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Each Couple is like a Garden: A Biblical Perspective

Jean-Pierre Sonnet, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Feb 26th 2021

The Bible begins with the garden planted by God in Eden (cf. Gen 2:8). It ends with the evocation of a garden-city, the heavenly Jerusalem: “In the middle of the city square and on either side of the river, there is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2). Even at its center, the Bible houses a garden, that of the Song of Songs. The “center” in question, it should be specified, is that of the sequence of books in the Catholic tradition, taken from the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. At the center of this “book of books,” in the booklet that Rabbi Akiva described as the “Holy of Holies” of the Scriptures, there is a garden with flowing waters and flowering trees.

The phenomenon just described is repeated with regard to the human couple.[1]

The Bible recounts in its opening pages the appearance of the human couple (cf. Gen 2-3), and in its last lines we hear the invitation of the bride to the groom, of the Church to Christ who comes in glory: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’” (Rev 22:17). The Bible also rings out the entwined voices of the lover and the beloved in the center of its corpus, in the sanctuary that is the Song of Songs: “Ah, you are beautiful, my love!”; “Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved!” (Song 1:15-16).

In the following pages we would like to reflect on this twofold perspective that associates the “mystery” of the garden with that of the human couple. Why does the couple meet in the garden? How is the affinity of the couple and of this living space understood phenomenologically? In what way is the anthropological and cosmic figure of the couple in the garden the bearer of a theological truth? The Song of Songs provides the environment for such a reflection; its pages express explicitly the invitation of the lovers to go to the garden: “Let my beloved come to his garden […]. I come to my garden, my sister, my bride” (Song 4:16-5:1).

In parallel to the exploration of the biblical texts, we will examine the links that unite – as through a network of common roots – two important texts of the teaching of Pope Francis: his encyclical letter Laudato Si’: On the Care of our Common home (2015) and the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia: The Joy of Love in the Family (2016). The human couple considered in this second text has its background and perspective in the first,  with its expressions of the divine design.


Again and always, the garden

In the Book of Genesis, the human couple appears in a garden planted by God but entrusted to human care (cf. Gen 2:8). This garden (in Hebrew, gan) is a “fence” (the root ganan means “to enclose, to protect”), irrigated by four streams, where plants abound. “Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:9). In this microcosm of creation, initially filled with original gifts, man and woman discover each other.

While the human couple is then removed from this garden for having transgressed the divine command (and the offering of life that it concealed), the garden does not leave the biblical perspective for this reason.[2] Instead, it reappears repeatedly in the imagination of the poets and prophets of the Bible. The metaphor of the garden thus appears in Isa 61:11, when it comes to proclaiming to the grieving people the certainty of divine intervention in their favor: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”[3] This metaphor is privileged among all the others to indicate the transformation that Israel will undergo following divine intervention: “And you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Isa 58:11). In Jer 31:12 the same image is associated with a return from desert places. Plant images, in fact, have no equal in representing the ontological depth of divine healing: “I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily, he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon. His shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive tree, his fragrance like that of Lebanon” (Hos 14:5-6). The metaphor of the garden – associated with other plant metaphors – thus underlies the biblical vision, demonstrating that the world and its history are always in “genesis,” regardless of their repeated wounds. God is the one who reactivates this genesis in the healings he bestows: he is “dew,” the mysterious principle of plant life (Hos 14:6; cf. Gen 27:28; Deut 33:13; Ps 133:3).

In a wise counterpoint to the prophetic texts, the Song of Songs shows that, whatever the exile from the first garden, this image continues to support the horizon of the Bible. The Song of Songs reminds us that the garden is, again and always, the place of the appearance of the human couple, not to repeat the unhappy choice made by the original couple, but rather to envisage their new beginnings and new loyalty.

The metaphor of  the Garden

In the Song of Songs, the garden is present above all in the form of a metaphor. This is certainly embedded in a background that the reader cannot help but imagine, that of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern gardens of ancient Israel.[4] But the “reality” of the garden in the Song of Songs is primarily literary, inseparable from the speech of lovers. As Robert Alter pointed out in his essay The Art of Biblical Poetry, the Song of Songs has, in the Bible, a unique strategy in the field of metaphors, which distinguishes it from all other books (including the Book of Job, which is characterized by its metaphorical inventiveness.)[5] The metaphors introduced by the lovers of the Song of Songs have the effect of “confusing borders.” As in a Lewis Carroll’s novel, the characters pass “through the looking glass” and find themselves in the world of metaphor. The metaphors thus open up new worlds to the characters of the Song of Songs, which require appropriate behavior.

This is the case with the metaphors borrowed from the plant world: [She:] “As an apple tree among the trees of the wood/ so is my beloved among young men/ With great delight I sat in his shadow/ and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (Song 2:3). For the lover, it is not enough to see the beloved as an apple tree; one must act accordingly: sit in his shadow and eat his fruit. On the other hand, two verses later, the beloved will implore: “Refresh me with apples” (2:5). Later, the beloved will say to his beloved: “O may your breasts be like clusters of the vine/ I said, ‘I’ll climb the palm, / I’ll pick the clusters of dates’” (Song 7:8-9). It is not enough to compare the figure of the beloved to that of the palm tree: it is necessary to climb the tree and reap its fruits. The whole paradox of the poetic discourse of the Song of Songs is there, in this way of letting oneself be caught up in the game of metaphors, remembering their artifice (“Your stature is comparable to that of a palm tree”).

A metaphor can support a long sequence in the Song of Songs. Thus the metaphor of the garden is developed in chapters 4 to 6, so that the young woman becomes a garden: one must behave with regard to her as one behaves toward a garden with lush fruits. He: “A garden locked is my sister, my bride” (4:12). She: “a garden fountain, a well of living water […]. Let my beloved come into his garden / and eat its choicest fruits” (4:15-16). He: “I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride” (5:1). She: “My beloved has gone down to his garden/ to the beds of spices” (6:2).

The excellence of the metaphor of the garden can be recognized in that it is both a revelation of the being of the beloved woman (“You are a garden”) and a “map” for the action of the beloved, suggesting appropriate behavior (“to come,” “to go down,” “to eat”). Between chapters 4 and 6, the lovers of the Song of Songs thus develop the game of metaphor, to the point of becoming a garden themselves and acting accordingly.

The garden, intimacy and openness

When in the Song of Songs the word “garden” appears on the lips of the beloved, it is to express the secret intimacy of the relationship: “A garden locked is my sister, my bride / a garden locked, a fountain sealed” (4:12). If the garden has a fence, and is a hortus conclusus, then the locked garden, which protects a secret source, is the fence of the fence.[6] The context makes us realize the sexual meaning of this “closed being” of the woman. The richness of the poetic discourse also allows us to recognize the expression of her personal intimacy. In the deepest part of the beloved there is embodied a mystery (a source, a fountain) that grounds her beauty. It is necessary to observe that it is the lover who develops this language, declaring inviolable the sanctuary of the beloved woman. He makes himself the poet celebrating it – and is therefore its guardian – thanks to the metaphor of the garden: in this case, the “closed garden,” in its most secret “room,” where a discreet and lively source of water sings.

The beloved’s answer is surprising. She takes up the imagery of her beloved’s speech, and infuses it with an unexpected dynamism. Beyond its walls and hedges, the garden is also an open place: the hortus conclusus is, as Rob Aben and Saskia de Wit put it, a room with no ceiling.[7] The winds (from the north, from the south) cross it, coming from without, infusing it with a deep breath; the waters are flowing: “a garden fountain / a well of living water / and flowing streams from Lebanon / Awake, O north wind / and come, O south wind / Blow upon my garden / that its fragrance may be wafted abroad” (4:15-16).

Once again the context suggests a sexual interpretation of the images, “animated” by the speech of the beloved. (The beloved will respond by saying: “I came to my garden, my sister, my bride” [5:1]). The poetic nature of the woman’s speech, however, makes it possible to understand, in addition to the erotic connotations, an evocation of the personal: if it is a “closed garden,” the woman is not therefore closed in on herself, but also breathes outdoors (and so it is for everyone). Once again, it is the garden that allows things to be said in the best possible way. If it is an enclosed place, it is also an open place: open to the changing sky, to the atmospheric elements, to the water currents that pass through it. In its contrasting aspects, the garden thus offers lovers a parable of their being in relation, between the enclosure of personal mystery and the openness of being in relation.

Sprouts and ripe fruits

Throughout the Song of Songs, the garden – or the orchard and the vineyard – is the place of wonder that requires all the attention of lovers: “We’ll see if the vine blooms, / if the buds open /, if the pomegranates bloom: / there I’ll give you my love!” (7:13).

Three times the text mentions the spectacle of spring blossoming (besides 7:13, cf. 2:13 and 6:11, “in the walnut garden”): the lovers have an appointment with the miracle of the buds. A parallel is the basis of this attraction: in the flowering of the trees in the garden they recognize the flowering of their love; the same germination works in the natural world and in the union of the lovers. Modern botany will reflect the discourse of lovers, establishing the sexual nature of flowers, between pistil and stamen. The intuition of lovers is sufficient for them, invincible in a way. In the context of the vineyards and the flowering pomegranates, the intimacy of the couple is discovered to be in unison with the entire creation; the latter, for its part, celebrates the blossoming of their love. The spring garden thus offers the prodigy of the beginning, which amazes the lovers: the irresistible gratuitousness of the buds reflects the bond of their love.

The garden of the lovers not only contains buds: there are also ripe fruits (1:3; 4:13.16; 7:9.14) and adult trees (6:11; 7:8-9; 8:5).[8] If love is always at the beginning, it is also at home in the duration, in the prolonged time of promises and oaths (cf. 8:6-7). That is also why it is at home in the garden. The philosopher Robert Harrison likes to say that gardens are places that slow down time. The growth rates are slow: the ripening of the fruit, the growth of the trees.[9] The garden thus supports, with its long duration, the promises and oaths by which the lovers live. As one of the characters in Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory points out, if lovers engrave their names on the trunks of large trees, it is because they realize confusingly the long life of these silent companions: “Maybe we try to hurt trees like that because they live much longer than we do.”[10] In his mystical vision, the Persian poet Rumi (1207-73) protected the trunk, so to speak, when he wrote: “Love is a tree whose branches reach eternity and whose roots grow in eternity, and therefore the trunk is nowhere to be found.”[11] Whatever happens to the trunk, the oaths of the lovers of the Song of Songs are  grafted onto the trees that surround them (figs, cedars, walnuts), borrowing something of their longevity.

The Easter Garden

The relationship that unites the couple and the garden in the Song of Songs has received a surprising Christological adaptation in the Gospel of John. In the scene of the apparition in John 20, the Risen Christ and Mary Magdalene borrow their respective roles from the lovers of the Song of Songs. The most anthropological element – the comparison of lovers in the sanctuary of the garden – reveals itself to be the most evangelical. John 20 is set in a garden, which includes the tomb of Jesus: “Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been placed. There then […] they laid Jesus” (John 19:41-42).

It is toward this garden that Mary Magdalene hastens, “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark” (John 20:1). The discovery of the empty tomb throws her into dismay. The angels say to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She says to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (v. 13). Then she turns around and sees Jesus asking her in turn: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she says to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (v. 15).

Those who know the Song of Songs well must recognize the scene of the beloved’s search in chapter 3: “Upon my bed at night / I sought him whom my soul loves / I sought him, but found him not / I called him, but he gave no answer” / “I will rise now and go about the city / in the streets and in the squares / I will seek him whom my soul loves / I sought him, but found him not / The sentinels found me / as they went about in the city / ‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’ / Scarcely had I passed them / when I found him whom my soul loves / I held him, and would not let him go” (Song 3:1-4).

The encounter between the Risen One and Mary Magdalene is thus “dramatized” thanks to the scenario borrowed from the Song of Songs. (Is this perhaps an ancient testimony of the association of the Song of Songs with the feast of Pèsa?, which will develop in Rabbinical Judaism?). Behind the reference to the Song of Songs there is also a reference to the garden of the origins (cf. Gen 2-3). It was in a garden that man lost access to life, and it is in a garden that he finds it again. But the most remarkable thing is that the Easter scene in the garden integrates the dialogue between the man and the woman. The work of God par excellence – the resurrection of Jesus Christ – finds its fulfillment when it takes up the anthropological symbolism of the word exchanged between man and woman in the enclosure of the garden.

‘This mystery is great!’

Although the symbol of the garden has many cultural variations, it perennial in history: it is a human universal. However, it is only alive to the extent that there are gardens. The more anthropological and environmental balances are threatened, the greater the social challenges, the more trees and gardens need to be planted.

In his short novel The Man Planting the Trees, Jean Giono tells the story of a shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, who revives his entire region, in Haute-Provence, simply by planting the  acorns of oaks and seeds of beeches with delicate obstinacy. The Provençal shepherd found a North American imitator in Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory: Douglas Pavlicek, who for his part plants 50,000 “Blue Douglas” trees to combat deforestation and plantation forestry in California.[12]

Similarly, it is necessary not only to preserve historic gardens, but also to create new ones and offer them to future generations.[13] The great architects of contemporary gardens (Mirei Shigemori, Jacques Wirtz, Piet Oudolf, Marc Peter Keane, Kathryn Gustafson, to name but a few) are therapists of humanity. By bringing together plant species, colors and shapes, building closed spaces and open perspectives, allowing life to express itself through the seasons, they create sanctuaries, large or small, where the human person rediscovers the self. In fact, how can we protect the “inner garden” in oneself and in others if the garden fails? “And when I’m in the garden, which for me is a home of smells, I sit on the bench,” says the hero of Citadelle.[14]

To enter a garden and sit down is to access a place where one is born to oneself, a locus amoenus, dear to Plato and Erasmus, where people can think, because they are close to their being.[15] “We must cultivate our garden,” Voltaire told Candide (1759), implying that it was time to improve the human condition, leaving aside any speculations (Leibnizian, in this case). Today it is necessary to revisit Voltaire’s injunction and take it literally, creating gardens (kitchen, medicinal, botanical, vertical, urban herbal, where we can be  lost in nature, in silence and meditation). The garden is certainly a utopia, or a “heterotopia,” as Michel Foucault points out: “The garden is the smallest particle in the world and then it is the totality of the world. Since ancient times, the garden has been a kind of happy and universalizing heterotopy.”[16] But these “heterotopias,” Foucault writes, are “mythical and real contestations of the space in which we live.” Designing, planting, growing a garden is to plan in space and time an appointment for ourselves with ourselves, in thanksgiving.[17] Such an appointment will always be, in a privileged way, that of couples and lovers. “Come into the garden, Maud!” is the invitation addressed to someone beloved in a poem of Alfred Tennyson (1809-92), who also includes, thinking of her: “I could walk forever in my garden.”

Planting a garden also means offering believers a living parable of God’s faithfulness in his plan of salvation, between the garden of the origins and that of the resurrection, while waiting for the garden-city that is the heavenly Jerusalem. Over the centuries, the garden of the Song of Songs has become, in Christian interpretation, that of the encounter between God and humanity in the mystical wedding, but also, preliminarily, in the incarnation of the Word: “[Christ] has therefore descended into his garden – writes Apponius, an Italian monk of the fifth century – stripping himself of the divine power through which he is united with the Father, so that human frailty, through which he is united with man, may welcome him who has become a mediator between one and the other. In his garden, that is to say in this people who knew him, where patriarchs and prophets had sweated copiously working to instruct him.”[18] Planting a garden means reviving the origin, the medium and the end of God’s plan in his relationship with humanity; it means, in particular, reviving the bond that unites the couple and the garden. Between the man and the woman, the garden is the “Holy of Holies” of their meeting, the parable of miraculous beginnings and faithful growths, of secret intimacy and communion with all creation and with the Creator. “This mystery is great,” says Paul about human marriage and the (Eph 5:32). Equally great is the mystery between the couple and the garden.[19]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 01 art. 3, 0120: 10.32009/22072446.0120.3

[1].    See in particular L. Alonso Schökel, I nomi dell’amore. Simboli matrimoniali nella Bibbia, Casale Monferrato (Al), Piemme, 1997. The apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis Amoris Laetitia opens with an evocative journey through the Bible in a spousal and family key (cf. Nos. 8-30).

[2].    Regarding gardens in the Bible, see in particular D. M. Carr, The Erotic Word. Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Bible, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005; G. Andresen, Gartengeschichten der Bibel, Stuttgart, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006.

[3].    See the wedding symbolism in the previous verse (Isa 61:10); see also Isa 45:8 and the splendid sequence in Sir 24:12-19.

[4].    Cf. M. Carroll, Earthly paradises: Ancient Gardens in History and Archaeology, Los Angeles (CA), J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003; concerning gardens in the Song of Songs, cf. E. T. James, Landscapes of the Song of Songs: Poetry and Place, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017.

[5].    Cf. R. Alter, “Il giardino della metafora” in Id. L’arte della poesia biblica, Rome – Cinisello Balsamo, GBPress – San Paolo, 2011, 288-317; J.-P. Sonnet, “Du chant érotique au chant mystique. Le ressort poétique du Cantique des Cantiques” in J.-M. Auwers (ed.), Regards croisés sur le Cantique des cantiques, Brussels, Lessius, 2005, 79-105.

[6].    For more about hortus conclusus in history, see R. Aben – S. de Wit, The Enclosed Garden: History and Development of the Hortus Conclusus and Its Reintroduction Into the Present-day Urban Landscape, Rotterdam, 010 Publishers, 1999.

[7].    See ibid., 10-19.

[8] .    The Song of Songs is entirely focused on the sexual awakening of lovers in the miracle of their encounter. If the fertility promised to this love (through generation) is not thematized, it is still characterized by the fertility of the natural environment of their exchange. On the other hand, plant metaphors are present in the Bible regarding human generation. Children are therefore “the fruit of the womb” (cf. in particular Gen 30:2; Deut 7:13; Ps 127:3; Isa 13:18; Prov 31:2). Psalm 128 goes further in the development of the metaphor: “Your bride a fruitful vine in the intimacy of your house; your children olive saplings around your table” (v. 3).

[9] .   Cf. R. P. Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, Chicago (IL), University of Chicago Press, 2008, 39.

[10].   R. Powers, The Overstory, London, Vintage, 2018. See J. Sonnet, “The Whisper of the World: in the margins of the Amazon Synod” in Civ. Catt. En. November 2019,

[11].   C. Barks, Rumi: The Book of Love. Poems of Ecstasy and Longing, New York, HarperCollins, 2003, 121.

[12].   The two characters of the fiction, however, have been overtaken by a recent initiative that involved all the Ethiopian people. In the Green Legacy Initiative in Ethiopia, this second most populous country in Africa is trying to remedy the massive deforestation that has affected its landscape, climate and social life. On August 5, 2019, 350 million trees were planted in 12 hours; the goal was to plant 4 billion trees by September 2019.

[13].   For a survey of biblically inspired gardens around the world, see Z. W?odarczyk, “Biblical Gardens in Dissemination of Ideas of the Holy Scripture” in Folia Horticulturae 16 (2004/2) 141-147.

[14].   See A. de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands, 1948.

[15].   See, in this regard, V. Lingiardi, “Terapeuti giardinieri” in Id., Mindscapes. Psiche nel paesaggio, Milan, Raffaello Cortina, 2017, 191-202.

[16].   Cf. M. Foucault, Le corps utopique – Les hétérotopies, Fécamp, Nouvelles Éditions Lignes, 2009, 23.

[17].   See in particular the “theology of the environment” (especially in the disadvantaged urban context) that Pope Francis developed in the encyclical Laudato Si’ (cf. Nos. 147-155), hoping also for the creation of “spaces that connect, relate, promote the recognition of the other!” (Evangelii Gaudium, 210).

[18].   Apponius, Commentary on the Song of Songs, t. III, Paris, Cerf, 1997, 53.

[19].   This text is published in memory of Hubert Brenninkmeijer (1934-2018), husband of Aldegonde Brenninkmeijer-Werhahn. In a first version, it appeared in an Album Amicorum, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the couple: A. Brenninkmeijer-Werhahn (ed.), Ehe: Bestand und Wandel im Miteinander (Marriage. Constancy and change in living together), Münster, LIT, Verlag, 2017. At the beginning of their marital life, the couple designed and planted an exceptional garden in Rhode-Saint-Genèse (Belgium), which inspired this text. Each “room” leads to another, like the stagesof life, and welcomes in the center the statue of a couple, the work of a contemporary artist.

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