Andrea Oliva Florenda, a professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, offered a day of reflection on Mary Gardens, December 1 at Bishop Molloy Retreat Center, Jamaica, New York. Professor Florenda teaches in the department of theology and religious studies at St. John’s, specializing in Marian theology. She’s also the designer and curator of the Marian Garden at the university.
Mary Gardens, dedicated to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, appeared in Europe following the Black Death, a pandemic that caused millions of deaths in that part of the world in the 14th century. The gardens, usually found in monasteries and religious shrines, brought hope to people walking “in the shadow of death.”
God placed Adam and Eve in a garden, Christian tradition says. (Genesis 2, 8-28) Rising from the dead, Jesus proclaimed eternal life in a garden. (John 20,11-18) For early and medieval Christians, Mary appeared as a garden enclosed, flowers, plants and trees surrounded her, “our life, our sweetness and our hope.” The Mary Garden, which became a favorite inspiration for medieval and renaissance artists, brought the promise of life to the “poor banished children of Eve.”
Does the Mary Garden have a role today in a world facing climate change and environmental degradation? Professor Florenda thinks it does. Besides the mysteries of faith, it teaches reverence for creation, for the soil, for plants that feed us and bring healing, for flowers that nourish our sense of beauty.
Certainly science and technology have a large part to play in the current environmental movement, but Professor Florenda notes the number of young people, from various religious tradition drawn to her Mary Garden at St. John’s, where the mysteries of seed and soil unfold, where pharmacy students study medicinal herbs and seasonal vegetables feed the poor.
The day of reflection on Mary Gardens ended at the grotto honoring Mary in the garden of Immaculate Conception Monastery in Jamaica. There, Professor Florenda spoke about the meaning of the grotto, its structure and the plants and trees surrounding it.