Friday, January 20, 2012

Gardens of God

Sealing Room in Manti Temple
I spent a morning this week in the LDS temple in St. Louis. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, temple worship forms the pinnacle of our religious devotion. Like Solomon’s temple in ancient Israel, temples represent our finest workmanship, our most beautiful architecture. While pondering in the temple, I thought of joy and rejoicing, of beauty and God’s presence, of gardens, and of the tools of creation.

The Lord intends for us to live with joy and rejoicing. In fact, in 2 Nephi 2:25 (in the Book of Mormon) we read that “men are that they might have joy.” Through Isaiah, the Lord commands, “But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create.” (Isaiah 65:18)

To the end that we might experience this joy, the Lord created this earth and beautified it. He gave nature not just function but also form and beauty. God left a bit of Himself in the beauty of His creations. Through that beauty, we touch the divine, whether it is in the stretch of moonlight across a quiet lake or through the ethereal song of a wild bird.

Places of beauty figure prominently in the Lord’s plan for His children, with gardens forming the backdrop for pivotal events. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve walked and talked with God, enjoying His presence in their innocence. In Eden, He gave them the gift of agency, and they used that agency to set the Lord’s plan of salvation in motion.

Transgression made it necessary for Adam and Eve to leave the garden, and forever after humans have experienced the tension between garden and wilderness, between the peace of the Lord's presence and the weeds of everyday life. We learn our greatest lessons in the wilderness of our trials, and we grow stronger as we struggle to reach spaces of beauty and peace. The gardens pull us forward. The wilderness shapes us.

The Savior, Himself, atoned for our sins first in a garden. Though strengthened by His Father’s presence there, he bled from every pore as He struggled beneath the weight of the sins and pains of billions of his brothers and sisters. Then the Savior left the Garden of Gethsemane, only to suffer all that pain a second time in the foul air of Golgotha, for a time utterly alone. It was critical to the plan that He accomplish this part of the atonement outside of God’s presence.

Window at the Carmel of the Holy Trinity
Finally, as the early morning sun stretched over yet another garden, Jesus rose from the dead, bringing hope to a world languishing in darkness. A lovely stained glass window at the Carmel of the Holy Trinity in Spokane, Washington (right) depicts the scene outside the garden tomb. In fact, we owe much of our understanding of religion to the artists and composers who have brought the scriptures to life through the centuries.

Medieval theologians believed that light, as the first act of God's creation, represented the purest manifestation of divine presence. For hundreds of years, artisans have carefully crafted stained glass windows designed to bring that divine light into the worship services of churches throughout the world. Other artists bring beauty through music, dance, poetry, sculpture. Ordinary people live lives of beauty that inspire those around them.

When we create, particularly when we create beauty, we access the spark of God within us. We draw on inspiration and form a partnership with the Creator. At the same time, on those occasions when our creations approach true beauty, they provide a vehicle for the audience to step into the presence of God, if only for an instant.

AXIS Dance Company
Years ago, I sat in a dark theater on New Year's Eve, enjoying Burlington, Vermont's First Night celebration and ready to applaud any event that kept me out of the frigid New England air for a few minutes. The curtain opened, and I sat back in my chair, stunned. A group of dancers, some disabled and some not, kept me entranced for the next half an hour with one of the most profoundly moving dance performances I have ever experienced. Lines between traditional dancer and disabled dancer blurred. Fear and pain and stigma melted away, leaving just the aching beauty of the dance. No sellout performance of the New York City Ballet could have touched my soul more deeply.

I ponder my own opportunity to create moments of beauty for those around me. I no longer dance, and I never claimed any ability to bring canvas or stained glass to life. All the same, I can find my own tools, my own way to live a life of beauty. St. Francis of Assisi said simply, "God is beauty." I look to reach toward God, to build gardens in my life.

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