As you came up to the gate you’re a little hesitant, you’ve been told about the gentleman Swedenborg and how welcoming he is, but you’ve also heard about his visions and that he may be out of his mind. The gate is open when you get there, and you call out. No one answers, but you’ve heard there’s an open door policy on Sunday afternoons and so you walk in. As you enter you’re struck by the simple beauty of the courtyard, surrounded by trees and brush of a type you’ve never seen before. Across the way is an even more beautiful space, a garden filled with lush foliage, box trees in the shape of animals, plants and fruit that are new to your eyes, and a design that pleases your mind. There’s also a house and other structures off to your left. As you explore the space, breathing deeply of the new aromatics, you’re further distracted by the sound of birds, laughter and perhaps music from a gate to your right. You’re not sure what to expect as you pass through, but the glimpse you’ve already gotten astounds and it seems like this is only the beginning…
Swedenborg’s home, and especially his garden, served as a sanctuary and altar for the seer, and perhaps for the neighborhood as well. It was one of only a few in the area and it was very popular for its beauty. It was a place of contemplation and meditation. He made music there, accepted guests, explored and wrote literature within the small “summer house” and his study, entered into botanical artistry, he grieved, cried and mined theological depths within this space. Its structure was clearly designed to engage and entertain Emanuel – it was designed by him – as well as to amuse his guests, his servants and their families. There was a maze, stone paths, an orchard, flowers of all kinds, plants from around the world, summer and garden houses, a library, and a large birdhouse full of songbirds. Its beauty and enveloping nature was probably quite astonishing – all surrounded by high walls.
As the stories go, Swedenborg would eventually lead guests to a door, promising to show them his next, even greater garden. He’d then reveal a mirror reflecting their surprised faces back to them. And in a sense, this joke was much more than a fancy for him. We don’t spell it out often, but it’s clear that Swedenborg felt called to help cultivate others’ spirits: spiritual transformation seems to be the impetus and point of his theological writing, his life’s work. Our hearts and minds were clearly the gardens that Swedenborg most yearned to nurture, to lead to abundance. But this space was probably the closest to what you could literally call Swedenborg’s church, his heaven on earth. In later life, outside of work, this is where he most often and clearly expressed embodied worship in many forms, where he had fun, and where he most consistently engaged with others.
In retrospect, it’s no surprise that Swedenborg would choose a garden for the setting of his life’s work and play. Swedenborg describes the deeper meanings, correspondences of a garden perhaps in more ways than anything else in his theological works. He relates various forms of working in a garden to the three major parts of what he viewed as salvation (no matter what your religion): 1 repentance he relates to weeding, 2 reformation he relates to healing, rearranging and grafting, and 3 regeneration he relates to fruiting and abundance. For him, a garden also represents us more generally, our rational minds, the Word, a Church, Heaven, and the Lord. He emphasizes that gardens appear everywhere in heaven due to their abundance of correspondences, with each garden’s form and plants modified for the specifics of the occasion and the people there.
Having seen so many heavenly gardens it’s no wonder that Swedenborg went through so much personal effort to create his own, to gather the huge collection of plants that he did. He very intentionally collected from America and here at home, from across Europe and from Africa. Dutch figures of animals and other objects made out of box trees adorned his lawn, and there were artichokes, lemons, alliums and roses, tulips, carnations, catmint, chamomile, sweet peas, and the list goes on and on. This is one reason why the artistic depictions never do Swedenborg’s garden any justice – they rarely depict the variety of life within it – and why words like mine indubitably fall short.
And this was not an isolated, purely selfish sanctuary. A large amount of the produce cultivated by Swedenborg and his gardener went to Swedenborg’s servants to use or sell, and they are said to have retired remarkably well-off. Many people came to visit the garden and Swedenborg would entertain. It’s very conceivable that there were regulars. Further, as we know, garden walking and working, maze traversing, music making (as Swedenborg did in his summer house), and raising birds, are all considered potent spiritual practices for many people today. So in a sense, we can think of Swedenborg’s garden as the first Swedenborgian Garden Church, an early precedent to Anna Woofenden’s enterprise in San Pedro.
Beyond all of these details, we can see how this entire space served as a canvass for Swedenborg. Gardening itself was an art for him, one that involved researching and collecting, communicating and procuring, designing, digging, positioning, logistics, hiring, and managing. His art, both within his literal garden and the garden of his theological works, served to bring people together, to delight our minds and give us a glimpse of heaven. As we’ve seen with the San Pedro Church, working together in a garden can be extremely empowering and transformative. It invites and deepens community if we do it right: improves our confidence, awareness, and our connections to each other, as well as with nature, and the Divine. And that’s what this is all about, community and connection, emboldening a deep, selfless love. It’s why we’re all here, together, reflecting on a transient garden long gone…
All of that said, it’s probably no coincidence that Swedenborg was 55, just before his spiritual awakening, when he bought this plot of land. Knowledge of this altar gives us Swedenborgians a better look at the man behind the books. It helps to ground Swedenborg in reality, away from politics and world-travelling, publishing and spiritual spelunking. From all accounts, we get a picture of a guy happy to make happy, pleased by delighting others, making art, and creating abundance. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. You can almost see him now, pausing up the bend, peacefully awaiting you and the moment when he gets to teasingly unveil his next, even greater garden.