Every spring I muse on the weeds in my garden. A particularly demonic weed (from my perspective) is convolvulus arvensis: Bindweed. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. The only way to get rid of it completely is to kill everything using something like Roundup—and that’s only if it has not flowered. If it has flowered and produced seeds, well then you are looking at 20 years of volunteer bindweed.
I am not a fan of herbicides, so every spring and all through the summer and well into the fall I am in my garden doing my best to root out the bindweed—and any other stray plant that is not growing where it is supposed to, which, by definition, is a weed. Buttercups are a pain, but you can dig out their roots: about an inch or two down there is a clump, and if you get that, you’ve got the weed. But bindweed is, it seems to me, of the evil one. The roots are runners that can go a foot or more deep and twist through the root systems of other plants and pop up several feet from where they began. And even if you get most of it out, it’s not enough. Bindweed re-sprouts from the tiniest bit of root or vine or leaf left behind.
So, by the way, don’t throw the roots from your garden onto your lawn—thinking that they will dry out and die on top of the grass. No such luck. They will find a way to take root in the grass. And then, once it’s in the grass, every time you mow your lawn, you are spreading bindweed to wherever you throw your clippings. Go ahead, ask me how I know….
In utter frustration, I have used pesticide on places overrun with bindweed, and it does an excellent job of killing the bindweed—and anything else growing there.
St. Isaac the Syrian speaks of sin as if it were in our bodies like bindweed. It is only death, only the complete dissolution of our bodies that will eventually completely free us from sin. Consequently, life is always a battle with the bindweed of sin, which pops up here and there, seemingly at random. If you give up, it takes over. If you resist it, you can grow a pretty nice garden—but you have to keep at it, keep pulling out the bindweed wherever it pops up its head. Sometimes, especially in the early spring and in the fall, you can pull out long runners and systems of runners—like an unseen subway system that the demons have constructed under your garden. This gives you a sense both of satisfaction and of despondent realism. Satisfaction comes from knowing that you have removed several metres of potential problems. The despondent realism comes from the seeing that the root system is much more widespread than you had ever imagined and bound up in the root systems of your perennial shrubs.
Trying to get rid of bindweed is so much like Jesus’s parable of the wheat and the tares. There comes a point at which sin cannot be rooted out without destroying the plants you want to save. The separation is up to the angels, at the end of the age. Until then, ours is to battle, to resist, to pull out the bindweed-like vines of sin wherever they pop up (and up and up and up), and dig out roots whenever we can– without destroying the very life, the very plants, we are seeking to save. A garden with bindweed can be wonderfully beautiful and fruitful, if you don’t stop pulling the weeds. A Christian life, similarly, can bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit, even if sinful thoughts and urges continue to pop up here and there, thoughts and urges that we do not want, but that we cannot seem to control, thoughts and urges that we can only pull out of the garden of our mind and throw away as garbage.
I had not encountered bindweed as a weed when I lived in Southern California. There I knew it as a climbing flower, as Morning Glory. Southern California is too dry for bindweed to go far on its own. If you stop watering it, it dies. However, here, in the land of wet, mild winters, and wet warmish springs and autumns, and brief, somewhat less rainy summers, bindweed has found its Eden. (By the way, there’s a joke out here that we have only two seasons: The rainy season, and August. But that’s a little overstated. “August” weather usually begins sometime in July and last into September. That’s a good eight weeks a year when you can expect to see the sun for at least a few hours most days.) The bindweed loves it here.
When I first encountered bindweed it angered me. I aggressively rooted it out wherever I found it; and, in my profound ignorance, ended up spreading it all over my garden. I think many of us have had a similar experience of trying to root sin from of our lives. In zeal or anger or pride, or most probably a mishmash of all three, we set about to root out certain sins from our life; but in the process, we have, perhaps, destroyed some of the fruit-bearing relationships in our lives and thrown roots and leaves and vines of sin here and there so that, to our surprise, they have rerooted in unexpected areas of our lives. It has often been said that the devil will trade an animal passion for a spiritual one any day. That is, it’s always easy for us to trade gluttony for envy or fornication for pride or laziness for arrogance. Go ahead, ask me how I know….
The hard thing to do is to enter into humility. And that’s where this metaphor of sin as bindweed most speaks to me. I never, not in this life, get to have a perfect garden. I strive for perfection (well, at least for peas and carrots and potatoes and corn). I strive to have a fruitful garden, for my life to bear some of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, to manifest some of the Christian virtues. But the only way I can do this is to confess—more to myself than to God or anyone else: heck, God already knows and everyone else can clearly see the weeds in my garden. I must confess to myself that just under the surface of my life, in the subway systems of my mind and heart, sinful roots are tunnelling.
Sometimes I know that it’s happening, but usually not. Usually, I don’t realize a root of sin is tunnelling in me until it pops up as a thought or an urge or a feeling. Sometimes I don’t recognize the weed until it has wound its way two or three feet up a corn stalk. Sometimes the sinful and the godly impulses are bound together, the motives are mixed, the feelings confused: the trusting, life-giving, and peaceful thoughts are jumbled together with the fearful, doubt-filled, and disturbing thoughts. When this happens, when I notice this, I remember the advice of Elder Sophrony of Essex. This mix of sin and godly thoughts in my mind becomes a kind of hell for me. And when I see this hell, when this hell overwhelms me, then it is time to take a few steps back and have tea.
“Having tea” means that it is time for me to stop and remember that our Father in heaven is the only real husbandman, God is the gardener of my life. I am only God’s little helper—and not a very good one at that. Only God can cleanse my garden of weeds. All I can do is acknowledge them, confess them. All I can do is recognize the sinful thought and say, “No, that’s not me. That’s not the me I am becoming. That is not going to bear the fruit I want in my life.” And then slowly and patiently, I unwind the bindweed from the corn stalk and break it off—getting only as much of the root as I can pull out without uprooting the corn. That will be the job of the angels at the end of the age: to separate and destroy all of the roots of sin in my life. Until then, I keep pulling the weeds as I can see them.
I realize that any metaphor—especially an extended metaphor as I have given you—has only very limited application. Sin in our life may indeed be like weeds in a garden, but sin is not really a weed nor is our life really a garden. Nonetheless, what exactly sin is and what exactly our life is are both mysteries to us. We only see in a mirror darkly; we only know in part and prophesy in part, as St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians. Images and metaphors, ironies and paradoxes help us understand, help us know, help us deal with what we only actually see bits and pieces of.
So, to be explicit, I hope you take away from my little weed metaphor a kind of patience with yourself. You are not your sins, just as the bindweed that wraps itself around my corn is not corn. Still, you have to keep pulling the weeds. The weeds keep coming, and we keep pulling them out as we see them. That’s the normal Christian life. I don’t save myself. God alone is my salvation. God alone can save me from sin. I only show God that I want to be saved by pulling up the sin and the weeds of my life that I can see, the sins that I can pull out without destroying the other fruit-bearing plants in my life.
In the end, humility wins. Humility is not overwhelmed by the weeding. Humility just keeps pulling weeds knowing that in the end, God and His angels will eventually kill them all. And in the mean time, while I am paying attention to the weeding, carrots are growing, potatoes are growing, corn is reaching up the the sky. God’s fruit is manifest in the garden of my life even as I spend a good deal of my time just pulling weeds.
Thank you for sharing this. I really needed to hear it.
Also, could you recommend a volume of St Isaac the Syrian? Perhaps an Amazon link?
The only English translation of St. Isaac’s homilies that I know of is the one produced by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. I suggest that you purchase it directly from them.
My dad sends me some of the reflections you do. Know that it’s a blessing and what you say resonates…”deep calls to deep.”
I am a student at Holy Cross in Boston, studying for the Priesthood and you are so helpful in the question about what we actually can do, the fact that only God saves, yet I still can contribute – only to show Him I want to be saved. It’s so nuanced and unexpected this way of humility… The weeds being connected to the fruits to get the weeds higher off the ground. In a very small book, “Saint Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia: A Hesychast from the Holy Mountain in the Heart of a City” we have the final story of the book with St. Porphyrios warning a doctor friend that they both will be in hell. “You listen to the people telling you you’re so great because you saved their child’s life and me, people tell me I have special gifts, that I’m a saint! And we both eat it like candy…” Essentially that they need even to repent of their virtues not just their sins. And one stanza from the very end of the Great Canon of St. Andrew reads: “O only Saviour, do not require of me in my weakness fruits which will show that I have changed my ways. Grant rather that finding contrition of heart and poverty in spirit, I may offer these to you as a pleasing sacrifice.” My best friend says quite seriously, “I am going to die in my sins.” Like the bird trapped in the fowlers net who the more he struggles the more entrapped he becomes, but to “chirp” and simply wait on the Lord’s coming and freeing, this is the “way” I think you are leading us to here in this exquisite extended analogy and talk. Thank you so much and God bless you for your life, work, and witness to God’s love!
I’m a huge fan of St. Porphyrios (I know “fan” is not the right word, but it’s the word that feels right). I cannot recommend highly enough “Wounded by Love.”
Dear Fr.–What perfect timing for this reflection! I have been fighting what I have called “devil weed” on the acreage that we purchased 3 years ago and the day you posted this I finally found out what it is–Malta Star Thistle aka centaura Melitenssis. (aka devil weed). It’s on the federal noxious, invasive plant list, so at least I wasn’t totally delusional. Anyway, although I have cleared a lot of it (pulling it up), I saw the giant field remaining and realized it was not in my power to clear it all–at least this year–without killing off my hands and back. A friend had suggested last week that as I work to pull it I should intercede for the sins of others (she’s evangelical). I said that really my focus needs to be on my own sins and so, during the week, I’ve tried to use that physical exercise (pulling weeds) to “see” my own weeds. What an encouragement to receive your reflection. I will likely never eradicate all of this “invader”–but, my garden truly is beautiful. The invader loves to hide among the bluebonnets which are flourishing–which makes it hard to mow them down at this time. The wheat and tares analogy definitely applies. Help may be on the way–I’m calling on others to help (intercede). The Ag extension office and Texas Invasives group have some resources to stop such plants. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ll just keep doing what I can and thinking and praying for you as I labor. Thank you.
Yes, please pray for me. May God help you in your garden(s).
Hi Father-Thanks for a thought -provoking post. I know bind-weed was a metaphor for your deeper message but funny enough i/we have the identical problem in Salt Lake City, presumably a lot drier than where you are…..so to stretch the analogy we have to work the entangling weed off the raspberries and currants to access the fruit.
This Pascha will be my 1st, there’s been a lot of bind-weed in my past . I know I will be weeding for the rest of my life.
Thanks for the comment. I read the post to my wife this morning, and she informed me that there are several varieties of bindweed that have adapted to different regions. I guess the struggle is the same no matter where you live, desert or rain forest, single or married, monastery or world.
I really enjoyed your post. I’ve never heard the saying about the devil loving to trade an animal passion for a spiritual one. I think when we give something up there is an opening ready to be filled, like Lent. If we weed our gardens but don’t plant something else in its place the weeds just come back. Here in Colorado I have a huge dandelion & weed problem. I have a semi-wild yard with no turf & lots of rock & sand & not enough water. Dandelions & weeds grow with little water & no effort at all as if they belong here, so I am making the best of it & letting the dandelions become our grass. We mow them as we would grass & they keep the dust down. I plant mint & sprinkle wildflower seed where I don’t want dandelion. Mint is a wonderful weed & wildflowers are so pretty. Without my weeds I would have a sandy dusty mess. I’m not implying anyone should learn to love their sins but maybe work on planting something a little better in their place a tiny bit at a time.
I’ve never heard Morning Glories called bind weed, but thats exactly what they are. I bought a packet of seeds, because the picture of the flowers looked so beautiful! But even here in Nevada, just a tiny bit of water keeps them coming back year after year. I have them corraled and growing on a wire trellis, but there’s no way to eradicate them short of scorched earth.
This is so fitting as I have been fighting with Canadian thistle for 6 years in my garden and it has spread everywhere. 3 x I went through my back-to-Eden garden this year alone to pull weeds and thistle and just asked the lord “why! I’m exhausted and it’s everywhere!”
He gently reminded me that this is what sin does to our lives when it takes hold. Each time I heard Him say this I knew it was an Object Lesson. I’m grateful for His lesson despite my frustration and overwhelm.
I’m tilling my no-till garden this fall. Like 25 times to starve it out.