Summer is the perfect time to create a welcoming, serene retreat for prayer and reflection – and your own backyard is the ideal place for it.
At the risk of seeming like the over-enthusiastic host of an HGTV home-improvement show, forming a backyard prayer garden can be an easy task for people like me who are all thumbs, or a challenging endeavor for more experienced DIYers unafraid of complex projects.
With little fuss and virtually no expense, any place can become an inviting retreat for prayer and meditation.
WHY A RETREAT IS IMPORTANT
As places of rest and retreat, prayer gardens provide a space for us to surround ourselves with fresh air and sunshine.
“Especially now, in the days of the COVID-19 pandemic when we are sitting in front of our home computers for long periods of time every day, it’s helpful to intentionally retreat and open ourselves to God,” observes Katie Dawson, the Diocese of Orange’s director of parish evangelization and faith formation. Dawson often prays under a tree in her backyard with a lovely view of her rose garden and pool.
“Making a space with a focal point like a living plant helps to focus the soul and opens us up,” she says. “So many people experience God in a natural setting. Green things are very calming and centering; they contribute to our mental health. We benefit by interacting with nature.”
Dawson notes that Japanese homes often include interior courtyards full of greenery that bring the outdoors inside, promoting peacefulness and solitude.
WHAT SHOULD A RETREAT INCLUDE?
To begin creating your backyard retreat, select an outdoor space that offers peace and quiet. Because we live in temperate Orange County, weather is rarely an issue, but having one place of sanctuary in the shade and another in the sun offers comfort year-round as well as opportunities to grow both sun- and shade-loving plants.
Perhaps most gratifying to the soul is a garden retreat featuring treats for all the senses: Engage smell, sound, touch, and sight by choosing surroundings that involve soothing scents from different trees and flowers, the musical sounds of windchimes or bells, the colorful sight of brilliant foliage, and the tactile surfaces of smooth stones, rough bark, veined leaves and soft petals.
Steps to Creating a Backyard Retreat
A folding chair, houseplant, and small table with a Bible and a rosary is really all you need. But if you have time, space, money and skills, you can build a more elaborate prayer garden featuring your own Stations of the Cross or even a miniature prayer maze.
Pinterest is full of ideas, suggestions, and photographs illustrating both complex and simple backyard retreats, and on Amazon, Wayfair, Bed, Bath & Beyond and myriad other websites you can purchase plants, religious statues, garden decorations, patio furniture, and virtually anything else you desire.
Whether you’re surrounding yourself with a full garden or a few strategically selected container plants, choose easy-care, attractive foliage that offers pleasing scents – such as lavender and rosemary – or that represent your faith. Lilies symbolize purity and rebirth. St. Therese of Lisieux’s signature flower is the rose. St. Agatha and St. Thecla carry palm branches. Mary is symbolized by everything from the white ‘Annunciation’ lily, the violet of humility, the pansy or ‘trinity flower,’ periwinkle ‘virgin flower,’ daisy, columbine, monkshood and rose, among others.
Select comfortable seating unless you prefer to kneel, stand, or walk as you pray. Think about incorporating an old church pew or park bench, or give yourself seating options like big, colorful outdoor cushions, a comfortable chaise lounge, or a folding chair that can be moved with the sun.
You also may want to make your retreat interactive, with a stone path, a shrine of wood or stone, or a grotto, pedestal, or alcove for an icon of Mary or St. Francis of Assisi. An angel statue tucked along the shrubbery, a favorite flower peeking from a planter, or a pretty stone on the path can remind you to focus on prayer.
If you hang a bird feeder from the patio eves, suspend a birdhouse from a tree branch, or offer a birdbath on the grass, you’ll attract feathered companions as St. Francis might have.
The peaceful pattering of a water fountain offers the soothing element of water to a backyard retreat. Some outdoor fountains, which come in all shapes, sizes, and styles, require no pumps or hoses and feature soft sounds with low maintenance.
A candle, some twinkling fairy lights, or even a firepit provide muted lighting or a gentle glow for evening prayer.
RESOURCES FOR PLANNING A PRAYER GARDEN
Begin preparing your backyard retreat by visiting a number of Catholic and secular sites and blogs, including: