Blessing Mary Gardens

The Blessing of Mary Gardens as Holy Places

– John S. Stokes Jr.

An essential medieval tradition and practice from which we draw in cultivating the Flowers of Our Lady and Mary Gardens is that of the sacramental blessing of homes, workplaces, seeds, plants, trees, gardens and fields as holy places and objects.

The Rural Life Prayer Book (1956) of the U.S. National Catholic Rural Life Conference observes that today such sacramental blessings are “riches of the Church which have been long unknown and unused like a treasure hidden under our very doorstep”.

The importance of these blessings has been reaffirmed for our times in the Second Vatican Council Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (par. 62) which states:

“The liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event in [our] lives… There is hardly any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.”

In making recourse to ecclesiastical blessings for Mary Gardens, we take care to retain full clarity as to their nature—that they are not in themselves sources of sanctifying grace, like the sacraments, but rather rites which encompass our gardens, statuary, seeds and plants within the sphere of the holiness and merits of the Church.

“Blessings are not sacraments; they are not of divine institution; they do not confer sanctifying grace; and they do not produce their effects in virtue of the rite itself. They are sacramentals and, as such, produce the...following specific effects: excitation of pious emotions and affections of the heart; …freedom from the power of evil spirits;… (and) various other benefits, temporal or spiritual….

“A blessing...imparted with the sanction of the Church has all the weight of authority that attaches to the voice of she who is the well-beloved Spouse of Christ, pleading on behalf of her children. The whole efficacy, therefore, of these benedictions, in so far as they are liturgical and ecclesiastical, is derived from the prayers and invocations of the Church made in her name by her ministers….

“These effects [are not] to be regarded as infallibly produced, except in so far as the impetration of the Church has this attribute. The religious veneration, therefore, in which the faithful regard blessings has no taint of superstition, since it depends altogether on the Church's suffrages offered to God that the persons using the things she blesses may derive from them certain supernatural advantages.”

“Blessings”, Catholic Encyclopedia (1912)

Sacramental blessings, ecclesiastically administered, extend to the Mary Garden and its objects the holiness of the Church, such that the common experience of this holiness in the Mary Garden - especially in the context of the symbolical Flowers of Our Lady—serves in turn as a witness to the holiness of the Church and of Mary.

The sacramental blessings of the Roman Rite have come down to us from the ancient traditions, of which there are written formulas for plants from as early as the 9th century.

Such blessings, together with the religious symbolism of the objects of nature and of daily life, serve to maintain and heighten our awareness that all our thoughts and acts are to be directed towards our sanctification, our works of mercy and our building of the earthly Kingdom of love, peace, justice and a sufficiency of goods for all—for the greater showing forth and sharing of the glory of God.

Through these blessings of the Church we are thus assisted in re-entering the piety of the medieval Christians, for whom all areas of life were transformed for the sanctification of souls and the building of God's Kingdom.

We propose, accordingly, that the Church's rites of blessings for flowers, gardens and garden statuary be employed to the fullest by those who are Mary Gardeners.

In this we note first of all the distinction made by the Church between 1) those blessings which transform artifacts or natural objects into “religious objects”, which are to be reserved as such, apart from other objects - such as crucifixes, rosary beads, scapulars, medals, images, roses for the sick, flowers for crowning Mary's statues, and blest "Assumption bundles” of plants, etc., and 2) those artifacts and natural objects which are ordered to religious ends while continuing in their natural functioning, like leaven in dough, without special reservation—such as food, tools, instruments, vehicles, household articles, seeds and plants.

The former are generally valued as reserved religious objects—placed in prominent positions in home or workplace - as a focus for prayers for protection from evil spirits and as reminders to prayers for physical and spiritual healing and well-being. The latter are valued as vehicles of blessings which can serve to open the minds and elevate the thoughts of those using them for the enhancement of the spiritual intentions and objectives.

Thus, when plants cultivated for their religious symbolism are blest—as with Mary Garden Flowers of Our Lady—they are placed within a context of sacramental piety which moves us, as we behold them according to their symbolism, to emulation of Mary's purity of intention in her work as Nazareth parent and homemaker; to praise and emulation of her virtues and excellences; and to recourse to her blessed perogatives of intercession and mediation, etc. —as with meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary while praying our Aves on blest Rosary beads.

Any graces which come to us through reflection or meditation upon the sacramentally blest Flowers of Our Lady come not through the flowers themselves, but through Mary, Mediatrix, of all graces, to whom are hearts are raised in piety by the flower symbolism and blessing—in which sense we can say that they come to us "through Mary, through her flowers.”

Numerous people who are unaware of the sacramental blessing of a Mary Garden they are visiting nevertheless remark that they sense it is a holy place—which evidently occurs because their hearts have been opened to this holiness.

Examples of flower blessings which have come down to us are:

“O almighty everlasting God we beseech thee to bless these flowers…that there may be in them goodness, virtue, tranquility, peace, victory, abundance of good things, the plenitude of blessing, thanksgiving to God the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and a most pleasing commemoration of the glorious Mother of God—that…they may put forth an odor of virtue and sweetness.”

(Servite rite for the blessing of flowers for the Coronation of Mary's images on Holy Saturday).

"O God…bless with your holy blessing these roses we offer to you this day…as a token of thanksgiving to you and of love and reverence for the ever blessed Virgin Mary of the Rosary. Do you, who have bestowed them as an odor of sweetness for our use and the easing of our ills, pour forth upon them heavenly blessing…that to whomsoever they may be brought in sickness may be healed.”

(Dominican Rite for the Blessing of Roses)

The blessing of the entire Mary Garden may be a universal blessing from the Roman Rite for any object, or, more usually, where there is a focal sculpture or shrine, the blessing employed being that for religious statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints:

“Almighty and eternal God…as often as we look on this image with our bodily eyes, so often do we consider the actions of your saints with our mind's eye, and ponder their sanctity for our imitation. Be so good, we beg of you, to bless and sanctify this statue…that whoever in the presence of this image humbly pays devout reverence and honor to your only-begotten Son and his Blessed Mother, may through their merits and intercession win grace in this life, and everlasting glory in the world to come….”

Many also renew the blessing of their Mary Gardens as holy places on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, September 8th, the traditional day for the liturgical blessing of seeds, flowers and crops for the coming year:

“Almighty, everlasting God, sower and nourisher of the heavenly Word, you till the ground of our hearts with spiritual tools. Hear our prayers, please, and pour your blessings upon the fields that have been sown….”

We find in books of ancient Christian blessings that such ecclesiastically approved formulas and rites have been recorded from as far back as the 9th century.

Among the most important of Plant blessings were those at the time of harvest, beginning with those on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, on August 15th. On this feast the first fruits of healing and life-sustaining herbs, grains and other plants were brought to Mass by the faithful tied in Assumption Bundles, and placed on the altar in special processions. Then, after blessinq during the Mass ceremony, they were taken home for reservation as blest holy objects for use - much as palm fronds blessed and distributed on Palm Sunday are used today:

“The Blessed Virgin Maries feast hath here its place and time, Wherein, departed from the earth, she did the heavens clime; Great bundles then of hearbes to church the people fast do beare, The which against all hurtful things the priest doth hallow there.”(1)

“There exists the custom, on the Feast of Mary's Assumption into Heaven…to bless plants… which, like other blessed objects, are brought home by the faithful for religious use. These plants may be partly those which served on the altars of superstition, partly those which were regarded by the people as healing plants, and those, finally, grown in the fields. Through the blessings bestowed upon them their misuse is atoned for, their healing power enhanced, and their growth commended to God's protection.”

“Their gathering is relegated to the school children and thereby gives occasion to a botanical excursion, which has great appeal for them. The plant names by which the children identify them are to an extent quite original and reveal, so to speak, the the propensity of folk culture - Our Lady's Bedstraw, Our Lord's Little Fingers…. ”(2)

In the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the following blessing is used on the feast of the Assumption today:

“Almighty and everlasting God…with mind and word we earnestly implore your unspeakable Goodness to bless these various herbs and fruits, and add to their natural powers the grace of your new blessing. May they ward off disease and adversity from men and beasts who use them in your name.”(3)

In time there was felt to be a need for a more readily available means for blessing the materials, articles and tools of daily living than bringing them to Church, as Church feasts only occurred on certain days of the year. Also, the ability of priests to make repeated visits to homes, work places and fields to give their sacramental blessing was limited. Therefore Holy Water - blessed during the Vigil of Easter Saturday - was made available to the faithful throughout the year to take home for use by laymen in blessing the places and objects of their lives, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In this use of Holy Water for blessings it was desired that there was to be a blest, holy, instrument with which to distribute or sprinkle it. Widely adopted for such use were fine-leaved branches which could be dipped in a container of holy water and then used to sprinkle it on the objects and places to be blessed.

In the formulas which have come down to us for the blessing of such branches themselves, we find that the plant to be blessed was designated generally as "Graciosa”(4). Various locally available fine-leaved plants were used in different places, but evidently Rue, Ruta graveolens, with its pungent and cleansing aroma, as well as its multitude of tiny leaves, was so predominantly used for this purpose that it received the name of "Herb of Grace", a name by which it is still commonly known today, along with the associated name of "Rue".

In Shakespeare's Richard II the gardener speaks the line, "I'll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace.”

“From all the plants [blessed on the Feast of the Assumption] a single one was called the 'Graciosa' (Grace), for which . . . the blessing was designated as the 'benedictio graciose' (blessing of grace)…. Both designations are found to be translated as 'gratia dei' or 'gratiola'…. The Graciosa was esteemed as an especially quality-rich plant for it to be permitted to be blessed alone by itself.”(4)

Of the two formulas when the Graciosa is to be used in blessings:

“The first is to be considered an ecclesiastical blessing to be administered by a priest in church…. The second [is] an extra-liturgical prayer form which can just as well be said by a lay person as by a priest. It transfers the prayers out of the church to the place where the Graciosa is. Even in church the Graciosa can only be used for blessings where there is sprinkling of Holy water, and under the condition that the plant is lying on the altar during the celebration of Mass.”(4)

The English name, "Rue", and the German equivalent, “Raute”, for the Herb of Grace were incorporated in the names of a number of plants, as an indication that they, too, were used for sprinkling Holy Water, or recalled such use:

“Since the name 'Raute' was given to various other plants with similar leaves, we thus have Mauer-raute (Asplenium ruta-muraria), Mondrute (Botrychium lunaria). Feldraute (Fumaria officinalis), Weisenraute (Thalictrum aquilegifolium), Geissraute (Galega officinalisi), Edelraute (Artemisia laxa), Rossraute, Kohraute, Steinraute (Achillea clavenae). All these plants have, like Raute, a strong aromatic fragrance.”(5)

(In English we have the equivalent Meadow-Rue, Goat's-Rue, etc.)

“Furthermore, one German equivalent of Herb of Grace, 'Gnadenkraut', was most widely applied to Gratiola officinalis; but also to Geranium robertianum, linaria vulgaris and (probably) Mentha aquatica.” (5)

Evidently the blessing of branches became so widespread and informal that in Paris on the “Sunday of the Branches” (equivalent to our Palm Sunday) huge tubs of Holy Water were set in front of churches so that the faithful could pass by and plunge whatever branches they chose in them without even entering the church, and retain them for home use in sprinkling Holy Water throughout the year.(6)

Together with its own blessing, the pungent aroma of Rue served to quicken believers to the piety, contrition, repentance and cleansing necessary to open themselves to the fullest reception of sacramental or gratuitous graces.

There would seem to be a similar combination of the material and the spiritual in those blest healing herbs where the healing was spiritual, such that the natural characteristics of the herbs served to provide the dispositions, as well as the medication necessary if the users were to become open to the healing action of the Spirit.

Through its connotation of the bitter, pungent fragrance and taste of Ruta graveolens, the word, “Rue”, has come to have a general meaning of bitter regret, sorrow and pain of loss, as in: “You will rue the day…. ”

The dual associations of Rue with sorrow and with grace were united at the Cross of Jesus, where the waters of redeeming grace flowed from the pierced side of the crucified Savior. This is suggested by the religious names of “Cross-Rue” and “Five-Wounds-Plant” given to Rue in certain localities (6). Also, one of the names given the Meadow-Rue. Thalictrum, genus is “Our Lady's Rue”, recalling the Virgin Mary's sorrow at the foot of the Cross, as does “Mary's Sword of Sorrow” (Iris) and “Our Lady's Tears” (Tradescantia virginiana).

The Herb of Grace has been documented and examined at some length here because of the great importance formerly attributed to sacramental blessing, of which it is a witness, and which we restore in the blessing of the Flowers of Our Lady and Mary Gardens today as holy objects and places. Also in the documentation of the employment of the pungent aroma of the Herb of Grace as an aromatic symbol of the contrition, repentance and cleansing necessary for us to open ourselves to the graces of the sacraments and Mary through the piety engendered by the objects sprinkled with holy water, we have evidence of a symbiosis of symbolism and blessing applicable to all religious plant symbols; to all the Flowers of Our Lady.

Thus, the purgative symbiosis of symbolism and blessing in Rue, the Herb of Grace, is paralleled by a like illuminative symbiosis in the many flower symbols of the mysteries, life, virtues, excellences and blest prerogatives of Our Lady. These, through their sacramental blessing and Mary's mediation, are—for those who are spiritually purified through mortification —support for the graces of our corresponding illuminations as we meditate and pray in the Mary Garden.

Finally, there is the unitive symbiosis of the blest flower symbols of Our Lady's presence—such as Our Lady of the Meadow, Our Lady in the Corn, and Our Lady by the Gate, and, more simply, Mary and The Virgin—such that the pious sense of the presence of “Our Lady in Her Garden” (a designation applied to the Woods Hole mother Mary Garden of the present day Mary Garden restoration movement by its foundress, Frances Crane Lillie) imparted by the human form symbolism of these plants establishes the mode for the reception, through Mary's mediation, of the gift of the graces of the unitive sense of her presence.

Thus united to Our Lady by the sense of her presence by our side, our prayers to her are those of dedication and consecration, in which we pray that our thoughts, intention, actions and reparations may be brought “by her, with her, in her and through her”, and through the consolations and promptings of the Holy Spirit, into conformity with the intentions of her Divine Son and Lord for the redemption and sanctification of souls, the renewal of the face of the earth and the building of God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, for the greater Glory of God.

Bibliography:

1) Waterton, Edmund, Pietas Mariana Britannica, London, 1879
2) Einer Priester der Diocese Paderborn, Krautweighlegenden, Paderborn, 1891*
3) National Catholic Rural Life Conference, Rural Life Prayerbook, Des Moines, 1956
4) Franz, Adolph, Die Kirchlichen Benediktionem Im Mittelalter, Freiburg, 1909*
5) Van Gennep, Arnold, Manuel de Folklore Francais Contemporain, Paris, 1947*
6) Marzell, Heinrich, Worterbuch Der Deutschen Pflanzennamen, Leipzig, 1927 - 1979*

*Translations by the author.

Copyright Mary's Gardens 1983, 1996


The John Stokes and Mary's Garden collection was transferred to the Marian Library in May 2013. In addition to his archives, manuscripts, artwork, and personal library, John S. Stokes also donated his extensive website. It was transferred to the Marian Library in early 2010. This particular entry is archived content original to Stokes' Mary's Gardens website. It is possible that some text, hyperlinks, etc. are outdated.

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