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holy culture and horticulture

November 1st, 2018 | 2 min read

By Matthew Loftus

Wilfred McClay has a beautiful and much-needed essay at Comment on the tension Christians experience between our calling to be gardeners and pilgrims:

We plant, tend, and nourish gardens, gather and prune them, negotiating and harmonizing the resultants of nature’s forces. We honour our Maker by making the most of the givenness of the world as we find it, and groom it, revere it, preserve it. To be gardeners, we must settle, make a place, put down roots in the same earth that sustains our flowers and plants, must resolve to be “here” and not “there” or anyplace else. We embrace the finiteness of our place and moment, and do what we can to flourish where we are planted—in the particular families, marriages, communities, and nation in which we have been placed.

But the pilgrim as a type is very different from the gardener. The pilgrim is a traveller, who sacrifices settledness in order to journey to faraway lands in search of the particular benefits conferred by a distant holy place. The Christian pilgrim’s motto is encapsulated in Hebrews 13:14 (NIV): “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” As a consequence, all earthly attachments are partial, conditional, limited, provisional, circumscribed, attenuated, subject to supersession. The pilgrim is always travelling, and he or she travels light. The needs of the soul trump all this-worldly bonds.

So, in the present moment, should we be gardeners? Or pilgrims? Hold the world tightly, or lightly? Make our place richly and firmly in the here and now, or see it all as shadow and prelude? I’m tempted to say yes to both, and leave it at that. Because we desperately need to do both, and both are required of us, however much they may seem to be in opposition. But I will venture this further thought. The disorientation that has come of the loss of the sense of place in “postmodernity”—a term that itself seems an illustration of the problem since it is not even a straightforward affirmation of anything in particular—seems to point us in a particular direction. It calls for a particular emphasis, for the time being, upon the recovery of place, as a way of reaffirming our creatureliness, our finitude, and our dependency on God, and our gratitude for what we have been given, for the preciousness of our attachments.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at