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.