“Review of Vigen Guroian’s The Fragrance of God” by Rachel Bomberger

Rachel Bomberger
Rachel Bomberger

Rachel Bomberger is Internet marketing manager at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and getting dirt under her fingernails.

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This evening my husband and I will sign a piece of paper stating that we agree to sell our home of nearly four years to a perfect stranger.

I’ve had months to prepare for this moment. We haven’t lived there since February. Nearly all of our worldly goods have been removed from the premises, and the home has been neatly staged and depersonalized to please both the realtors and all the prospective buyers who have been tromping through it lately.

And I think I am — almost — prepared. In fact, I can think of only two parts of our old home that will be hard for me to let go:

  1. the vertical strip of paneling in the children’s old bedroom where we’ve measured their heights since they were toddlers
  2. my gardens

It might be silly for me to feel sad about abandoning those modest but beloved little strips of dirt — but I do. My plants are just now starting to feel really at home there, and here I am leaving them all behind.

The iris bulbs handed down to me by a friend — neither of us knew what color they would turn out to be — have now grown into strong, handsome plants with giant, dark purple blossoms. It will be hard to say goodbye to them.

The clearance-rack Shasta daisies (more than half dead when I stuck them in the ground three years ago) are now so thick that it would have been my joy and duty to dig them up and divide them this year. Would have been. Someone else will do that now.

The dogwood tree we planted the summer after we moved in bloomed for this first time this spring. The once-scraggly daylilies have now crowded in so raucously that they’ve nearly consumed the bed on the north side of the house (as I always hoped they would). The formerly overgrown and woody spirea bushes, after several years of faithful pruning, are now looking healthier and happier than ever, each graceful in its rounded contour. I can only hope the future homeowner will appreciate their beauty as I have.

Perhaps hardest of all to leave behind, though, will be the dirt in my two small vegetable plots. After three seasons of cultivating, mulching, and composting, it’s finally, finally beginning to feel a little like dirt should feel: loose and loamy, dark brown and full of earthworms.

Yes, saying goodbye to my garden will be bittersweet.

The Fragrance of God
The Fragrance of God

Author and master gardener Vigen Guroian understands. In 2001, he and his family left their home (and their gardens) in Reisterstown, Maryland, to begin a new life (and with it, a new garden) in Culpeper, Virginia.

For Guroian, an Orthdox theologian, leaving his old garden behind and cultivating new soil became more than just an opportunity to ponder flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Just as that old garden inspired him to write Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening (which I reviewed here last year), this new garden invited him once again to think deeply about the nature of God and creation, of life and death, of bitter losses and sweet new blessings.

The volume in which he shares this second set of gardening reflections — The Fragrance of God — has been a fitting companion for me during the past few weeks as I, like him, have been busy transferring my own love and loyalty to a new bit of earth.

It helps that Guroian’s writing is a little like the earth itself: cool and dewy like a garden in twilight, its essence made rich and fertile by the patient working in of both his own theological reflections and the wisdom of his beloved church fathers. The words and sentences themselves tell me I can trust him. He speaks the language of the garden.

Reading Guroian makes me long to walk through cultivated grounds barefoot in the quiet part of the day — both through his garden (which sounds lovely) and through my own (even if it mostly still exists only in the imagination); both through the paradise of Eden lost and through the paradise of God’s promised New Creation.

This longing gives me an inkling of what can become the true and unexpected purpose of gardening for those who believe. Those who lovingly tend the garden and seek God there find themselves unearthing and understanding more fully the gracious intention of God for creation. Guroian explains this better than I could:

Anyone who grows a garden has stood amidst sacramental signs of eternal life. On one level, the lesson nature teaches is fairly simple: What looks like death is merely preparation for the regeneration of living things. One needn’t be a supernaturalist to take comfort from this natural procession of life, death, and new life. Yet St. Clement sees nature from the special perspective of Jesus’ resurrection. He is not claiming that nature’s cycles are evidence or proof of eternal life. Rather, he is saying that nature is an epiphany of the resurrecting power of God. What the naturalist sees in nature as proof of its regenerative strength, the Christian embraces as revelation of the power of God to raise us all to life everlasting.

We are not interested merely in nature’s regenerative cycles. Our hope . . . is in the garden that reveals that resurrection of each one of us — indeed, of each of our bodies buried in the ground and raised up on the Last Day. Our Lord said, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24, KJV). And he affirmed this, not only with his words, but also with his death, burial, and resurrection.

It’s almost time to sign the papers now. Now I and my family will begin in earnest the work of transplanting ourselves into a new garden — of burying the roots of young plants in freshly turned soil; of casting our seeds so that they “fall into the ground and die.”

As we tend the new garden, I’ll dig and plant and weed with Guroian’s words spinning through my head, keeping my soul vigilant for the “sacramental signs of eternal life” and my nostrils ever open for The Fragrance of God.

Click here to order The Fragrance of God by Vigen Guroian.