It was the sweetest, most mysterious-looking place any one could imagine. The high walls which shut it in were covered with the leafless stems of roses which were so thick, that they matted together…. ‘No wonder it is still,’ Mary whispered. ‘I am the first person who has spoken here for ten years.(1)
Across the landscape of Old World Europe, travelers discover a common design: the delight of the enclosed garden, tucked away in the heart of places where people live. From aristocratic manor homes to peasant cottages, the enclosed garden is evident. The transforming power of such a place is captured beautifully in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic story, The Secret Garden, in which imperious Mary and sickly Colin find springtime freshness and health as they explore the enclosed secret garden of Misselthwaite Manor in the Yorkshire moors. To this day, you can find enclosed gardens attached to grand manor homes and castles all across the face of Europe. But you will also discover small fenced-in gardens attached to cottages and old stone homes, places where people have been growing their own vegetables and flowers for centuries. I do not know the origin of the European enclosed garden. I do know of an Italian monk from the 6th century, Benedict, who set aside space within the architecture of the monastery for silence, prayer and natural beauty. Among monks, such a place is known as the cloister, an enclosed garden where beauty grows.
As I’ve retreated to Benedictine monasteries across the North American continent and across Europe, I’ve always found an enclosed garden, a cloister, a space for silence and natural beauty to fill the soul. What’s remarkable about the cloister is how little ever happens there. In the middle of the architectural plans for a community, some wise designer set aside a place for the absence of activity, a space where next to nothing happens. A wise design. The ancient planners of monasteries, like the designers of manor homes, recognized something that most contemporary folks have forgotten: the quiet of nature refreshes our souls. More and more, even in corporate America, designers are recognizing the need of the human soul, the need for a place of natural beauty, a place where little if anything ever happens.
Come along and we’ll go visit a European cloister garden. The place is on the northwest coast of France, a tidal monolith known as Mont Saint Michel. High atop the rock perches a Benedictine monastery founded in the eighth century, now a United Nations World Heritage site. Leave behind the dozens of tour busses and hundreds of cars parked at the edge of the sea in the expansive parking lot. Walk through the medieval walls of this tidal island into the busy village marketplace. Ignore all the hawkers and shop keepers hustling their tourist trinkets and locally crafted wares. Head up the cobblestone pedestrian street, then further up stone switchbacks and stairways. Enter through the great gate of the monastery. You’re in for a good climb. Move on up through the outer courtyards, through great rooms, up more stairwells, past the scriptorium along the northern face, along stone pathways higher and higher up until you come upon the high courtyard just outside the Abbey Church. Instead of heading through the high arched doorway into the sanctuary, find the narrow pathway that leads along the eastern walls overlooking the mainland. Come through a narrow door and step into the jewel of Mont Saint Michel, the cloister garden. Perched over 200 feet above the sea below, surrounded by an arched cloister walkway, the small enclosed garden invites weary travelers to come and rest. Take off your shoes. Feel the cool grass between your toes and the warm sun on your face. Sit and bask in the natural beauty of the cloister. Do what pilgrims have done for more than a thousand years: rest your weary soul. Do nothing. This place invites us into a strange new way of living.
Sit still here in the secret garden of the soul and listen. Soak in the quietness. Rest for a time. For all who have found their way to that interior cloister garden, while you bask in the sun and quiet of that place, offer your own invitation to others in the form of a prayer of blessing for all weary travelers who haven’t yet found their way inward on spiritual pilgrimage into the secret garden of the soul.
(1) Francis Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1998), 78-79.