Walking with God in a Garden on a June Afternoon
By James Monti
ourneys have a way of broadening our vision. A journey, when carried through in a conscious manner,
The Catholic Church knows all about journeys. She has been on the supreme journey for nearly two thousand years – a journey that began in Jerusalem and will end in the eternal bliss of the heavenly Jerusalem. Yet her journey is even more than a matter of going somewhere – it is a journey to Someone, a journey to God. And in the heavenly Jerusalem He awaits her, like a bridegroom at the altar awaiting his bride.
As Catholics, we are all on that great journey, for us the journey of a lifetime. On her high feasts, the Church imprints our calling as pilgrims upon our senses by summoning us to go in procession, to walk with Our Lord, to follow Him. Procedamus in pace, she says to us. On June 23, 2019, as Catholics throughout our nation and across much of the world celebrated the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, about a hundred of us came from near and far to the manor house of the Dutchess County, New York estate of
proper context. And when a journey exacts time and effort, as it did for the great
sets its destination in the
explorers of the New World, the importance and beauty of the destination is perceived all the more.
The Wethersfield House chapel where “the Lord of the manor” resides has a purposeful intimacy about it that silently invites those entering to quiet communion with God. But on this afternoon Wethersfield’s modestly proportioned place of worship was filled to “kneeling room only capacity”, largely with young families. We were also blessed by the company of one professed nun and three postulants of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. For the overflow attendees, seating was provided on the lawn immediately outside, with a window affording them a direct view of the altar within. Most of those present were fellow Catholics I had never met before, and yet we all instantaneously bonded into a congregation. For we had all received the same call from Our Lord to come here on this day.
In the Book of Genesis, we read of “the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen 3:8). When Our Lord embarked upon His sacred Passion, He began by setting foot in a garden. And when three days later He showed His risen Self to the Magdalene, she at first glance mistook Him for a gardener. On this fine summer’s day, miles away from the din of city life, God was going to be visiting a garden anew.
At the appointed time, His Excellency Bishop Peter Byrne entered the chapel in silence, accompanied by a retinue of acolytes with candles, incense and the sacring bell. After exposing the Blessed Sacrament, Bishop Byrne offered a concise reflection upon the meaning of this solemnity as a celebration of the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, serving to remind us of the reverence we owe this Sacrament.
And it was with the utmost reverence that the bishop then took the monstrance into his hands with the humeral veil, and exiting the chapel, stepped with Our Lord into the bright sunlight outside.
the late Chauncey Stillman –Wethersfield - to participate in an early afternoon Corpus Christi procession.
For almost as long as man has loved and longed for beauty, he has striven to make beautiful gardens. Perhaps it is a primal yearning for that lovely Garden of Eden that he lost after his fall. Perhaps it is a longing to find God there and converse with Him as Adam conversed with God in Eden. On this day in late June, Our Lord in the priestly hands of His bishop led us through the gardens of Wethersfield, to walk a path along which the God-given beauty of nature mingled with beauty wrought by the God-given creativity of man.
Along the first leg of the procession route, we were flanked to the south by a commanding vista of rolling hills on the horizon that brought to mind one of the most evocative salutations from the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – “Desire of the everlasting hills.” The stillness and silence of the surrounding landscape, so far removed from the stirrings of city and village life, set beneath a radiant summer afternoon sky, served to calm the restless mind and summon it to reverence.
It was on the south lawn of Wethersfield House that we all knelt to receive the First Benediction. At the very moment when Bishop Byrne raised the monstrance to bless us, there came - as if cued by Heaven - the shrill cry of a peacock, a creature whose Christian symbolism as a sign of the Resurrection and of the immortality and eternal life of the Risen Christ is nearly as ancient as Christianity itself. The sacred liturgy awakens us to the beauty and significance of such providential incidents as this – to be “open to every created thing in its mysterious message from above, in its God-given meaning” (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Liturgy and Personality, Steubenville, OH, Hildebrand Project, 2016, p. 77).
The imparting of Benediction out of doors, particularly amidst a setting of great natural beauty, has an added splendor that permeates the soul. The gold of the monstrance and the white of the Sacred Host gleaming in the summer sunlight, the mist of incense rising before it, borne by a gentle summer breeze, its fragrance mingling with the scents of the garden – all these things draw the heart to Him who foretold that when He was lifted up from the earth He would draw all men to Himself (Jn 12:32).
As we resumed the procession and sang together the verses of the Angelic Doctor’s timeless hymn of praise to our God in His Sacrament of Love, the Pange lingua gloriosi, the beautiful setting of lush garden greenery through which we now walked was adding its voice. For as the great Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand has explained, “We become contemplative… when beauty comes to meet us”; it ennobles us, it elevates our souls, “it opens our hearts, inviting us to transcendence.” “Beauty can take hold of us and move us to tears; it can fill us with light and with confidence; it can enthrall us, take us into the depths, and draw us in conspectus Dei (‘before the face of God’)” (Aesthetics: Volume I, Steubenville, OH, Hildebrand Project, 2016, pp. 5-7, 48).
The setting for the second Benediction, more sequestered and intimate than the first, was graced with a statue of the Blessed Virgin erected there decades ago by Chauncey Stillman. How he would have rejoiced to see the God He so loved and adored visiting his gardens and blessing his guests. What was transpiring was an ideal actualization of Stillman’s timeless vision of harnessing beauty for the greater glory of God.
The third leg of the procession route took us deep into the Wethersfield gardens. As the procession wound along the perimeter of the Water Garden’s reflecting pool, the bishop as he carried the monstrance and the acolytes accompanying him were mirrored in the still water, lending an air of eternity to what we were doing. After passing through a trellis so thickly entwined by greenery that it is named the Beech Tunnel, we reached the third station, on the east end of the Knot Garden, a location marked like the second station by a statue of the Mother of God originally placed there by Chauncey Stillman.
The Beech tunnel had led us into a deeper realm in more ways than one. After kneeling to pray before the Benediction, His Excellency paused for a more prolonged dialogue of the heart with Our Lord. All of us together with him felt the need for this unrushed interval of hushed reflection. To those who know its secrets, silence is a language with a vocabulary all its own. As the bishop wordlessly held aloft the monstrance, the intensity in his face said everything.
It was by a winding path through the Inner Garden and around the perimeter of Wethersfield House that we re-entered the chapel for the fourth and concluding Benediction. Four benedictions on one journey – in the sacred liturgy, such repetitions do not weary the soul. Does the glory of springtime ever tire us by returning time and again each year? And
like the springtime, each repetition of a sacred act of worship brings a new refreshment to the soul.
At the heart of man’s longing for what he lost in Eden has been his yearning to dwell with God - to dwell with Him not just for an afternoon, not just for a day, but for a lifetime, for all eternity. King David felt that yearning when he vowed, “I will not enter my house… until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob” (Ps 132:3-5). That longing was keenly felt at Wethersfield. The dream to make this haven of natural and artistic beauty a fitting and permanent home for beauty’s Author has at last been fulfilled through the generous permission, assistance and support of two pastors of the Church, His Excellency Bishop Byrne, who as an auxiliary bishop of the New York archdiocese serves as Episcopal Vicar of Dutchess, Putnam, and North Westchester, and Monsignor Gerardo Colacicco, pastor of St. Joseph-Immaculate Conception Church in Millbrook. The Corpus Christi procession celebrated this new beginning for Wethersfield – the perpetual presence of the Blessed Sacrament in Wethersfield’s chapel.
Thus it was that on June 23 we were all able to answer King David’s invitation: “Let us go to his dwelling place; / let us worship at his footstool!” (Ps 132:7). And as Bishop Byrne returned the Blessed Sacrament to the tabernacle at the close of our summer’s day journey with the Lord, we could all say in spirit with King David: “Arise, O Lord, and go to thy resting place, / thou and the ark of thy might” (Ps 132:8).