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Interview: Rachel Woods, educator, founder of Parable Garden

14 October 2016

‘Being outdoors — everywhere you look you see signs of God’

God drew me through my love of nature. I gardened as a child, and still remember the joy of growing nasturtiums in my own mini veg patch before I was ten years old. I enjoyed watching and helping in the family veg garden. I was impressed by mother’s productive veg garden developed from scratch on the side of a moor.


We grew up on a small farmstead in the heart of the North Yorkshire moors, near Whitby. My father is a Christian, geologist, and land manager, and my mother is an artist, craftswoman, and gardener.


We cared for the land, trees, and animals, alongside other elements of life. The shared experience of its care and cultivation held us together through challenges and seasons of change. I’ve become keenly aware of God’s grace and healing hand in our family journey, and he’s written his redemptive narrative of cultivation and creation care deeply on my heart.


Boarding at St Hilda’s School, Whitby, took me away from this idyllic place, but it was set in beautiful natural surroundings, and the Sisters shared their enjoyment of creation with us through things like beekeeping and long Saturday walks. I’m exploring the possibility of be­­coming a tertiary with the Order.


I remember my first theological question to my parents: “Does God have legs?” I now enjoy hosting the big questions from young children — enquiring why we exist, what might God be like — and doing RE outdoors on “wonder walks”. I wonder who? What? Why? When? Where?


Most of my adult life was spent in urban spaces; so I appreciate every green space. I know what it’s like physically, spiritually, and mentally to be deprived of outdoor and garden space. I was only able to develop my own garden from 2011 onwards, when I moved to a village in Oxfordshire. It was a hugely creative, fulfilling, and challenging process — paralleling a season of deeper personal healing and discipleship.


Parable Garden works with Church of England primary schools and their parish churches to make more use of outdoors. It uses agrarian parables to enable schools to explore Christian distinctiveness, character education, and spirituality.


Parable Garden is very much a shared vision arising from individ­ual journeys, and shared convic­tions and insights about the poten­tial of harnessing the outdoors for creative teaching on the Kingdom of God.

Being outdoors, growing food for health and well-being, exercising, reflecting, you find that God is there — not just in terms of practical provision, but everywhere you look you see signs of God, if you listen with the eyes and ears of your heart. He’s communicating all the time.


Parable Garden is established in a village setting, and sees gardens as a tool for evangelism, pastoral care, and building community. Its mis­sional purpose is to journey with people through different seasons of change, bereavement, and nurture, using God-given tools that speak to the heart, and encourage intimacy with Christ. We lead creative wor­ship and reflection for all ages in partnership with local churches. The ministry includes hosting Quiet Days in local homes, care homes, and gardens, supported by reflec­tions on the website.


It’s community-based at heart, recently registered as a community initiative for funding purposes. The founders now live in proximate community — separate homes in the same street, seven doors apart. We’re building community natur­ally, and also intentionally, with a daily rhythm of prayer, shared meals, hospitality, practical support and encouragement to others, grow­ing networks of people through quiet days, school project work, semin­ars, and workshops. We are sharing the first fruits of our produce now: bumper tomatoes, an endless supply of Swiss Chard, plums, sweet peas, herbs. . .


I’m a natural teacher, encourager, enabler, with an adventurous spirit, and I’ve always enjoyed encouraging others to explore the world around them. I was running expressive-draw­ing courses and “Ways of Seeing” in churches, gardens, his­toric houses, museums — facilitat­ing the exploration of creativity and spirituality in an accessible way for adults and children.


Creativity is a God-given gift for all humankind. It nurtures the human spirit, enables us to make sense of things, and make a personal response related to experience, and to God.


I originally trained as an art teacher, and then a primary teacher, and used paint, ceramics, and stone in my own work. Fifteen years work­­ing for NGOs including the National Trust for Scotland and A Rocha gave me skills in project man­agement, development, and imple­­menting education in formal and informal settings.


I became involved with Crossroads retreats more recently. They’re hosted voluntarily by a team of trained Christian mentors, coaches, and facilitators in retreat centres and monastic communities across the country. They offer a chance to step out of everyday life for 48 hours to reflect, with others, through beau­tifully facilitated exercises on personal goals and dreams, values and relationships.


Writing Into the Garden gave me an oppor­tunity to explore biblical themes and con­victions com­muni­cated through cultiva­tion prac­tices and meta­phors. God offers us cul­tivation and the lan­guage of the garden as a blueprint for making sense of King­dom living, through intimate rela­tion­ship with Christ. This neces­sarily implies spiritual growth and renewal, connected­ness with humankind and the earth, responsibility towards its care and the care of others.


The Song of Songs is a significant spiritual place of intimacy with Christ. My garden seems to have come to embody this. I don’t have a fig tree yet, but a young vine is getting established. I have a stained-glass piece inspired by some verses in it, which I created painstakingly over a period of three years, formed from broken pieces of glass held to­­­gether by lead. The comp­osition shows a young hart leaping out of morning sun­light across to a bed of lilies merging into the half-light of dusk.


The symbolism embod­ied for me is that it’s only Christ who gives us life, takes the broken­ness of our human­ity and indi­vid­ual lives, and, through faith and trust in him, makes some­thing beautiful that brings him glory and the furthering of his Kingdom.


Canon David Adam drew my atten­tion early on to God’s miracle of creation. The tiniest detail contains treasure with potential to transform hearts and lives by revealing truth. Did you know that caterpillars turn to soup before being transformed into exquisite butterflies?


Birdsong, early morning and evening, is my favourite sound. My cat — the Venerable Bede — purr­ing. Silence is a rare gift in our troubled world. How many people experience total silence?


The injustices of poverty make me angry. The desperation of refugees, the ways institutions designed to support and help people flourish so often end up suppressing them. Slugs. Confusing marketing tech­niques. And, especially, dealing with utility companies.


The happiest times are when I’m with family and friends, being outdoors with others, eating, walk­ing, gardening. Beautiful woodland, wilderness, sea, making things, pre­paring food, and painting.


I pray most for God’s Kingdom to come and his will to be done in me, in others, in the community, the nation, the world. Increasingly, I find God powerfully present through the eucharist — particu­larly when ministered outdoors (too rarely). And in times of stillness and silence, especially outdoors, or being creative either alone or with others.


If I was locked in a church, I’d choose St Cuthbert to be my com­panion. I grew up in North York­shire, in the landscapes of all the early Christian leaders, and Cuth­bert seems to be a very rounded person, as documented by Bede and others. He was sensitive to creation, and obviously felt con­nected to God outdoors. He was also someone very relational as well, not just a loner.


Rachel Woods was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


Into the Garden is published by Grove Books. www.parable-garden.org www.crossroadsretreats.co.uk

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