Some gardeners like to show off their dahlias or tomatoes. Vigen Guroian prefers to speak of garden relationships--connections to his ancestors and the days of his youth, with the natural order of the world, with his centuries-old religious heritage.
He believes that working the earth has brought him closer to God.
"Gardening is nearer to godliness than theology," Guroian likes to say.
In his back yard in Reisterstown, Md., he points out the colors, textures, tastes and aromas of divinity emanating from his flower, herb and vegetable beds. He extols the marigold flower that tastes like lemon and holds up a sprig of one of his favorite herbs, proclaiming: "When I smell rosemary, I feel like I'm in church. Doesn't it smell like incense?"
Guroian, 51, is a professor of theology and ethics at Loyola College in Baltimore and is a lay member of the Armenian Orthodox Church. For him, gardening is a form of meditation, but one that is more active than passive. The role of a gardener is "not just seeing, but doing and smelling," he said while giving a private tour on a splendid clear day after a much-needed rain.
In 1991, Guroian and his family--wife June Vranian, an interior designer, now 49, and two children, Rafi, 20, and Victoria, 17--moved into a plain, 1970s-style house in suburbia. Since then, he has created seven garden spaces on three-fifths of an acre, all set against a backdrop of white pines and Douglas firs he calls the "tall cathedral walls."
A prolific garden next to the back porch provides a ready supply of herbs for cooking. "Oh, man, do I use it! I do most of the cooking," he said.
A meditation garden, with an antique wooden bench and a sculpture of the Archangel Gabriel under a massive pear tree, encourages peaceful reflection. A "mystical" flagstone path wanders toward raspberry vines through beds of bloodroot, salvia, columbine, hosta and iris. Other beds are home to tulips and other flowers, grasses and azaleas and flowering shrubs.
A fenced 16-by-40-foot vegetable garden produces cool- and warm-season vegetables spring through fall: broccoli, peas, cucumbers, bell peppers, beets, corn, squash, leeks, pole beans and tomatoes.
A lifelong gardener, Guroian said his plantings haven't always been so varied. For most of his adult life, the theologian-ethicist was primarily a vegetable gardener. But with "the onset of middle age," about the time he turned 40, he added flowers, shrubs and other ornamental plants.
It was then, too, that his theories of the "connectedness" of gardening, history and the spiritual life began to crystalize, he said. He had become depressed, in part because of the realization that he "no longer was bearing fruit like I once did." He also was profoundly affected by a tragic 1998 earthquake in Armenia that killed more than 25,000 people--though none of his family.
A trip to Armenia helped him confront his grief and to reconnect with his ethnic roots. Returning to his wife and children here, he said, renewed his appreciation of life. And an especially productive vegetable garden in 1989 helped revive his spirit and his passion for gardening.
"I saw the world differently," he said. "I was much more aware of my surroundings."
He also wanted to enhance his environment with beautiful flowers and foliage. For ideas, he first thought back to his parents' and grandparents' gardens. A lilac tree, like the one under his window when he was a child, already was in the yard. He decided to plant an apothecary rose like his mother's and grow rhubarb--from roots his father had transplanted from his grandfather's garden--so he could eat the delectable stems dipped in sugar.
Guroian also planted a larger herb garden, with dill, marjoram, lavender, chives, sage, lemon balm and fennel, among others. He included basil, the aroma of which reminds him of the basil his family planted at his grandparents' grave.
More ideas came from gardening books, ways to create interest in the garden throughout the year with flowers and shrubs that bloom in different seasons and plants whose foliage and bark are beautiful in their own right. He also decided to include biblical plants such as lilies, hyssop, leeks, mint, mustard and juniper.
The theologian began looking anew at the hymns, texts and icons of Orthodox Christianity, examining them for garden-inspired analogies and metaphors, connections between nature and the spiritual life. In spring, for example, the white petals of bloodroot represent the sinlessness and healing power of Jesus.
Guroian even uncovered analogies in his own plot of earth. One February, he was turning the soil in the vegetable garden and unearthed two small box turtles that had burrowed there to hibernate. He replanted them "like two gigantic seeds," and they emerged around Easter. In this way, they were like the garden itself, dying in fall and winter and exploding into new growth in spring.
Guroian believes it was a resurrection of sorts, like Jesus emerging from his garden tomb.
Three years ago, he began writing about such connections and published them in a series of articles for Christian Century magazine. This year, he collected them in a small book, published by Eerdmans, called "Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening."
Guroian said his weaving of memories, family history and gardening experiences has enriched his own spiritual life. And he's convinced that a person of any religious faith with a historic connection to gardening--including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism--can find greater spiritual fulfillment.
To be a good gardener, you "have to bring a sense of piety to begin with," he said. Consciously relating one's spirituality to gardening will affect the gardener "in a deep profound sense."
This piety consists of a respect for nature's cycles of birth, fruitfulness, death and rebirth and a discipline akin to religious devotion. You work the soil with your hands, applying salve to the blisters and cracks and keep on going, he said. "On a hot day, you don't want to go out, but you do go out there and do what you have to do."
Is all that work only for earthly pleasure and fulfillment? As a Christian, Guroian says no. Like Adam and Eve, who had to produce their own food after being thrown out of Eden, all humans must work to support life.
Literally and symbolically, gardening can help people achieve salvation as it helps them understand both their limitations and abilities, he said. And the pleasure of gardening offers a preview of an afterlife to which Christians aspire.
"I can claim that God has given me a foretaste of paradise," Guroian said. "Whatever beauty or beautiful smells or tastes I experience here, how much more wonderful must Paradise be?"
CAPTION: Guroian's Backyard Gardens (This graphic was not available)
CAPTION: Guroian believes that "gardening is nearer to godliness than theology."
CAPTION: Guroian, watering squash seeds behind his Reisterstown, Md., home, says many religious symbols are found in gardening, such as the white petals on bloodroot, which are seen as representing the sinlessness of Jesus.
CAPTION: Red-hot pokers, above, and a statue of the Archangel Gabriel, center, adorn parts of Vigen Guroian's garden.
CAPTION: Some plants have family ties. The rhubarb's roots can be traced to Guroian's grandfather's garden.