Cloisters and Priest Gardens

By January 12, 2013 Uncategorized 5 Comments

I have lately developed a moderate obsession with monastery gardens.

Mind you, I always liked monks. I’m a lousy Catholic by any standards—the bit about not actually being a Christian is problematic, and my failure to be confirmed is worse and the fact that I never really liked the Virgin Mary* is REALLY bad—but I retain a soft spot for monks. Franciscans particularly, but St. Benedict apparently also laid down in his Rule that the implements of the garden were to be treated with as much honor as the sacred vessels of the altar. This made me feel warm and fuzzy and then squirm with guilt when I remembered where I’d left the pitchfork.

Lots of monasteries were expected to be self-sufficient and so had very elaborate gardens to feed the monks, provide herbal medicines, and make beer. (See, this is why monks are cool. Nuns are terrifying and awesome but I bet they didn’t get beer.)

The whole homesteading movement sometimes leaves me cold—some parts are really great and I support wholeheartedly, and then suddenly the nice person telling you how to make chive-blossom vinegar begins telling you about how the ATF is coming for the guns and the End Times are upon us and how the hell are you supposed to follow that in a conversation? “Ah…heh…well…uh….so what kind of vinegar was that again?”—but I do like the self-sufficient monastery. Much more sensible than one person trying to do it in the backyard.

It was while digging around reading about monkish gardens that I finally (at thirty-five!) learned what a “cloister” is. I always had a vague notion that it was a box you kept nuns in or something, but in fact, it’s a covered walkway around a (usually square) courtyard. It was covered so your monks and nuns could walk in it in all weather, walking around and meditating or sitting and reading or what have you. The center was usually left as empty grass as a meditation on the unseen divine or something along those lines.

Dude. If I had known that’s what that was, I would have been trying to build one for ages. I think infinitely better when my feet are moving and as a small child would pace back and forth in the backyard, daydreaming. (Sit down, brain stops. Walk, brain starts again. I have gotten somewhat better in that I can now type and think at the same time, but I still have to wander around while talking on the phone.) A covered walkway around a courtyard? For walking and thinking in all weather? I would have killed for one of those!

…mind you, I would put some tomatoes in the center. Divinity is all very well but you waste good full-sun growing space, that’s at least a venial sin. And any god worth worshiping would understand about the tomatoes.

The French have a marvelous version called the jardin de curé or “priest’s garden” which is the very small one-parish-priest version. It was supposed to supplement the priest’s diet with veggies, provide flowers for the altar, and herbs for treating the sick. It’s as informal as a French garden gets, which is to say that it’s still about ten times more formal than mine, but still pretty laid back for the type—paths laid out in a cross, religious icon in the center, boxwood edging for the beds. Boxwood was always grown for use on Palm Sunday and was often used to sprinkle holy water. Many of these gardens also had religiously themed areas—plants grown because of their association with Mary, for example. (There’s an excellent little article about them here, which includes the sad fact that in this day and age, the jardin de curé is nearly extinct. Too few curés apparently.)

This appeals to me greatly, and if the topography of my garden had not completely ruled that out, I would be laying out cross shaped beds right this minute.

I have no idea why I like this so much. You already know my feelings on Mary and my idea of a medicinal herb is vodka, but still…something about the whole thing just pokes me right in the hindbrain going “This! This! Like that! Yeah! That’s awesome!” Possibly Catholicism has a genetic component unrelated to the actual faith, which would explain a few things when you think about it. I haven’t the least interest in going to a Catholic church, but the idea of building a Catholic garden causes something to punch me in the back of the head.

Maybe it’s just any spiritually themed garden, and you just don’t see many Protestant gardens out there. (Unitarians, I imagine, do a lot of gardening. It’s probably all community plots and organic vegetables, too. More power to ’em, sez I.)

Although I couldn’t do a Zen garden. Getting the weeds out of the raked gravel in this climate would leave me anything but Zen. Catholicism seems to keep coming up by default.

I’ve already got the boxwood, valiantly as I have tried to slay it. And while you will find no representations of St. Fiacre, patron of gardeners (who was a total dick to women) there’s at least a half-dozen icons of St. Francis in the house. Kevin is a fan. You don’t feed birds and do cat rescue without developing a certain appreciation of Francis. And there’s a couple of Frida Kahlo, who is at least 30% religious icon by now.  Mind you, I’ve got not one but two statues of Ganesh out in the garden, so I’m probably covered on the religious icon front, and I imagine Ganesh and Francis would get along just fine as long as they kept the conversation to the care and feeding of small animals and large elephants.

I’m not sure what I’d do about the medicinal herbs. Perhaps I should just pick very obscure medicines. For example, I recently learned that Virginia iris was used by the Seminole Indians to treat “shock following alligator-bite.” I can’t cure the common cold, but you get bit by an alligator, I can hook you up.***

Probably can’t manage the cloister. But man, if they ever make the blockbuster Dragonbreath movie and I have a bizillion dollars, I am so building one in my dream home…




*I don’t know why. It’s not just her, I suppose, I never had much interest in any mother goddess figure.** Blame it on my utter lack of any maternal instincts whatsoever. I know it’s all vital mythological stuff, but it left me cold. Isis didn’t do it for me either. And Mary never DID anything. There were lots of saints with interesting lives that you could totally get into, and instead everybody’s ga-ga over Mary, whose chief claim to fame was virginity and apparently did nothing much of interest beyond that point. At least Isis went wandering around turning into a bird and engaging in recreational necrophilia. I don’t blame anyone for being boring, but something about Mary just rubbed very young me the wrong way.

**Except Freya. Freya had a cloak of feathers and Valkyries. If Mary had Valkyries, I might still be Catholic.

***My apologies to my readers at BWG who had to read this factoid twice, but seriously, that is just so COOL!