Every year, about this time, I am drawn into our garden carrying cutting tools of various sorts. My mission is to exercise discipline, that is to say prune, a number of plants. Wall flowers, salvia [red and white], Russian sage, assorted grasses, St. John’s wort and so on. I have also taken down a few misguided branches off our Japanese maple [“Red Emperor”] and the same treatment awaits our vine maple and crab apple.
Next on my imaginary list are two gooseberries, one considerably larger than the other. The proper costume for pruning gooseberry bushes is body armor and heavily padded gloves. I have never seen such thorns! The bushes don’t yield on a predictable basis but when they do, visitors to our garden really enjoy them, particularly the robins and rabbits [aka “wobins and wabbits”].
The one year of good yield, we managed to make some remarkable jam. It was a triumph. Though obviously wounded, we had outwitted the thorns!
Recently, I have been reading Mary Oliver’s collection Devotions . In it, I found “Morning Poem” where the poet offers a perspective on thorns.
Every morning the world is created. Under the orange
sticks of the sun the heaped ashes of the night turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches and the ponds appear
like black cloth on which are painted islands
of summer lilies. If it is your nature to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit carries within it
the thorn that is heavier than lead—if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging—
there is still somewhere deep within you a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted—
each pond with its blazing lilies is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly, every morning,
whether or not you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not you have ever dared to pray.
The gooseberry thorns remind me very happily of Mary Oliver. They also remind me of someone else.
In 2 Corinthians 12.7, Paul the Apostle reports that he was given “a thorn in the flesh” so as to keep him “from being too elated.” Paul plead with God for relief but none was forthcoming. Instead, Paul was told that even in weakness such as Paul experienced, God’s “grace is sufficient for you…” Yes, I thought, no matter what, God’s grace is enough.
I am writing on the morning of January 25. In the Church calendar, this day marks the occasion when Paul, on the Damascus Road, was commissioned to his new responsibilities, proclaiming the Gospel to the Gentiles. We are the beneficiaries of his work.
This is also the date I keep to mark the anniversary of my ordination as a priest of the Church, now 54 years ago. It seemed good to me, and perhaps to the Holy Spirit, that I speak with you about thorns, offering the gift of Mary Oliver and Paul. They each and together offer solace and hope when the thorns come along, as they do, on the gooseberry bushes and in our earthly pilgrimage, solace and hope. That’s what I have to give you today.