Garden In The East:
The Spiritual Life of the Body.
Angela Doll Carlson
Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon
I’ve spent more than four decades bouncing around Evangelicalism. The movement, disparate as it can be, has been remarkably effective at proclaiming to me that faith resides primarily in my mind (what I think) and in my heart (what I feel).
Evangelicalism has had a fraught relationship with the body. In reaction to a hypersexualized culture, the movement has responded with an intense focus on modesty and sexual purity. On the other hand, Evangelicalism has aped popular culture’s worship of a particular kind of youthful body, selling dozens of books, videos, and seminars about Bible diets, Christian weight-loss programs, and gospel-music exercise programs while simultaneously maintaining an arms’-length relationship with issues of aging, suffering, and death. The message has been that our bodies are simply biodegradable containers for the more important parts of us: our hearts, minds, and souls. In other words, some parts of our lives are more imago dei than others.
Orthodox writer Angela Doll Carlson challenges this stinkin’ thinkin’ not by doing direct battle with these sour ideas, but by exploring the many metaphors embedded in the rhythm of a growing garden in her book Garden In The East: The Spiritual Life of the Body. She writes, “It’s a popular notion, this idea that the body is a machine or a race car, whether fine-tuned or failing. But my body reveals to me a much different story. I am not metal-made but organic and alive. If I am a spirit in a vessel, then that vessel is most decidedly more clay than contraption, more soil than soldered, more plant than plastic.”
Interestingly, Carlson is not an expert gardener, but rather a keen observer who has been nourished and inspired by the growth process of living things throughout her life. As she now finds herself in the throes of midlife, she is arrested by the changes in her body: thickening waist, aches and pains, and physical weariness take root where vigor once flourished. Carlson describes the shock of realizing there is no return to the once-lithe and energetic body of her youth. She wrestles her way to a place of full embrace for who she is now:
Sometimes it seems that I woke up and found myself here all of a sudden, living this middle-aged version of myself. I catch sight of this body, this secret garden, in the mirror, and I am surprised. It is wild and untended but alive, so very alive. In The Secret Garden, Mary finds the key to this wild place buried, long forgotten. This realization, this discover that I am so very alive, is the key, unearthed. The decision to love this one body I’ve been given, the decision to care for it well.
Most everything in popular culture (as well as Evangelical subculture) conspires to teach us to hate our bodies, or at least to live in a strange sort of truce with them. Carlson names and confronts the temptations toward this sort of toxicity. She deals throughout the book with disordered body image. Not the kind that drives people to mental illness, but the garden-variety stuff most women face – those muffin tops and dimpled thighs that mark us in this world as less-than. When the photoshopped, styled, chemically- and surgically-enhanced supermodel or pop star is the ideal, the rest of us are prone to an unending stream of negative self-talk, quick-fix diets, or exercise programs motivated by comparison to an imaginary icon of perfection instead of seeking balance, joy, and health. “The real and true story of health and wellness, as it pertains to my life and this garden, is the one I write with the One who made me,” she writes.
The process of gardening – tilling and aerating hard-packed soil, planting seeds and leggy little seedlings, watering and weeding, harvesting – is an apt descriptor of the spiritual and intellectual growth process as well as a commentary about the beauty of what is happening in our always-changing bodies. True health in all areas, Carlson reminds us, requires persistent, attentive cultivation. While some may call this level of attention self-indulgence, Carlson’s work challenges us to rethink our definitions of self-indulgence. Those who start the day with an on-the-run breakfast of three donuts and a super-sized Mountain Dew from the gas station and those who spend two hours a day at the gym sculpting their bodies into extreme shapes both may be inclined to true self-indulgence.
Carlson is writing about a whole, integrated, and flourishing approach to life, even as she addresses topics including comparison, setbacks, and balanced eating. As she learns to love her own midlife body, she calls her readers to cherish their lives and bodies instead of warring with them:
The challenge of the autumn season depends on the planting of the spring and the summer. The chorus of “if only I had known” starts as a whisper here. In the autumn I start to see the effects of gravity and time. I may still think, in moments, that I’m in the summertime body. Perhaps, given good genes and planning, some are still there, but for me, this is the season in which I settle into an uneasy partnership with my body…This body, this autumn body, is full and giving. It is tragic when we overlook that truth for the vapid lie we hear, that we “ought” to be thinner or richer or have poutier lips. If we’re willing in this autumn body to see, instead, the reds and the golds that we’re sending into the streets, the yards, the oceans, the mountainside – can you imagine the possibilities of that?
Thanks to this gracious and inviting meditation, I am beginning to do just that.
Michelle Van Loon is the author of the recent book Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith. You can find her online at: MichelleVanLoon.com