The Story of the Biblical Meditation Garden

By Dr. Frank Rogers*

On the first day of class in the fall of 1996, twenty students from a course on ‘Communal Learning and Care for the Earth’ were sent throughout the Claremont School of Theology campus. The instructors, Mary Elizabeth Moore and Frank Rogers, asked the students to linger within the physical environment of the campus and to discern both places where new life was yearning to be born and places where the flourishing of life was being hindered.

When the class regathered one student, an artist, made two observations. First, she challenged the class to name three curved lines within the physical structure of the campus. The buildings and pathways were all linear, running perpendicularly to each other and intersecting in sharp corners and angles. She suggested that this leaves the impression that CST is a very linear, rational, and cerebral environment without much room for the fluidity of spirit and creativity. Second, she challenged the class to list three symbols within the physical space of the school that distinguished CST as an institution where theology is engaged. She suggested that the only symbol that distinguished CST from a school of business say or law was the school symbol on the frontage road sign.

Another student voiced a yearning for a sacred outdoor space where one could pray and sit quietly. Yet another student grieved over the neglected field between student housing and the academic building, a veritable dumping ground for piles of broken concrete and twisted steel which was more than an eyesore, it was a danger for playing children. The various feelings and observations intertwined with one another and the vision was born to reclaim this parcel of land and create a prayer garden upon it. A group of students volunteered to design the garden with commitments to including religious symbols and to embodying ecologically sound principles in the plan.

Independent of these stirrings, the Chairperson for the Board of Trustees and his wife, Roy and Jan Miller, approached President Bob Edgar about creating a Biblical Garden on campus in honor of their mothers. The garden was to plant only species of trees, bushes, and vegetables named in the Bible. The Millers desired to contribute the money for the garden and to participate in the actual design of the garden.

President Edgar, upon hearing of the plans from the students, invited them to collaborate with the Millers. The collaboration was enormously and mutually fruitful. The students learned that the bioregion of southern California is very similar to that of the Biblical lands so indigenous species were compatible with the plantings named in the Bible. The Millers were delighted that the garden be designed for prayer and meditation and shared commitments to ecological integrity. The two visions began to merge together. Throughout, Roy Miller was deeply involved in the design process. Indeed, he became something of an expert on Biblical plant species and hunted throughout the west coast for appropriate species.

As the students and the Millers began collaborating, it became clear that a consultant on landscape architecture would be helpful. Dr. John Lyle, a professor on environmental landscaping at Cal Poly Pomona and founder of the internationally acclaimed Center for Regenerative Studies, joined the team. John was a godsend. A man of deep spirit, environmental brilliance, and sensitive listening, he worked closely with the students, faculty, and the Millers in designing, supplying, and constructing the garden. He heard the various hopes and drew up the blueprints for the garden. Then, he facilitated the construction process.

By the end of the fall semester, the garden was designed and funded. Construction began in the spring. A contractor graded the land and put in the paths. CST students, faculty, and staff worked on the rest under the continual leadership of Dr. Lyle. A number of campus work days were created to plant trees, dig out the fountain and water lines, and shovel gravel. John taught scores of people how to plant and care for the plantings. He scoured the fields and hillsides for rocks and logs to adorn the garden. He worked closely with the student leader overseeing the on-site construction, Paul Kloster. And he dug his share of holes and ditches. Nearly 200 people from the CST community participated in creating the garden in one way or another, planting trees, preparing lunches, delivering supplies. At the end of the spring, during graduation festivities, a massive multicultural prayer service consecrated the garden.

The hope was and continues to be that the garden will be a place where persons may reconnect with the sacred presence that breathes throughout the Christian spiritual tradition. Every planting is both Biblical and indigenous to California. The paths meander to invite meditation and reflection on one’s life journey. Recycled concrete was used to witness to the need for caring stewardship of the Earth. The entire garden embodies ecological integrity, plants regenerating one another are placed together, and the pond is a self-sustaining eco-system of its own between fish and plant life. And tumbling from the hills, through the waterfall, and out into the world by way of the gravel garden strewn with boulders and tree trunks, is the cleansing spirit of justice and righteousness, God’s Spirit woven with the spirit of creation.

Sadly, John Lyle contracted cancer during the later phases of completing the garden. Indeed, he took an afternoon to replace a tree in spite of what he thought was a persistent flu bug. He swiftly died but two months later. We found a rock in the hills where he so frequently wandered for inspiration. We engraved that rock and dedicated the garden to John, with heartfelt gratitude for his leadership, his unfailing hard work, and his contagious love for the Earth. May his spirit continue to mingle with the spirits and dreams of all of those who birthed this sacred space on campus. And may this space serve to renew countless others through the flowing streams of God’s own grace-filled Spirit.

[*Dr. Rogers is the Muriel Bernice Roberts Professor of Spiritual Formation and Narrative Pedagogy and the co-director of the Center for Engaged Compassion]