The Cloistered Garden

Library of Congress archival photo.

I began dreaming of a walled sanctuary soon after I began gardening in the 1970s. I wondered what it would be like to live behind the cloistered wall of a monastery, sealed off from the chaos of the outside world.

Rose and I are now cloistered. This is not what I’d hoped for. Not by choice, we are walled in, staying close to home.

The very large Gingko, at the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani, gives me hope. Like it, we too are old growth.

Gethsemani Encounter II participants gather beneath the Gingko. 2002. “Groundbreaking dialogue between monastics of various Catholic and Buddhist orders.”

I am at an elevated risk to coronavirus COVID-19. I am old-ish (68) and my immune system (M.S.) is compromised. My life in the garden this past week has been a healing process. My half-dozen past gardens, over 45 years, have always been my quiet place, where I am able briefly to let go of the world around me.

The Cistercian monks at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani arise at 3:15 AM to do the first of their psalms (beginning with Vigils and ending with Compline at 7:30 PM).

We, meanwhile, sowed seeds of lettuce, spinach, chard, turnips, and beets, then planted potato eyes and sets of spring onions.

Brother Harold in 1991.

Brother Harold was the self-anointed gardener at Gethsemani in the 1990s. He and I corresponded for several years before we met. He shared my love for gingkoes. Harold loved his perennials also, especially daylilies. He purchased perennials from my old Holbrook Farm and Nursery. (Who knew frugal Trappists had a budget for plants?!)

Brother Harold took me behind the cloistered wall on my one visit with him in 1991. We stood still under the big Gingko. I had previously, on earlier visits beginning in childhood, looked through the closed gates and wondered what lay beyond. A secret garden, perhaps?

Filmmaker Morgan Atkinson captured the Gingko in his documentary about Gethsemani:

Thomas Merton was Gethsemani’s best-known monk. Merton was a priest, teacher, poet, photographer, activist, author, occasional hermit and gardener. Brother Harold, in contrast, was not well known beyond the Abbey of Gethsemani.

It wasn’t until this last week, when our own self-styled cloistered existence became suddenly essential, that I began thinking again about Brother Harold.

Alzheimer’s took Harold’s mind and eventually his life, but I will remember his trust in faith and mystery. The Abbot told me later that Harold, in a diminished state, would often come up to other monks, hold up bouquets of flowers, in front of their faces, and say wildly, “Aren’t these beautiful?” The monks acknowledged politely, “Yes they are.” They smiled and walked away.

The remnants of Thomas Merton’s Zen Garden. 1991.

I’m convinced Harold was on a gardening mission. He wanted to bring the monks back to the garden.

I have spent the last 50 years trying to do the same. Garden converts don’t come easily. Gardening requires a unique subset of determination: passion and the discipline of a holy monk.

Gingko behind the monastic wall. Brother Paul Quenon photo.

Near the end of my few hours with Brother Harold, he took me to the back of the monk’s quarters, out of all public view. Brother Harold pointed to the forsaken Zen garden that Thomas Merton had built. There wasn’t much left besides chunks of karst limestone and a few chairs. We stood there quietly for a few minutes with no distracting thoughts.

Harold must have done this magical tour before, but he didn’t say.

I suspect Brother Harold had discovered that God and garden are mysteriously revealed together at the sweet spot of the quieted mind.


  1. I have thought a lot about walled gardens, monasteries, sanctuaries, etc., these last few days also. The idea of a sheltered, protected place filled with life and sunshine is so appealing right now; of course, being forced to take refuge there is a bit different from simply choosing it for a time. Anyway, I feel blessed to have an outdoor space of any kind right now. It’s a gift. I pray your little corner of Kentucky stays healthy.

  2. Thank you for this very appropriate post! I am in Provence, France, living on a largish property (3/4 acre) with several different garden areas, all of which are crying out to be weeded! Is that zen? Never mind, I am quite happy to be cloistered, its a change isn’t it? The weeds not so happy, but never mind.
    bonnie in the Vaucluse

  3. All right, now you’ve done it, Allen. You’ve got me in tears.
    I read Merton from time to time and am sure he would enjoy this poignant, to say the least, missive.
    But you can go outside to work in your own garden, non? I’ll send you today’s snow pix, tomorrow.
    Don’t ever stop writing, my friend.

  4. After reading this, I am somewhat regretful for removing the Gingkoes that Grandmother Mary planted years ago, probably in ’44 or 45. Aunt Mary called them ‘the girls,’ and she loved the fall color. The Harrodsburg Herald loved it, too. They put a picture of Aunt Mary on the front page, showing her in our front yard raking mountains of yellow leaves and smiling her signature smile. By the time responsibility for the girls came to me, they were in quite a sad state from utility crew prunings/hatchet jobs and you cannot imagine the state of the sidewalk during their prolific season, which itself had buckled atop the tree roots. Still, I think there is room in the back yard for a few golden boys, and we do have some space on the left side where they could be seen from the front walk. You have me thinking, Allen, thinking of better things than worrying if I’ll get to make the trip to the Dixter Symposium in September, 2021. Keep inspiring us.

  5. I finished pruning yesterday morning at the top of my vineyard where it abuts our neighbor’s property. Neighbors on our hillside keep pretty much to themselves, but this time, my neighbor came out to garden as I was finishing up. We don’t always see eye to eye, but we had plenty to talk about, given the circumstances. Where we’d normally talk within a closer distance, we kept a fair ways apart from each other, but it was fine, there was plenty of room. So not having walls between us allowed a contact we normally don’t make, but that will allow us to keep in touch during this experience. That said, I have always wanted a small sunny courtyard to putter in!

    • Anne, I’m checking on neighbors a lot more than I did a month ago. I think this is a universal, and healthy, response to tragedy. I’m still hoping I can have a little walled garden, but I know it’s not practical in our summer heat and humidity. Well, maybe a shady one on a breezy hilltop. I’m dreaming…

  6. If you have a garden you can never be cloistered from the wider world. When the gardening season arrives I am quite happy to never leave home as my family and garden are all that’s required to be happy. Beautiful story about the ginkgo. I am sure it has seen many such times. Stay safe Allen.

    • Thank you Elaine. Yes, the Gethsemani gingko has seen a lot of history. Merton and the Dali Lama met once in Thailand, at an ecumenical in 1968. Merton had a profound influence on the young Dali Lama, who has traveled to Gethsemani several times since, and stood in the shade of this great gingko.

  7. My parents had two Gingkos in Brooklyn, in front of our house. Woe to them when they discovered that they were female. The week that my mother died the fruit fell and people came to pay condolence calls. Her carpet reeked. No amount of Lysol could mask it.

  8. Your post has me thinking of the duality of the concept of a cloister. While relative to society, the cloister represents a choice to isolate. But within the confines of that cloister, we celebrate the natural environment with a communal space that puts the sun and elements at the core of a surrounding shelter. We need not socialize within it to bring ourselves in harmony by the fact of the enclosure.
    In my community, neighbors I’ve never talked to directly are using group emails to orchestrate activities that acknowledge our separation but still bring us together. People are posting rainbow illustrations in their windows as a subject of a treasure hunt for children on exercise outings with their care-givers. Later today is a “Cowbell Challenge” to make noise…as in Italy. Bringing ourselves together while physically apart.

    • Very interesting, Eric. I’m not entirely isolated and besides grocery shopping, I’m not getting out much. Zoom is my new social network. Now, I participate in pilates and qigong classes on a tiny iPad.


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