The Untouched Garden

Presidential Blog by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia

They shall flourish as a garden
Hosea 14: 7

My children always tease me for being a workaholic, and they roll their eyes whenever I have time off. ‘Get ready for the special projects,’ my daughter announces melodramatically. ‘Dad, you suck at relaxing,’ my son will confirm. They’re right, of course. For whatever reason, my brain wants to fill the empty space. At worse, I see unused time as a deficit, at best as an opportunity to get things done. I’m told that this is a common psychological reality for many. In a doctor’s waiting room, many will fidget, search their phones or pour over magazines without seeing their content, just to fill the gap.

In art there is a theory called ‘horror vacui’, from the Latin ‘fear of empty space’, or the Greek, ‘fear of the empty’. The term essentially describes movements where artists felt the need to fill every inch of canvas. Examples of this include ancient Arabesque Islamic art, illuminated manuscripts like the Books of Kells, and many of the works of the Victorian Age. Jean Duvet’s famous engravings immediately come to mind, where every inch of his images is covered in exquisitely etched lines. Perception, of course, works the same way, with the brain often filling in missing pieces of a picture, or a memory, and then completing it in the mind’s eye — whether it is there or not.

I thought of this, strangely enough, when re-reading Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, and I was struck, this time, by his reference to St. Francis, his namesake, and the saint’s insistence that ‘part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God.’ Epiphany is too strong a word for this, but I thought immediately of this compulsion so many have to fill all so-called empty space — in time, in landscape, in conversation — and realized that I have been mistaking the nature of these open spaces.

Many will be familiar with the notion of fallow land: usually those parts of a farm that are left untended after successive years of cultivation. One of the dictionary definitions for fallow land is ‘obsolete’; another is ‘dormant’. Both seem far from what is actually happening in the soil. In reality, fallow fields allow the soil to rebuild its nutrients and recover fertility. The land isn’t dormant — it is coming alive!

Perhaps this is a lesson available to all of us — that we do not need to cultivate every inch of unfilled time and space in our lives. It is okay to stop, and pause, and even to do nothing in order that our psyches can replenish, and in the stillness to hear the voice of God. Maybe that is the special project I should be looking forward to. The garden is already there, I just have to leave it alone and watch the grass … the wildflowers … grow.


Subscribe to Figure of Speech

Receive an email when new columns are published.

Subscribe to News & Event information

Sign-up to receive notifications.