Even if Christ holds the tip of things fast
and stretches eternity clear to the dim souls of men,
is there no link at the base of things
some kernel or air deep in the matrix of matter
from which universe furls like a ribbon twined into time?
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
In summer, Alice’s garden effuses into a green fantasy of tendrils and stems. I had been drafted to help with raspberry picking and was in a philosophical mood. “So what are berries for?” I asked Alice from across the top of the leafy row.
“The berries contain tiny seeds, and their bright color and sweet juices attract birds that nibble at them. Bird droppings containing the seeds help propagate the new plants.”
I lifted the stem of the drooping canes and rolled off a berry between thumb and forefinger. “And why are there thorns?” I inquired.
“Thorns,” Alice answered, “help the plant climb as it fights other plants for sunlight. They also provide protection from predator birds for the small birds that feed on the plant.”
I plucked and pondered. Unaccountably, my mind wandered to a long ago high school classroom in which a group of six high school seniors intently following Fr. Arthur Grisetti as he introduced the topic of natural proofs for the existence of God. The year was 1959 and at the Salesian Junior Seminary in Richmond, California, we wore ties to class and within a year would make the great trek to New Jersey to begin novitiate. Knowledge of God was therefore more than of little interest. Fr. Grisetti told us how the great medieval philosophers had concluded that there could be no effect without a cause, no world without a Creator, and no movement without a Prime Mover. We took notes in anticipation of the day when we would meet a non-believer, and convert him or her to faith through the sheer power of logic.
From time to time the raspberries re-entered this picture. “Why do these things have roots?” I asked.
“The roots pull nutrition the soil up to the leaves, where sunlight and sap feed the plants growth.”
Roots, running just under the surface of the ground, with their millions of root hairs seeking sustenance in the dark moist soil, were particularly intriguing. In our garden they contend with other root systems such as those of an apple tree under whose shade we stood. “And these raspberry plants grow all the time?”
“No, they are seasonal,” Alice explained patiently. “After the frosts come, the raspberry canes die and I cut them to the ground. This makes it easier for the roots to push up new growth in spring. Everything you see growing here is new this year.”
The proofs for the existence of God, with their almost mathematical precision, were particularly reaffirming to impressionable, seventeen year-olds aspiring to the priesthood. In that moment we were truth-seekers joined with other great intellects of the Church: Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. These individuals had coped with the deepest mysteries of life and found them resting in the single creator, the heavenly clockmaker, that we called God. The arguments had seemed clean, so irrefutable. Then years passed, life entered in and the razor sharp edge of logic became dulled by the everyday world of raising children, maintaining relationships, coping with issues of health. The face of our saintly teacher, Fr. Grisetti, had virtually glowed when he expounded the five proofs. But like the proofs, this too was largely forgotten, and with it any understanding of why he had found these ideas so meaningful.
“So why don’t raspberry plants take over the garden?” I asked.
“Nothing, in the garden works by itself,” Alice replied. “They are part of a system in which plants, insects and soil interact and support each other. This year the garden has been particularly successful,” she went on. “Somehow the mix of plants and bugs, has kept back the fungi and boring insects. Some years it does better than others.”
“But it all keeps happening,” I said, as I flipped off another berry, scraping my finger against a thorn. “The raspberry vines come out of the ground year after year shooting out roots and leaves. What drives them, where are they going?”
Alice sighed. “I don’t know,” she said. “Some questions you can’t answer.” With my Tupperware berry container full, I left the green-leafed world and went on to other things. But in succeeding days, my mind frequently returned to the time I had spent in the garden. I have also thought of Fr. Grisetti, and remembered that like Alice, he too had been a compulsive gardener. When not at his desk administering the seminary, he constantly trimmed his roses and potted plants. I wondered if during my time with the garden raspberries, I had not glimpsed something that he had seen, and if somehow my awareness of God and created things had not come full circle.