Church prayer gardens

Lexington church gardens provide spiritual nourishment

By Lu-Ann Farrar

Herald-Leader Staff WriterJune 15, 2012 

If you come to the garden to be alone, you are not alone.  Since ancient times, people have sought and found a place to pray or meditate in nature. Gardens as a part of religious life go back as far as 313 to St. Antony, who cultivated a garden so he wouldn’t be a burden to others. Early religious communities who lived in self-imposed isolation relied on their gardens for survival. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, “Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.”

Faith communities arolexington gardensund Lexington provide gardens — sometimes in the middle of noisy downtown — that are a quiet place to sit, meditate and pray.

“You want something beautiful and peaceful that provides for meditation … with the whole purpose of having quiet, with connecting to the spiritual side of things,” said Thomas Barnes, an extension wildlife specialist and professor at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s forestry department. Barnes is also author of The Gift of Creation: Images From Scripture and Earth.

Generally, said Barnes, a prayerful place will often have “different stops, with a statue, benches, if you’ve got more land; rocks or fallen trees to make a place to sit.”

Barnes said when designing a prayerful place, incorporate the flora already there. “If you’ve got wooded land, then you can develop woodland flowers. … If a space is small, you can do some intensive things, like putting in a water feature.”  Often, church prayer gardens are created by individuals particularly interested in gardening, either as a vocation or an avocation.

At Rosemont Baptist Church, the garden was developed by Erma Burrus, a member of the church for more than 40 years, and her late husband, Paul.

Paul Burrus had been a research agronomist at the University of Kentucky and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 54 years. Together, they developed the space, which has hosted weddings as well as provided spiritual respite.

“It turned out to be the light of our lives,” said Erma Burrus. “It really was a blessing. We feel like we’ve contributed something that brings joy to everybody. My goal now is to put in more perennials so that legacy keeps going.”

At Faith Lutheran Church, Ann Sabbatine and her friend Eileen Will have worked in the church’s garden.  “She and I have pretty much worked at it by ourselves. It’s just kind of been our thing.”  The garden has been a memorial for family members of both women. Sabbatine’s mother died in 1997, and she and her family thought a garden would be a fitting tribute. When Will’s husband, Bradford, died in 2007, she asked that memorial contributions be made to the Faith Lutheran prayer garden.  Sabbatine’s father died in 2011, and with gifts in his honor, the garden has expanded to include a statue of St. Francis. Among the plants they included is Jacob’s ladder, “because it sounded churchy,” said Sabbatine, and lilies from Easter. Any geraniums left over from decorating the church for Pentecost go into the garden.

At Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary school, the garden provides a place for children to experience God’s wonder.

Linda Rukavina, kindergarten teacher at Mary Queen, said she uses the garden often. “We try to infuse a sense of thankfulness, respect and awareness into everything. … The garden is wonderful for observing the seasons,” said Rukavina. The students put out birdseed, plant tulips, weed and generally care for the garden. The trees on the grounds are home to “squirrels, moths, butterflies, all sorts of mourning doves, cardinals, robins, blue jays, little sparrows. Migratory birds come through. We often have a few beautiful hawks, bunnies.”

These gardens are all open to the public and are visited frequently. But prayerful places are not limited to church gardens.

Barnes identified one: “In Central Kentucky, the most meditative spot is on the top point at the overlook at Raven Run. You can see columbine, the Palisades, birds swooping. I always see people sitting there just being quiet, I almost always see somebody there.”

Wherever the location, prayer gardens can be special places. For Erma Burrus and her late husband, the garden was “something that both of us just loved. When we went early in the morning, after we finished, he liked to sit and look into the garden. Everything is so beautiful that God made, and he just couldn’t understand how people could not be believers.”
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