by the Reverend Ben Badgett
The Chapel Garden at Virginia Theological Seminary lies in the footprint of what was once the historic seminary chapel, built in 1881. In 2010 the chapel caught fire and was destroyed. Only bricks from the walls, iron work and a few pieces of stained glass survived, so the seminary gave new life to the space by creating a garden and an interment site for those who have died from the seminary community.
A few weeks ago, I returned to VTS and visited this garden for the first time.What was once a sacred building became a sacred space – open to the sky, the ground, and all of life in between.
The garden includes a wall commemorating the names of those whose ashes have been interred there. I found that the first name listed is that of the head groundskeeper, who had worked for decades at the seminary before dying recently. I was very fortunate to have worked for him one summer cutting the grass at the seminary, an experience that reminded me of cutting grass with my grandfather as a teenager. I was deeply moved that as fate would have it, he was the first to be interred in the garden.
A few names below the head groundskeeper’s I saw the name of a bishop, professor, mentor and spiritual guide of mine – a truly humble yet masterful theologian and person who had died just a short while ago. Seeing these two men’s names in this garden made what was already a special place to me a truly sacred space.
On the other side of the garden is the gift my graduating class gave to the seminary: a simple, yet stoic table on which the Eucharist could be celebrated. Encountering the table in the garden left me wondering if it was used to share Holy Communion with the families of the two men I respected and admired who were buried in that place. I wondered about the nature of the Communion table, about its dualistic symbol and function. It holds, like a garden, the values of both death (Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us…) and life (Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia). It is an object for both remembrance and celebration, in this garden that contains both.
During another visit to the garden that week, I reacquainted myself with a living friend, Victor, a young man who cut the grass with me during that summer a few years ago. What a joy it was to see him again. We spoke of family life, transitions and the new identities that we both had assumed. He had been promoted from the push mowers to the John Deere tractor mower, and he is now also a new father and finishing his degree. The sight of him working in the garden that day was indeed a renewed sign of life.
The night before I left, I visited the garden one last time and discovered that fireflies were out in great numbers, lighting up the dusk of the evening sky. Sitting there watching the illuminated creatures, I was reminded of the ecological purpose of their light patterns: to attract a mate. Each firefly has a unique light pattern that is synonymous with that of its mate. That night, watching them flash their patterns, trying to draw their partners in, I was struck by the innate light that is within all of us, a Light that is always the same, though our patterns of conveying it may vary – a light that seeks to draw the world to itself. The light of the bishop and the groundskeeper, the light of Victor and myself are all variations and reflections of the Light of Christ, and all guide us back to God.
Gardens have always been perceived as mysterious and divine places. Perhaps that is why God planted us in one at the very beginning, and Jesus himself visited one the night before he died. I wonder what other gifts might be growing up the gardens of our lives, those places where the life in-between meets the life that has gone before, and the life that will come after.
The Reverend Ben Badgett, associate rector, is the newest member of Holy Communion’s clergy. Read his full bio here.