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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Tasting and Touching Transcendence: Engaging All the Senses Inside and Outside of Easter

by Krista Tippett, host

I have long been fascinated by Eastern Orthodox spirituality and theology, and I’m delighted to throw a spotlight on it in this holiest of Christian seasons in our show, "Restoring the Senses: Gardening and Orthodox Easter." In engaging all the senses — with incense, iconography, and lush hymnody — Orthodox worship conveys the incarnational message of Easter as a matter of routine.

In fact, in the Armenian Orthodox tradition of Vigen Guroian, every Sunday is in some sense a celebration of Easter. And in the passions of his life — as in the culture of generations of Armenians who came before him — he also tends the Easter themes year round through life, death, and resurrection in his beloved perennial garden.

There is a mystical collusion of the lofty and the literal, of sacred and earthly, in Guroian’s perspective. He describes how in Orthodox liturgy — as in gardening, as in life — “beginnings and endings” are repeatedly, transparently connected. And so an Armenian Easter commemorates the larger cosmic drama — beginning with the creation of the world, and human exile from the original garden of Eden, through eternity — that frames what the New Testament calls the “New Creation” in Jesus Christ.

That, of course, is high theology. But in Vigen Guroian’s imagination and in his garden, high theology is made three-dimensional, brought down in the most literal way to earth. So, for example, he describes the sacrificial labor of early spring, the time of Lent — the pruning, the mess, the clearing away that prepares him and his soil to “receive the gift.”

As he does so he not only evokes the grand themes of Easter, he vividly reveals the ancient, organic connections between many religious holidays of this time of year and nature’s cycles of fertility, decay, and regeneration.

At the same time, as Vigen Guroian remembers the aunts and uncles of his childhood, many of whom were survivors of the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century, he finds a connection between the gardens they cherished and the human tenacity to insist on the possibility of new life and resurrection out of every disaster.

I offer a handful of readings from Vigen Guroian as meditations on ancient, sometimes hidden, themes of this religious season that even the most devout of moderns might easily forget — exiled as so many of us are, by culture, from gardens.

From the essay "On Leaving the Garden" in The Fragrance of God:

"I have said on occasion that I think gardening is nearer to godliness than theology. … True gardeners are both iconographers and theologians insofar as these activities are the fruit of prayer "without ceasing.". Likewise, true gardeners never cease to garden, not even in their sleep, because gardening is not just something they do. It is how they live."

From the opening chapter of “On Leaving the Garden” in The Fragrance of God:

"In the Christian religion, sight has frequently been proffered as a metaphor for the experience of God. The medieval theologians spoke of the "vision of God" as the summum bonum, the highest good of the Christian life. They singled out sight as the “mystical” sense, the one that draws us deepest into communion with God. Dare I contend with souls so wise? For I have a notion that smell, not sight, is the most mystical sense. The garden has persuaded me of this.”

And, an excerpt from "Lenten Spring" in Inheriting Paradise:

"Lilies and hyacinths signify the resurrection, and I can understand why. But I have a pair of turtles that plant themselves in my garden each fall like two gigantic seeds and rise on Easter with earthen crowns upon their humbled heads. With the women at the tomb, I marvel."
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William Blake’s Holy Thursdays

by Kate Moos, executive producer

William Blake's "Holy Thursday"William Blake, the English poet and engraver, wrote two poems entitled “Holy Thursday” — one a “song of innocence” and one a “song of experience.”

Each of them decry the wretched realities of children in poverty but tell different stories, in different tones. The Song of Experience begins, in outrage:

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduc’d to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

The Song of Innocence presents a picture of orderly and gentile charity to which the British class system condemned the poor. The poem ends with a sarcastic exhortation to “cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.”

Both poems recall yet another Song of Experience, "The Human Abstract," which begins:

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

Blake himself, of course, lived in abject poverty for most of his life and was actually buried on borrowed money in a graveyard reserved for dissenters and nonconformists.

Image courtesy of ©2003 Fitzwilliam Museum

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