Did you have a favorite book when you were little? Maybe you liked Gulliver’s Travels, Oliver Twist, or the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys series. You might have read the Doctor Dolittle series, like I did, or enjoyed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, long before the television show made the stories part of our tv culture. I had a whole stack of favorites, and I enjoyed some of them so much that I continued to read them regularly, even as an adult. One book I feel drawn back to every couple of years is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
You may remember the story—or perhaps you saw the 1949 black-and-white movie version, with Margaret O’Brien in the lead role. She was brilliant. The story is about a petulant, spoiled, awful little girl named Mary Lennox, the only child of aristocrats living in India, who—right at the beginning of the story—have just become casualties of the cholera epidemic sweeping through the country. Mary has been raised mostly by servants in their big palatial home, and when authorities come to gather her up, arrangements are made to send her to the remote and lonely English house of her recluse uncle, a man of bad humor who people rarely see, because he purposefully travels much of the year.
It seems everywhere we look in this story, things are bad: people are mean, cold, and uncaring. Mary throws massive fits and people barely tolerate her. The housekeeper is strict and unbending, letting Mary know she’s an annoyance and a burden. Her uncle, when she finally meets him, regards her with disdain and shows no interest in getting to know her. One morning, Mary wakes and discovers that a young, good natured house maid named Martha—isn’t that interesting? Mary and Martha–tending her fire. Mary arrogantly demands that Martha help her dress and get her breakfast, and Martha stands up and looks at her and laughs, letting the little girl’s demands just roll right off. This is the first moment of grace in the book—a little glimmer of light when Martha looks on this angry, upset little girl with kindness, offering gentle good-humor to one who doesn’t deserve it, but needs it, desperately.
At first Mary is shocked and irritated to be dismissed so easily, and she tries again and again to get her way. But soon she becomes curious about the teen, and a bit of a friendship begins to grow. Martha tells Mary about the secret garden—a once-beautiful, well-tended space on the property that years before was masterpiece of beauty, back when the mistress of the house had been alive. Mary learns that the garden has been locked since the day a tree branch broke and fell and caused the tragedy that took her aunt’s life. Her uncle, she learns, has been broken and angry and running from his grief ever since.
Bit by bit in the book, we see grace working its healing magic—slowly, softly, spreading over time. Mary begins to soften as her trust in Martha’s kind soul continues to grow. And she discovers—after hearing distraught and angry cries late at night—that she has a cousin named Colin who is an invalid, hidden away to the point that no one ever speaks of him; he is very frail, unable to walk, and certain that he is going to die any day. He is also given to hysterical crying and raging fits—usually late at night–which terrorizes the household, even though they’ve been forbidden by Mary’s uncle to speak of him. Everyone involved, we learn, is held captive by the words they cannot say, the wounds they cannot heal, the hearts they cannot open.
In Mary’s case, she’s never been loved and cherished, and as a result she commands and rages at anyone who won’t do her bidding. She has known no other way of being in the world. Her uncle has been devastated by his terrible loss and he’s held prisoner by his grief; he’s been wandering the world for a decade, broken and angry, a lost ghost, unable to find any comfort or discover how to begin to live again. Mary’s cousin Colin has been literally hidden away in his bedroom for years, discarded as shamefully flawed and weak and told repeatedly he’s on the verge of death, which could come at any moment. He’s furious with the mother he doesn’t remember for leaving him; he assumes her absence has something to do with how wretched he is. All these characters are heartbreakingly alone and isolated in their pain, each one a slave to the past events that wounded and shaped them but have not let them heal.
But thankfully, this is not the end of the story. Remember the glimmer of grace when Martha treated the tantrumming Mary with a little kindness? A little fresh breeze of something new entered the room and Mary’s life—and that old manor house–that day. This is key to the tender and nearly invisible way God weaves touches of love and light into all our stories. In our Old Testament reading today, we heard Isaiah reminding the people of God’s promise to his children. With restored relationship, Isaiah says,
“… the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.”
This glimmer of grace will lead any thirsty soul toward the kindness and community it needs in order to begin to live with hope again. God wants beauty in our landscape—just look around at the all color and pattern provided for us: It is always there, even when we’re too sad to notice. God intends for joy and gladness to be part of what carries us along in life, even when our hearts are burdened and can’t quite let it in. The good news is that even when we get caught in old hurts or fear or resentment, God will not leave us there. Even if we can’t yet see it, Grace is coming to set us free.
As the story progresses, Mary meets Martha’s amazing little brother Dickon, who has a wonderful way with animals—wherever he goes he is accompanied by birds and a fox and other four-footed friends. Together the children find the key to the locked garden—thanks to the help of a kindly old gardener and a very smart crow–and gradually, over time, they begin with love and gentle care to clear away the dead growth so a new loveliness can grow. This is all done in secret, because they know Mary’s uncle would be furious—he has forbidden anyone to go into the garden and intended to keep it locked up forever.
As Mary learns to care for the life and lives around her, we learn that she is changing from a frowning, tight, pale child into a young girl with a healthy, natural beauty. As she begins to blossom, her cousin Colin—who has now heard about the garden but too ill to see it—demands he have a chance to visit this special place. Those caring for him try to forbid it, telling him he could die, but he insists. Mary and Martha and Dickon take Colin out to the garden in a wheelchair, and you can imagine what happens for him. The healing and transforming work of grace continues.
In our New Testament reading, Jesus is speaking to the Jewish people who have been following his teachings and believing the ideas he’s offered. They are faithful people, most likely keeping all the commandments and rituals at the center of their Jewish tradition. When Jesus suggests that they need to continue in his word—in other words, live by the teachings he’s giving them—so they can know the truth and the truth will set them free, the people blink and say, “Wait a minute. We’re descendants of Abraham. We’ve never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘We will be free’?”
They seem to think they are already free because they are not bound by visible chains, but Jesus is suggesting something much different. It’s interesting to note that they seem for the moment also to have forgotten the rich story of their heritage—the time their ancestors wandered in the wilderness after fleeing captivity in Egypt; the stories of the daily manna, the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night to lead them. Their ancestors knew God intimately, God was present to them, a God that was leading them daily. In contrast, the Jews listening to Jesus seem to feel that perhaps keeping the laws and rituals is enough.
But Jesus is not talking about going through the motions of faith—he’s pointing them back to the true and living relationship with grace that flows life and joy and beauty into the lives we lead. He wants to know about our relationships—how close we are to God, how kind we are to each another—and says that anyone who sins gets tangled up in it, enslaved and caught until grace finds a way in. “I am that grace,” he suggests. “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
And it is the restoring of relationships in The Secret Garden that ultimately brings healing—and a sense of life’s goodness—back to everyone in the house. At the close of the story, the children are all friends, Colin is thriving and working on walking—hoping to surprise his father—and health and joy and gladness have returned to them all. The garden is flourishing as it had ten years before. In the final scene, Mary’s uncle finds the children in the garden and instead of erupting in anger, he embraces his son, overjoyed and overwhelmed, finally reached by grace, and ready, himself, to live again.
Free indeed, that’s what Jesus said. We don’t have to see the whole plan for our own lives—in fact, I’m convinced we can’t see the whole plan. It is still unfolding and grace will play an important part. Mary didn’t know that the arc of her story would end in a much happier place than it began. Her uncle couldn’t envision a happy life for himself ever again. And we might have trouble, in this precise moment, picturing the day in our not-too-distant future when everything feels okay and whole, peaceful and beautiful again.
But that’s how grace works. It begins as a tiny glimmer, a kind gesture, and it spreads bit by bit throughout our lives for as long as we live. It heals our old hurts and frees us to love more truly, shining God’s light further into the darkness so that others, too, can find their way. I’d like to close with a beautiful poem by Maya Angelou that tells us what grace, alive and well, looks like in the world:
By Maya Angelou
My wish for you
is that you continue
To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world
With your acts of kindness
To allow humor to lighten the burden
Of your tender heart
In a society dark with cruelty
To let the people hear the grandeur
Of God in the peals of your laughter
To remind the people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you
To put the mantel of your protection
Around the bodies of
The young and defenseless
To take the hand of the despised
And diseased and walk proudly with them
In the high street
Some might see you and
Be encouraged to do likewise
To plant a public kiss of concern
On the cheek of the sick
And the aged and infirm
And count that as a
Natural action to be expected
To let gratitude be the pillow
Upon which you kneel to
Say your nightly prayer
And let faith be the bridge
You build to overcome evil
And welcome good
To ignore no vision
Which comes to enlarge your range
And increase your spirit
To dare to love deeply
And risk everything
For the good thing
Happily in the sea of infinite substance
Which set aside riches for you
Before you had a name
And by doing so
You and your work
Will be able to continue
- OT Isaiah 51: 3
- NT John 8: 31-38
- Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_Garden
- Burnett wikipedia:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Hodgson_Burnett
- Maya Angelou: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/maya-angelou