Tending One's Own Garden on Independence Day
On July 4th, my oldest son and I shoveled a dump-truck load of mulch into our garden, where my wife spread it out two to three inches deep. This was not a bad way to celebrate Independence Day. There is something to be said for tending one’s own garden, more to be said for being left alone to tend one’s own garden, and even more to be said for being able to own a garden in the first place.
God’s Garden and Human Motivation
I don’t mean to say that the moral of Voltaire’s Candide was correct, that the only thing one should do is tend one’s own garden. Voltaire had little or no understanding of the importance of the Catholic Faith and the Church in safeguarding human goods. His cry against the Church, Ecrasez l’infame (“Crush the infamous thing”), was only minimally intelligible, even in his own time. The Church never lets us forget that there is a great garden of God to be tended, a garden in which rights and duties meet through love and sacrifice. But in this grand scheme, one’s own garden also plays a vital role.
We imitate God more by ownership than by stewardship. True, the first principle of the spiritual life is to recognize who God is and who we are, to appreciate that all is gift, and to steward our gifts well. But the ability to call things our own is also one of God’s gifts, a gift which enables us in a special way to imitate the Father, who worked for six days to bring what was His own to fruition. This work was, of course, for the good of others who, as time went on, would be revealed to be His family. The pride one feels in ownership, the proprietary air, the making of a thing all that it is meant to be, the joy and profit one takes in it, and its placement in various ways at the service of the community: these are all participations by human persons in the creative genius and sovereign proprietorship of God.
The Principle of Ownership
It should surely be no surprise that ownership is a prime motivator for human achievement and productivity. Like anything else, it can be twisted and abused, but it is difficult to find anything which harnesses so effectively man’s imitation of his Creator in the pursuit of all his interests: material, psychological, spiritual, familial, social and charitable. Though America has a great many weaknesses, she has always done one thing well for the vast majority of her people. She has facilitated ownership. In doing so, she facilitates human opportunity of every kind, and for this precise reason continues to draw immigrants from all the ends of the earth.
It may be objected that America does not facilitate ownership perfectly, for some remain downtrodden through no fault of their own. It may also be objected that facilitating ownership is not everything, which is certainly true. Yet ownership is something to note with pride, and something for which to be thankful. This concept of ownership lies at the center of all successful social systems. Alternative systems which ignore it are doomed to failure. Ideologies which oppose it are based, at least to this degree, on a false view of human nature, and an even falser view of God. For the idea of ownership is rooted in the sacramental principle. It is an extension of the Incarnation, and central to the operations of Divine Providence.
The Right Way to Own
The right way to own, of course, is with detachment. One wishes to possess things according to a hierarchy of goods, and not to be possessed by them. In fact, as a charitable methodology, efforts to control the distribution of the wealth of others are not nearly as effective and complete as properly managing and disposing of the things we ourselves own. Even if we choose to give up ownership in favor of a higher good, the sacrifices (and the benefits to others) take their very meaning from the possibility of ownership. Without ownership, it is very difficult to cultivate the virtue of charity at all.
For this reason, all those who share deep concerns over the deficiencies of the prevailing social order would do very well to concentrate their efforts on the proper disposition of their own goods before seeking to distribute the goods of others. It would be foolish to argue that social conventions and laws governing property, including taxation and government assistance, have no place in public life. But one can grow spiritually through the disposition of one’s own goods in ways which are closed to those who seek reform by first placing a hand in the other man’s pocket. Under our mandate of stewardship, we must arrange public affairs sympathetically and well. Yet the best way to gain both perspective and credibility is to first manage our own possessions with spiritual detachment.
One of the chief shortcomings of America is doubtless the lack of correspondence between those who are generous with their own goods and those who manage public goods. Ah, well, she may not be a City on a Hill, this America, but all the same she offers us much for which to be both proud and thankful. These were my reflections, this Fourth of July, as I hauled my mulch until family and friends arrived for fellowship and food. Tending one’s own garden may not be everything. But it is something very fine indeed.
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