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The Medieval Gardens of NYC. First of a series: God in NYC Gardens

The beginnings of Western civilization was rooted in the cultivation of gardens by Saint Benedict.

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Fall flowers at The Cloisters. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

The beginnings of Western civilization was rooted in the cultivation of gardens by Saint Benedict. You can get a glimpse of this seminal process at the Cuxa Cloister Garth Garden at The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the northern tip of Manhattan. The garden’s medieval herbs and modern plants are set within architectural pieces from the 12th Century Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa in southern France.

The previous pope of the Roman Catholic Church took his title as Benedict XVI because he believes that the monk Benedict laid down a way of life that became the foundation for a unified Western culture. “Saint Benedict of Norcia, with his life and his work, had a fundamental influence on the development of European civilization and culture,” the pope told an audience in 2008.

The Cloisters gardens. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

The museum also has two other medieval gardens set amidst buildings assembled from pieces of five abbeys and monasteries in 1938 according to the design of the architect of Riverside Church Charles Collens. The Bonnefort Cloister Herb Garden contains a large collection of medieval plants sorted according to their use in separate garden beds. The Trie Cloister Garden is a single field of herbs and flowers that resemble the expansive fields in medieval tapestries.

The foundation of medieval gardening was laid down by the young Benedict’s struggle with the immoralities and inefficiencies of his time, about 500 AD. While studying in Rome, he saw that even the highest church leaders were caught in a swirl of corrupt deals. Troubled, he sought to avoid the world’s corruption by leaving Rome to live as a hermit in the craggy wilds of Italy. Before long, he attracted other Christians who were also disgusted with the church situation. A local monastery asked him to assume its leadership.

However, after becoming abbot of the monastery, dissident monks tried to poison him, according to Saint Gregrory the Great’s Dialogues (the only ancient account of Benedict, written 593 AD). Some men had brought the same old, bad habits with them into the wilderness.

After this rocky start, Benedict realized that being a hermit or a secluded monk wasn’t enough to escape the corruptions of this world. And that is how the medieval gardening now demonstrated at The Cloisters started. Benedict realized that inner peace needed to be supplemented with outer peace,  that inner spirituality in the world, however remotely placed, had to have some outer supports. So, he developed a structure for one’s daily life that he thought would be likely to create a harmonious community. He believed that if he could do this among a group of monks, monastery life then would be a demonstration model of how to harmonize the everyday life of society.  In 529 Benedict founded the monastery of Mounte Cassina with a routine later formalized as the Rule of Saint Benedict. The followers of this form of monastic life are called Benedictines.

The monk’s way of ordering both a soul and practical life into a God-honoring whole pivoted around chapter 48 of his Rule. It begins “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.” Benedict says that the spiritual life needed a precise schedule of prayer, study and work that would center around gardens that were holy and practical. This approach was symbolized in many of the Benedictine gardens with a pentagonal fountain surrounded by a pool within a perfect square that served as microcosm of the mathematical order and divine grace of the universe. Christians were to order their lives as God intelligently ordered the universe.

The gardens were called hortus conclusus (“garden enclosed”), an epithet also given to Mary as the Virgin Mother of Jesus. The gardens symbolized the Garden of Eden before the Fall and the grace of God in the purity of Mary after the Fall. The contours and plants of the gardens speak symbolically about the life of a believer.

At The Cloisters gardens one can read the details of theology in their flowers and herbs.

For example, its jasmine officinale was a common plant grown in monasteries as a symbol of God’s love and a future of heavenly happiness for the believers. In the Italian

Jasminum officinale grown in the beds in Bonnefont Garden

Renaissance jasmine flowers often appear in the bouquets of roses and lilies given to the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus. Jasmine was also used as a medicine to cure sinus headaches and other ills caused by an excess of phlegm. Thus, the meaning of the flower is both heavenly and earthly.

In various ways the medieval gardens intertwined the spiritual and practical. Gardens were designed for prayer as well as medicinal herbs and artistic pleasures. In a pointed reminder of the meaning of life and death, Benedictines and other monastic orders planted cemetery fruit orchards. An orchard gave both natural sustenance and spiritual sustenance as a symbol of the garden of Paradise. The grandest record of medieval gardens, the Plan of Saint Gall, has a detailed description of its cemetery orchard.

The gardens perpetuated the idea that a spiritual life that transforms the world is best built through a combination of contemplation, study and gardening and other manual labor. Spiritual formation is simultaneously activist in the mastery of oneself and the world, observed Rudolph Otto, the author of Mysticism, East and West. This approach has remained a staple of moral reform movements in the West.

In addition to The Cloisters the influence of medieval life continues in great and small ways in New York City.

In the first place the Benedictines have a large presence in the city as do three other medieval religious orders: the Franciscans; the Dominicans; and Augustinians. New York City has at least one hundred and fourteen churches named after 58 medieval Christian saints, according to a project at Fordham University. St. Nicholas has the most with eleven churches, including two Cathedrals.

Somewhat fantastically, football turf also has its origins in the monastery. The first grass plots served as aesthetic features of medieval gardens and were grown over mounds that served as sitting places called “Turf Seats.” In 1260 Albertus Magnus’s advice in De Vegetability on planting grass expanses could easily be applied to lawn care today.

Anglican nuns at work. Photo: St. Hilda's House

The influence of Benedict and medieval gardeing extends into the Protestant community also. The Community of the Holy Spirit is an Anglican Benedictine monastery for women in West Harlem (454 Convent Avenue, at 150th Street). In 2009-2010, in keeping with the Benedictine spirit, the Community designed and built a new “greener” St. Hilda’s House with rooftop gardens, solar panels, composting and use of salvaged and renewable building materials.. (See the 2009 New York Times article about the process.)

Local evangelical Christians are also attracted to the promise of a deeper, more satisfying life through gardening and other medieval spiritual practices.

Some are influenced by the pattern of life that resembles the medieval model promoted in the 1970s by Francis and Edith Schaeffer at the Swiss community, L’Abri. Edith Schaeffer was an enthusiastic proponent of spiritually-motivated gardening as an anecdote to the dehumanizing aspects of the modern world. Her husband also penned an environmentalist tract called Pollution and the Death of Man. At about the same time Richard Foster promoted a revival of medieval spiritual practices with his popular Celebration of Discipline.

Then, eight years ago, in her The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy Colleen Carroll reported on a turn of young adults in New York City toward the Benedictine rule instead of living by the measuring stick of worldly success. Dallas Willard, who will be a visiting scholar at The King’s College in Spring 2012, and the late Robert Webber also have promoted to evangelicals the riches of the Christian tradition.

Pete Scazzero contemplating the next steps for New Life Fellowship of Elmhurst, Queens. Photo: New Life Fellowship

One of the more interesting experiments in broadening evangelicalism and doing racial reconciliation  with medieval spiritual practices in New York City is being undertaken by Pete and Geri Scazzero at New Life Fellowship in Elmhurst, Queens. Refashioning himself as a “contemplative urban pastor,” Scazzero has been working with his congregation to practically apply an urban Rule of Life to the cultures of the many classes and ethnicities that attend the church. In fact New Life has become a sort of innovation lab for the contemplative urbans around the world. Each year, they gather at the church for a conference of updates on this new-old frontier of evangelical Christianity.

“Honestly, I don’t know how this is all supposed to happen,” Scazzero says. “I feel like it’s one step at a time to really model reconciliation out of a deep place of emotional health and monasticism.” So far, the experiments haven’t included gardening but Scazzero was deeply affected by his experience with the gardens at St. Benedict’s Monastery where he and his wife took their sabbatical in the summer of 2011.

2014 addendum: Last week a new community garden promoted by New Life Fellowship was starting to show off its yellow flowers. This week Pete and Geri Scazzero will be hosting their international Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Leadership Conference around the corner.

Currently, the Cloisters is featuring sacred journeys. Until May 18th the museum is hosting a special exhibition, Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral that highlights one of the most revered pilgrimage destinations of the Middle Ages.

If you'd like to visit the Community of the Holy Spirit, please contact them by email at:   Or you can phone 212-666-8249  x200.

Also, on 28 February 28, 2013 Pope Benedict XVI resigned his papal office. He is the first pope to resign since Pope Gregory XII in 1415. His title now is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.  See Cardinal Timothy Dolan's remarks in response to the announcement that the pope intended to resign his office. On March 13, 2013 Argentina Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio was elected pope and took the title Francis I. Because of Cardinal Dolan's involvement in the papal election, A Journey through NYC religions covered the event.


Also see "The Biblical Gardens of NYC"

Note: During one of his first public appearances in April 2005, the new pope explained his name choice. He acknowledged Saint Benedict of Norcia (c. 480–543), one of the patron saints of Europe, and Pope Benedict XV (1854–1922), who reigned during the turbulent years of World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies).

Video provided by Mount Saviour Monastery.

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  • Hi Dan. Thanks for the input!

    As we noted in the heading, this an "encore of 'God in NYC gardens.'" We plan on reverting all the articles back to their original publication date as soon as the encore of the series is done. We have encored this series once before, in 2012, and then reverted the series back to its original publication dates.

    We did consider whether to change the text before we encored the article. However, we concluded that we didn't want to change the original text because we might lose track when we revert the articles to their original publication dates.

    However, we have added a few notes at the ends of the articles to bring the reader up to date. We noted on the Hindu gardens: "Last time we checked, Priest Valamiki Sahadeo's gardens of Vishnu and Shiva were flourishing. His potted plants in front of the house were blooming and had grown three feet since our first visit in 2011."

    So, maybe the best solution here is to add a little bit more to our "2014 Addendum" at the bottom of the article.

    Thanks for catching this. We really appreciate the input.

  • You've revised the date on this article to 2014, but it refers to Benedict XVI as the current pope, so this is confusing. If you change the publication date, you should also revise and update the text, maybe with some indication of what has changed.

  • I like this.

  • Little things we begin in faith can have a great impact even over centuries.

  • Excellent!

  • You should do a book on this. Great.

  • Terrific!

  • I enjoyed this. I hope that you will cover the CSAs that churches participate in. Thanks!

  • The garden series is very innovative. Revere the memory of Olmsted!

  • Does The Cloisters ever give tours on the religious meaning of their gardens? I would like to go on one.

  • Thanks. We want to push the creative boundaries in our portraits of religion in NYC.

  • Thanks. Our purpose in each area of NYC that we visit is also to drill down a bit into the areas religious history.

  • This is an excellent way of connecting the past and present in NYC.

  • Fresh take on medieval gardens and Franciscan practices. Thanks!

  • Thanks for the interesting article.

  • Now I will go up to see the museum and with new eyes. Thanks!

  • Really thought provoking. I am going to use this with our study group on Catholics in NYC.

  • Like the article!

  • Good article.

  • Such great great work you are doing !!!

  • What a great story, glad I got a chance to read it.

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