The Fragrance of God
by Vigen Guroian.
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 128 pp., $13.00 paper, 2006.
As we travel along the highway, our eyes dart to the right and to the left, searching for and sometimes glimpsing for a fleeting moment a garden glistening in the morning sun, or a side road that turns off in a charming bend, or a quiet home at dusk with a lamp shining through the curtains. But we are “late, late, for a very important date”; and we cannot stop. We keep moving, and our hearts keep searching.
There is one who has found another way to the goal. In his work, The Fragrance of God, Vigen Guroian has composed an ode to a life that is lived, in the phrase of Yeats, “rooted in one dear perpetual place” even as the tide pulls the sand from under our feet and causes us to step away. How does he do it?
Guroian, professor of theology, has chosen for the book’s theme an image that he loves: the garden. In a series of essays that he has woven into one around this theme, it becomes apparent that the garden is not just one image of many, but the image that best encompasses for Guroian the mysteries and goal of earthly life. As the author tells the reader, “Every garden is an image and a sacrament of the One Garden, our lost home of innocence, henceforth our inheritance.” Because he is a true gardener himself as well as a professor, Guroian has a deep love for the soil, the seeds, and the plants that grow and blossom and then fade in their seasons; and he is able with the sure instinct of a poet to intuit the transcendent dimension which is expressed in every flower and at every stage. Like Adam, he has worked the soil of Paradise, and in his book he shows the reader how to enter as well.
The Fragrance of God is comprised of a Preface and seven essays, or, in his own term, meditations. In the Preface, Guroian describes his lifelong love for gardening and the five years during which he wrote, as his family moved from one beloved home and garden to a new home where he would work to create a new garden. The meditations have been arranged so as to follow the course of the natural year, and the intuitions and insights also follow the human course through life.
The first essay, which gives the book its title, sets the tone with its opening scripture that begins “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ” (2 Cor 2:15). His own experience has led Guroian to believe that “smell, not sight, is the most mystical sense.” He substantiates that belief with personal insights as well as with a generous number of quotations from religious sources. Indeed, the themes of the entire book surround references like good soil worked into place by a master gardener. Coming as he does out of the Eastern Christian tradition, Guroian has arrayed for his readers selections from that poetic and inspired world as well as from Western religious and nature writers, with a list of Sources Cited at the end of the work for further consultation and reference.
In “The Ecological Garden” Guroian meditates on what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “the dearest freshness deep down things” to show that the Fall had real effects but that the holiness of creation remains and that man can work toward the New Creation. “Gardening is a metaphor and a sacramental sign of that wondrous work of resurrection wrought by God in Jesus Christ.” The act of gardening, labor that brings new life out of the dust, is a metaphoric equivalent expressing the labor of Christ on the Cross transforming mortal dust into the Christ-life of the blessed. Gardening is also sacramental, a present and tangible sign of the promised new garden in paradise.
“Why We Garden” is full of down-to-earth description of the experience and rhythms of gardening, combined with the insight that God, who in the beginning created the earth as a garden, also sent into our world Christ, who was buried in a garden. “No wonder at the empty tomb, Christ came to Mary Magdalene as the gardener (John 20:15). For he is the Master Gardener, and we, we are his apprentices as well as the subjects of his heavenly husbandry.”
In the chapter “On Leaving the Garden,” Guroian describes in loving detail what was left behind when his family moved to a new home, as well as the work involved in establishing a new garden. In his reflections he returns to the Fall, the source of laborious drudgery; then he speaks of divine love that gave us a Gardener who works very hard to re-create Paradise for his people and who is himself, through the wood of the Cross, known as the Tree of Life.
“Beauty in the Garden” opens up the imagery of the New Creation to include the animal world in a remembrance of the author’s joyful outdoor companion, his dog Scarlett. Guroian believes that “Scarlett loved beauty also. I believe that love moved her to linger in the garden, to chase after the butterflies, and to consume beauty when she caught it.” His “constant companion in the garden” opens to him thoughts on beauty because “Scarlett herself was beauty.” Those thoughts leap up to heaven and to the transformation of the world.
In the sixth of his seven essays, “The Temple Transparent,” the reader is taken to the cold season of the year, when “the entire Blue Ridge rises transfigured.” Liturgically, in wintertime the “naked babe,” the childof Mary, is seen as God made visible. Nature, for the author, is parallel with its winter beauty the vehicle somehow revealing the purified life which the babe has come to bring to the world. During this season when the feast of the Presentation in the Temple is around the corner, Guroian strolls along a secret path behind his yard to find himself, by the bright stream at the bottom, “as if I had entered a house of light.” He becomes like “old Simeon, stripped of age and weakness, refreshed by clean water,…spirited by joy into the temple.”
The last chapter, “Resurrection Garden,” is addressed to his mother, Grace Guroian, to whom he has also dedicated this book and whom he calls “the grace of my life.” The stroke which she suffered leads him into deep winter thoughts about death and the rebirth of spring. “What makes so many modern people think that immortal life is disincarnate existence? Do they detest this world that much? Is it that they despair that love abides? Or perhaps they don’t spend time enough in a garden?”
Even the cover and jacket of this little volume are beautiful. It is a book to keep close by, a book to give to someone you value.
Cathleen MacDougall has a doctorate in Classical Studies and is caretaker of the H. H. Dow House in the Dow Gardens, Midland, Michigan.