Annapolis - The women of the Mary Garden often arrive in early evening, when the sun has cooled and the chores of their secular lives are finished. But they don't come to meditate among the flowers. They come to work.
Bending their tired backs to weed or plant, they hear hymns drift from the stained-glass windows of St. Mary's Church as the choir rehearses. Sailboats whisper in and out of Spa Creek. Birds gather for an evening bath in the fountain that burbles at the sandaled, granite feet of Mary and Jesus.
"And you really feel that this must be what heaven is like," says Laura Van Geffen. If it is heaven, she adds, the saints and angels are laughing at her.
"I feel as if I've been tricked," she says as she wipes her sweaty forehead with the back of a garden-gloved hand. "I'm Catholic, but I never understood the veneration of Mary. I used to pray, 'I don't get it. Show me how to love your mother.'
"Then this fell in my lap." Mrs. Van Geffen drives a spade into the soft, spring earth where another rosebush will be planted.
"I would have preferred a revelation to years of backbreaking work."
Somewhere between the muddy reality of tilled soil and the chaste beauty of the woman for whom the flowers are named, there lies the Mary Garden.
The first public garden dedicated to the Virgin seems to have been the Garden of Our Lady at St. Joseph's Church in Woods Hole, Mass., in 1932.
John B. Stokes, who in 1951 began a spare-time project called Mary's Gardens in Philadelphia, now lives in Massachusetts and remains the official arbiter and historian. He says there are only five public Mary Gardens of note in the world, and only two in the United States, at Woods Hole and here. The St. Mary's garden is the largest one in a parish, and Mr. Stokes has praised it for its beauty and its spiritual roots.
The garden is tucked behind St. Mary's Church, hardly known beyond the high walls of the 300-year-old church and rectory that protect it. The breezes of nearby Spa Creek rustle it softly, like a prayer. Even parishioners who pass through it on their way to the parking lot after Mass are not all aware of its symbolism.
For the handful of women of St. Mary's who tend it, this patch of earth represents something between God and gardening. It is a spiritual journey that needs to be watered and weeded. It is a meditation on the devotion of Christ's mother that requires 70 bags of mulch twice a year.
"There is a tranquillity here that keeps us coming back in the middle of our crazy lives," says Kayla Lehmann. The hedge trimmer she grips two-handed like a sword is a sharp contrast to her words. "We all have weeds at home, you know."
The Mary Garden began as a seed in the determined mind of Nan Sears, a St. Mary's parishioner who, at 76, is not much taller than the hollyhock spikes she tends. (In the Mary Garden, they are called St. Joseph's staff.) She had been waiting since 1945, when a garden-club lecturer first told her of Mary Gardens, to create such a church garden.
"Having grown up with a family who loved the woods and the wilds, it is part of me," says Mrs. Sears. "I don't ever walk through a garden that I haven't thought of her. I feel she is there, a part of everything beautiful in the outdoors. I wanted a Mary Garden as a tribute to her and to be closer to her."
In 1989, the pastor of St. Mary's, the Rev. John Murray, gave Mrs. Sears his blessing to turn a patch of weeds and gum wrappers behind the church into such a tribute. "Just don't ask me for any money," he said cheerfully.
Tony Dove, curator of the gardens at London Towne Publik House in Edgewater, and Mrs. Van Geffen, a heavy-duty volunteer who, at 50, has the freedom to garden that only older children can give you, joined Mrs. Sears in designing the garden.
Tons of topsoil were moved in, and a statue was commissioned. All of this was done before Mrs. Sears and Mrs. Van Geffen, at cocktail parties and in church, had collected the $35,000 to pay for it.
"We had to believe that she wanted it there," says Mrs. Sears.
In 1991, Father Murray dressed in his finest vestments and sprinkled the garden with holy water. It was Sept. 8, the feast of Mary's birth, the traditional day for blessing the harvest and the seeds for the coming spring.
Today, the Mary Garden is full and mature. Colors move through it in waves as the seasons change. It is a backdrop for photos of brides and first Holy Communion children. City workers eat lunch there, St. Mary's schoolchildren plant Mother's Day flowers there. And mourners weep there.
"One time, it is just a pretty place. Another time, it hits you hard because of something that is going on in your life," says Mrs. Sears.
"It is a thinking place," says Mrs. Lehmann, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom from Annapolis. "I have been working here when people come to sit. And you can feel their hearts breaking."
A statue at the center
At the center of the garden is the granite statue of Mary and Jesus. He looks to be about 9 or 10, and he gazes up at her with the kind of love in his face that only a mother ever sees. Created by sculptor Leo Irrera, it recalls the holy family's peaceful time in Nazareth, when Mary might have had a garden of her own.
Around the statue and fountain are the flowers that carry Mary's name or praise her attributes or recall some household %o possession. You'd recognize them all. None is rare. But you know them by other names, not the names given them by priests, poets and storytellers in the Middle Ages. The Mary names were erased during the Reformation when devotion to the Virgin went out of fashion.
Forget-me-nots are the eyes of Mary; a bleeding heart is Mary's heart; sedum recalls Our Lady's hair; fuchsia, Our Lady's eardrops; lavender is known as flight to Egypt; the thrift is Our Lady's pincushion; gladiolus was her ladder to heaven; the iris, Mary's sword.
Church fathers first referred to Mary as "the rose of Sharon" and "the lily of the valley" from references in the Old Testament that they believed foretold the virgin mother of the savior of the world. But early Christians found reminders of Mary in every flower that bloomed: The rose was an emblem of her love of God. The lily represented her purity, the myrtle her virginity, the violet her humility and the marigold her heavenly glory.
In other flowers, there was seen some resemblance to her hair, her fingers, her hands. Still others called to mind her mantle, her smock, her slippers. Others, her needles, her thread, her thimble. It seemed everything she touched was remembered in a flower.
Elaborate legends grew around her flowers. Manger plants -- holy hay, cradlewort, Our Lady's bedstraw -- were supposed to have bloomed when the newborn Jesus was laid on them. The white markings on Our Lady's thistle first appeared when her milk dropped on them as she nursed the infant. Rosemary's clean fragrance is said to have come from the days when Maryhung her wash on its bushes to dry.
Not all are cheerful. Our Lady's tears appeared when she wept at the foot of the cross; Our Lady's hair, when she rended her tresses in grief.
For the people of the countryside, who could not read or had no books of theology, flowers recorded the story of Mary's life.
For the women of St. Mary's, this is more than a horticultural hobby. Mr. Stokes has written them, urging them to restore the prayerful dignity of gardening, to return to the understanding that nature is the link between God and man.
"True happiness does not come from hundreds of blossoms, gigantic blooms or riotous color," Mr. Stokes writes. "Neither does it come from scratching the earth and throwing in a few seeds. Rather, it comes from the devoted tending of the good and faithful steward, who realizes his dependence on God's providence and who sees in its fruits God's artistry."
Mrs. Van Geffen and Mrs. Lehmann, attracted to the Mary Garden project by the spunk of Mrs. Sears, are not so ephemeral as they fill garbage bags with weeds and unload flats of marigolds, known in the garden as Mary's gold. They are the strong backs here. But there is God in their gardening. And they believe God is in this garden.
"We have our own little ecosystem going here," says Mrs. Van Geffen, who has her own garden a short walk from St. Mary's. "The walls, the sun, the Holy Spirit. Everything grows here, even the weeds."
"We all have places we have to be," says Mrs. Lehmann. She often brings her energetic kids with her as she works, and finds the garden calms 9-year-old Lindsay and 7-year-old Jamie as surely as a lullaby might.
"But you just have to have this mental image of how it will feel here. Then you just get yourself here, and God takes over."