: Creating a Place of Refuge in Your Yard or Garden Cover




Chapter 1

The Garden as Sacred Place

We may have to learn again the mystery of the garden: how its external characteristics model the heart itself, and how the soul is a garden enclosed, our own perpetual paradise where we can be refreshed and restored.

Thomas Moore

The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life

There is a theology is a theology to gardening that few of us consider, but to understand this theology means relinquishing much control — our arsenal of books, techniques, tools, chemicals, fertilizers, fancy hybrids, and expectations. Yet, that is exactly what we must do if we are to fully embrace a more spiritual form of gardening. As a part of Nature we must learn to enter our garden as if it were truly sacred, we must learn to enter with humility.

The garden itself is not fully Nature, for Nature is much more untamed and powerful. Nature is for the most part indifferent to our human will, and a gardens walls are just not high enough to keep out the will of Nature.

I have seen Naturefly over our garden fence as a seed to unexpectedly plant itself next to the maple tree. Each spring I notice when She journeys from another part of the Earth as a swallow to nest within the fir next to my writing studio. Her rain crosses oceans, mountains, and plains to pour mineral-rich nourishment into the soil. As a mole, She burrows beneath the gate from the adjacent field, to make a summer home by the strawberries. And, late in the day, I have seen Her cast an orange sunset glow from the horizon onto the wisteria arbor. These faces of Nature do not depend upon a garden to conduct their daily or seasonal ritual, nor do they acknowledge human boundaries.

As gardeners, however, we do enclose Nature. And we do call it our garden, but in so doing how many of us realize the opportunity we have to create an extraordinary partnership between ourselves and the Earth?

One of the most powerful examples of our relationship to the land came to me when witnessing the end of the war in Bosnia. I wastouched to learn that the first act of many of the citizens of Sarajevo after the war was to till and plant their gardens. This in itself was a brave gesture, one full of trust that, after many previously short-lived truces, the war could now truly be called over. Imagine the value of that little plot of Nature in each householder's life, and the sense of safety they must have felt despite recent horrors. Elevated to a critical symbol of survival for body and spirit, we could even say the garden was a sacred place worth fighting for. To be sure, the gardens of the citizens of Sarajevo signified hope, security, peace. And, in this sense, each garden was a sanctuary.

When Tricia and I began gardening we were, in a way, reclaiming a spiritual relationship with the Earth. It is not by accident that about the time we began our efforts we were deeply affected by the philosophy of Saint Francis. Francis's Canticle for Brother Sun and Sister Moon reflected our love and passion for Nature and God, but it wasthe ancient French word, cortese, that best exemplified our intentions. Cortese literally means manners, or specifically the behavior and etiquette expected of one who serves at a noble court. The most obvious English translation is "courtesy," but courtesy today has a more superficial meaning than it did long ago. The original use of the word cortese was to describe nobility of character and conduct, that is, the recognition of rights, duties, gifts, and privileges as they exist in a reciprocal relationship.

Standing amidst our garden, the breath of long-forgotten spirits calling out through the surrounding towering firs, Tricia and I were transported to a whole other way of living on Earth. Not just in our garden, we discovered, but in our marriage, family, friendships, service to others, and our relationship to the Divine. Each day became a journey into the garden of our soul, and this Cortesian philosophy reacquainted us with an old philosophy of oneness with all of life on Earth. It is quite significant that the first ornament we brought to our land was a statue of St. Francis, where to this day in our meadow it has weathered the many seasons of our actions and the rhythmic flow of Nature.

Clearly, the creation of a Sanctuary Garden is just one step toward honoring a different vision of the world. A Cortesian philosophy, expressed through the concept of sanctuary, reconnects us with something very soulful about life on Earth. It asks us to consciously consider establishing a covenant that helps to answer this key question: "How can I live on Earth today so that my life and all other life is served well?"

We believe the answer to this question lies in embracing love and goodwill. Love in its Earthly manifest form must surely be the Nature which enfolds our total beingness both inwardly and outwardly. Love is the garden we grow in and the garden that grows within our soul. If we forget Nature, we forget how to love, and in forgetting how to love, we forget how to garden.


The story of gardening is not too different from that of sanctuary. Almost every culture on Earth has a creation myth that embodies a paradise or safe haven. Many cultures describe this paradise in terms of a garden wherein dwells peace and harmony among all creatures and vegetation. In fact, the word paradise comes from the 2400 year old Persian word pairi-daeza, meaning "beautiful fenced-in garden."

Theologian Matthew Fox speaks of the "original blessing" of creation, as it is characterized in the mythical Garden of Eden. Part of the mystique of this blessing of creation is the idea of sacred enclosure, suggesting the safety of a Divine Matrix. This sense of sacred containment is just as valid when describing our garden as it is in describing our human body, planet Earth, or even the form of a tree, rock, or animal. Each form of life, therefore, can be seen as a type of sanctuary, a haven into which the energy of Nature and God is poured as an act of love.

When you createa garden with deep intent, you are creating a sacred place in which, like the Divine, you can pour out your love, creativity and compassion. You are, in a sense, creating a small sanctuary in which your soul and the soul of the world may dwell. This sanctuary garden becomes your own creation story to nurture within the body of this Earth — your form of Eden. And, as this paradise grows outside, so it grows as well within your heart.

In many respects, sanctuary cannot be defined adequately in plain physical terms, for it resides both within the soul and in the world. We find it sometimes as grace during the day — a special place or relationship that comforts us, regenerates our spirit, and deepens our connection to life. But we also find sanctuary outside of time and place. In sanctuary we can re-experience a natural religion removed from human dogma, conflict, or argument. Benches become pews, trees become preachers, and the choir of flowers sing in great joy to the wind's organ voice. Mountain gardens — those intimate and expansive wild-flower meadows, boulder-strewn amphitheaters, brooks, and lakeside waysides — are ancient sanctuaries. But even in our backyard we can hear and witness God naturally outside our backdoor — between our toes, warm on our skin, abuzz.

If you create a Sanctuary Garden in your life, remember why you are doing so. It has something to do with nurturing peace within and without, with fostering a relationship in a special place, even if it is simply a chair sitting on your porch or balcony with a few potted plants. Let that be your Sanctuary Garden. The purity of your devotion and intention is what matters, and not what other people think. When you practice reverence for life, nonjudgement, and compassion, you are giving of yourself to bring more joy, beauty, hope, and peace into the world. By embracing your sacredness you are prepared to embrace the sacredness of the world. Do these things and you become the Keeper of your garden, and the Keeper of your soul.

The beginning, for each of us, of our spiritual reconstruction is a reverential treatment of life. Reverence, in and of itself, emerges as a deeper understanding of the ecology of place, of Earth, and of ourselves. It is not only a principle of understanding and receiving the beauty of the world. It is a principle of appropriate behavior. Reverence for life means re-enchantment with the world and celebration of the miracle of its creation.


The concept of the hearth is sorely missing in modern culture, commonly replaced by the blue glow of television and its mute observers. Although the idea of a hearth is often attached to a fireplace, it is probably the feeling a hearth evokes that gives it great value. The hearth is a place where interaction, communication, and sharing is alive: the telling of stories, the teaching and construction of handicrafts between generations, the sense of communion and safety. It is a sacred place where the feeling of family, home, land, friends, thoughts, and God renews hope.

Hearth is a powerful symbol. Now, imagine a place where beings, species, vegetation, and natural elements such as water, wind, light, and sound are honored. Your Sanctuary Garden, whether you realize it or not, is like a home, and can become a welcome hearth.

In this one word — hearth — we see several words that remind us of a more noble way of living and being of service on Earth. First, there is the very word earth, to remind us that this Earth and the soil out of which everything seems to grow is a sanctuary itself worthy of honoring. We also see in hearth the words ear and hear, to remind us of our human duty as Keepers to listen and be aware of the needs of all beings, species, and spirits. The word art is also there to remind us of that which seizes and arrests our soul — the artistry, craft, beauty, and thrift that is Nature and the creative expression of humans. And finally, there is heart, as in heartfelt. It is truly the feeling and thinking heart that can remind and lead us continuously to a higher self that is hopeful, reverent, gracious, humble, honoring, courteous, and respectful.

When you ponder the creation of your Sanctuary Garden, you are setting in motion spiritual energy. This is the natural outcome of defining a boundary or location with reverent intent, and creating what the ancient Greeks called temenos, or "sacred enclosure." Like a hearth or shrine, it becomes empowered by repeated visits, by good deeds, by the desire to honor the nature of spirit and the spirit of Nature in their most simple or complex forms.

Your garden, therefore, as simple or complex as you desire it to be, contains a spirit reflective of the marriage between human and Nature. Created as a sanctuary, it is a safe haven between you, the Earth, and the Divine. It is of Nature. It is of Spirit. It is of body and soul that creates a spiritual bond between human and Nature.

We have found that one of the first and most important gestures in establishing a Sanctuary Garden is defining its place and honoring it with a name. The simplicity or extravagance of a garden is not important in its naming, although the mere mention of the White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle in England conjures up images of one of the most revered and imitated gardens in the world. Let your garden's name represent your fondness for Nature. Consider having a sign made with your garden's name on it to hang near the entrance.

We named our sanctuary and gardens Cortesia to reflect our reverence for life. After you give your garden a name, we encourage you to create a ceremony that gives birth to its setting. You may even wish to create a journal in your sanctuary's name, and to chronicle the history of your relationship to it. On a stormy winter day, your garden stories can make wonderful reading by the warmth of a fire, and they can serve to rekindle fond memories.

Product Details

Creating a Place of Refuge in Your Yard or Garden
McDowell, Christopher Forrest
Clark-mcdowell, Tricia
Mcdowell, Christopher For
Clark-McDowell, Tricia
McDowell, C. Forest
New York, NY :
Garden Design
Sanctuary gardens
General Gardening
Edition Description:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
9.25 x 7.375 in 13.728 oz

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Arts and Entertainment » Architecture » Landscape Architecture
Home and Garden » Gardening » General
Home and Garden » Gardening » Metaphysical
Metaphysics » Nature Wisdom

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