Late in Lent I planted roses.
Back in the dead of winter, when I was curled up on the sofa under a plaid wool blanket with a fire in the fireplace and the most beautiful flower catalog in the world on my lap, visions of floral loveliness danced before my eyes, and it seemed like an eminently reasonable and excellent idea to order eight bare root roses.
At the end of March I got an email letting me know my roses had shipped and would be delivered in five days.
And suddenly I realized that the woman on the sofa had been a total raving lunatic. Who in their right mind orders eight bare root roses??? That was eight holes I was going to have to dig! Eight big holes. Through hardpan. What on earth had I been thinking?
But it was too late. The roses had shipped. So I conscripted my kids, grabbed some shovels, and started digging big ole holes. It took us the better part of a week to get the holes dug, and then it took me the better part of another week to get the roses into the ground.
Meanwhile, Coronavirus was ravaging the planet. As I dug holes and shoveled in fresh soil and backfilled around the bare roots of the roses, I felt a little guilty. It seemed inappropriate, even frivolous, to be planting roses in the middle of a pandemic. People were sick and dying, and I was digging holes and playing in my garden and (dare I say?) happy.
The harpies loved it. ‘Happy?’ they harped. ‘How can you be happy? People are dying.’ Like they care. But they sound so righteous, so full of just ire, even as they dive in for the kill and start tearing you to pieces.
Thank God, the harpies are no longer the only voices in my head. In recent years I have developed an inner Socrates, and he said to me, “Last year 53,000 people died of the flu in this country. Another 37,000 people died in car accidents. And how many people died of cancer? Or cardiac arrest? Or a thousand other causes? And yet you planted roses a year ago and felt no guilt at all. What is the difference?”
Unlike the harpies, who ask questions like this in order to make me feel like a horrible excuse for a human being, Socrates asked it without judgment, with genuine curiosity: what is the difference?
And I had to admit, the only real difference between last year and this year is awareness. Life was just as uncertain last year as it is this year, but it feels different. Last year the deaths from flu and car accidents and cancer were far away. They didn’t affect me or anyone I knew. This year Coronavirus is affecting us all. Even people like me, who aren’t ill and whose lives are relatively unchanged by the quarantine, are aware that people are sick; some are losing their lives; others, their livelihoods. We are aware that instability and chaos are a lot closer than we used to think.
But when eight bare root roses appear on your porch in the middle of a pandemic, what do you do?
You plant them. What else can you do? Leave them in the box and let them die? How would that help anyone?
So you dig holes and you mix good soil with the clay you dug out of those holes and you bury the roots of the roses in that mix. You feel the sun on your back as you work and you water the stubby green stems sticking out of the ground and you think how wonderful it is that beautiful flowers are going to grow out of those thorny little stubs; if you didn’t know it was so, you wouldn’t believe it.
And you pray. “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or weep this day… Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”
It is a prayer you have been praying for years, but it seems especially appropriate now, in this season in which you are suddenly aware just how many sick and dying and suffering there are. It is a gift you can offer on behalf of those who are working and weeping and watching, on behalf of those who are sick and dying and suffering. It is a gift you can give again and again and again, with every shovelful of dirt, every filling and emptying of the watering can.
And when those roses bloom, perhaps later this summer, you will know that they were watered with prayer, and so each flower will itself be a prayer and also a call to prayer. Year after year when those roses bloom, they will remind you to pray—and they will remind you to hope. They will remind you that even though life is frail, it is also resilient. It is always finding a way to blossom and flourish. You will remember those stubby little stems and the clay mixed with the good soil and the fact that you forgot to water them for a whole week after they were planted and you will marvel at the beauty that has emerged from rather unpromising conditions.
In the meantime, it is Easter, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, the season that promises life beyond death, life right in the midst of death. And though we are all still living in quarantine and uncertainty, even now, that life is stirring. I see hints of it in the flowers and trees that are bursting into bloom everywhere I look. I hear echoes of it in the birdsong that fills the air. And I see the hope of it in those thorny little stubs that line the side of my deck. They are little flags in the ground reminding me of God’s promise in Christ that from the ugliness, barrenness, and ashes of this present time will spring new life beyond all we can ask or imagine.
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