From a bleeding heart to the resurrection
Many hearts are bleeding at the moment, due to fear, illness and death. If, like myself, we have not been personally affected by the current pandemic, the media reminds us that others are. As Christians, it is important to share the suffering. To be honest, however, there is a different quality to vicarious suffering and all the subtle and varying sensations of personal experience. This is the story of my personal bleeding heart, a story of bliss, truncated, sorrow and regeneration epitomized by this beautiful seasonal bloom.
It is also, very much a story about culture, about the very slow development of my own cultural awareness. Would that I had the acute understanding of a Matteo Ricci, who grasped the implications of Confucianism, and was unphased by them. After thirty years of living with it, it somehow took me by surprise, in the heart of the Catholic church. I was not expecting it, least of all in the church garden.. I should have known that Confucianism, from ancient China, unchanged for a thousand years, is still taught and lived today by every Japanese, including Roman Catholics, parishioners and priests alike. And there’s the rub. Confucianism is in some ways similar to Pharisaism, hierarchical, rule-bound.
What does it have to do with bleeding hearts? This is the story.
I went to church to pick up the liturgy to practice the text I’d been asked to read. Due to the current emergency, fewer people are out and about and no one seemed to be there, although the door was open. Our Lady of Sorrows is a very lovely, peaceful place, about forty years old, surrounded by the much older Franciscan priory and the garden, long ago planted by the monks. There is even a much-loved pine tree brought all the way from Assisi, and kept meticulously clipped.
In the quiet, I felt suspended in time, unlike the usual Sunday rush to be punctual for Nine 0’ clock Mass. I strolled nostalgically around the garden, to see how it was doing, and stopped to contemplate the bleeding heart, heavy with buds about to burst into bloom, on time for Easter.
Five years ago now, I was baptized there. Many things have changed since then. The priest, stricken with cancer, awaits his Maker. My spiritual adviser, in a home, no longer recognizes others. The Spanish nun, Sor Conchita, who’d worked so tirelessly, so joyfully with joyful children, went back home and was not replaced, and the children have left.
The past came flooding back. that feeling of being uplifted, having life filled with lightness and with light after choosing, late in life, to be baptized into the Roman Catholic church.
Soon after my baptism, there was an announcement after Mass: Volunteer gardeners were requested, and I’d put up my hand. The Holy Spirit brought me back to a garden, such as I had loved in childhood. I spent Mondays there, all day until dark, beavering away, sometimes with a colleague, until the last ray of light.
Four years went by, among the happiest time I’d known. When my colleague went home, it was just me, blissfully alone in that mystical garden, until the great bells chimed the evening Angelus and I’d start packing up. I had all the garb, cloven-toe gardening shoes, a “Jesus the gardener” T-shirt, green hat and a special stool sent from America. I was one and at peace with the environment.
I heard about a hierarchy among the parishioners and was sometimes told to check things out with “THE Gardener”, a man I did not know. Occasionally, there would be notifications from “Above”: “Until further notice, there are to be no more flowers around the statue of Our Lady!”. The “Number two” pressed me to use a new power hose, something I was uncomfortable with. It was hard to regulate. I liked the watering cans. But, in for a penny in for a pound, the trees would like a drink in the blistering heat of summer. There was no-one to water on weekdays, would I? I’d come in before work, drink in the fragrance of incense- breathing morn. And by the grace of God, despite rising earlier, sleeping a little less, I found myself with greater energy throughout the day…until…
A meeting would be convened, gardeners were summoned. There had been a water bill, more than usual; I offered to contribute. That was not done! “Gardeners were taking advantage of church property for their private hobbies”.
My colleague, an exceptional woman and mother of two priests, left the meeting in disgust and I was left alone, mortified and unable to defend myself. My time as a gardener and that of my colleague was over.
For two weeks, and in terrible pain, I stayed away. But it is true that when one door closes, others open. I consulted with missionary friends and was invited and warmly welcomed in other churches, further opening my Catholic world to include the Latin and Filipino communities. But still in sorrow, I did go back to the Our Lady of Sorrows. At first, it was too painful to even look at the garden. I kept my eyes firmly on the belfry. There seemed to be a sense of shame among some of the congregation. Strangers came up to me smiling, held our their arms to me, and I was asked to read.
The following year, a parishioner approached me, “Come and see! The Resurrection flower, (a Japanese name for bleeding heart) is in full bloom. You planted her!”
Clearly, hierarchies and those who think they are in power are not in charge. Perhaps with the intercession of Sainte Therese, the Little Flower herself, the garden has survived. A cistern has been installed to collect rainwater, and many of the plants from my days as a gardener insist on flowering, come what may.
The bleeding heart in Our Lady’s garden is a perennial reminder of the Cross, Forgiveness and Resurrection.