Into The Garden (1) Garden Congregation.

Courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral

What will I say twenty years from now when my then 21-year-old great nephew, Miles, asks his doddery then 90-year-old great uncle, “Tell me, Great Uncle Kevin, what did you do during the roaring twenties? You know, those vaccinated COVID years of long ago.”

Assuming I’m still this side of the daisies, I will pause to gather my thoughts, and after attempting to cross my gnarled arthritic fingers in the hope that I really understood his question, I would begin:

“Well, Miles, there were pigs, hens, a black cat, and a tabby cat with a missing leg.”

He would look alarmed, his fears confirmed that his gaga great uncle was having a bad day.

“I spent a lot of time in their presence. In fact, Miles, I went there most days, rain, shine even snow. I found it reassuring, in a strange kind of way.”

Miles would probably try to guide me back to reality. “But you lived in a city then, didn’t you?”

“Indeed I did, but this was on the screen of my computer. You probably covered this in your history courses, but in those days before the Omni-Virtual-MetaScreen, we used a flickery, jumpy system called, erm, YouZoomTube, or something like that. Every day, well most days anyway, I would spend an hour in what was called The Garden Congregation. I can tell you, being there changed my life during that difficult time of uncertainty and disruption.”

“A congregation?”

“Yes, it was how a very smart man called Robert Willis brought people together from around the world. We never saw each other, but we knew from what he said that we were not alone. He was, back then, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in England. Every day, he sat somewhere in the grounds of that famous old building, a steaming pot of tea and a blanket beside him on a small table, and he would be surrounded by animals and birds. He read from his prayer book and Bible, and then he would talk about important things that had happened on that day in history, sometimes just a few years back in time, and sometimes going back centuries.”

“So it was kind of documentary?”

“No. It was a prayer service. Morning prayer, just like monks and nuns have done for as long as they have been around. There’s still a few of them left, even today. But that man, he was the Dean, the most senior member of clergy after the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was so alive amid the ever-changing world of creation: the plants, the trees, the flowers, the vegetation all around him. He read prayers and sections from the Bible as animals, yes there pigs, wandered in front of the camera and cats jumped on and off his knees. Then he would make remarkable connections with the words from scripture with those creatures, the garden, and artists, scientists, writers, musicians, philosophers, and thinkers throughout history.

“During that strange pandemic time of wave after wave of isolation, it was a time to pray and ponder the meaning of so many things. Ordinary things. Mysterious things. It was rich and deep, and endlessly fascinating. And the music! It was, Miles, an opportunity to do what a famous old Jesuit charged us to try and do in our daily lives: no matter the challenges we face, be sure to look around and seek God in all the things around us. And keep looking. For those strange almost three years that we lived through and that you now call history, Miles, being welcomed into that garden made such a difference for me. But then there was a horrible war and it upsets me even now to think about all that happened next. Perhaps it’s time for my nap now. Yes?”

Morning Prayer with the Very Reverend Dean Robert Willis – photo courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral from the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral can be accessed here:

NB: The Dean will soon turn 75 and formally retires from ministry on May 16. It is likely that the Morning Prayer Videos will cease after that date.

Ottawa-based author and editor, Kevin Burns is a frequent contributor to igNation. His latest book, Impressively Free – Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood and co-authored with Michael W. Higgins, has just been released by Paulist Press in the United States and by Novalis in Canada.

  • Marilyn Wray
    Posted at 08:44h, 04 May Reply

    I am a fan of the Garden Congregation, but did not know that Dean Robert is retiring. We will miss him. Hopefully someone will continue.

  • Marilyn Wray
    Posted at 08:46h, 04 May Reply

    I am a fan of Garden Congregation and try not to miss a morning with Dean Robert.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 09:12h, 04 May Reply

    Thank you Kevin!

    Posted at 20:47h, 04 May Reply

    Elequently said and my heart again cried. I have been a proud member of the garden congregation for 2 years. It has pulled me through in good times and bad!! We all wish PRAY and hope he will continue somehow somewhere.

  • Susanne Prue
    Posted at 22:18h, 04 May Reply

    This was such a heartwarming description of all Dean Robert Willis did for so many of us suffering through the difficult time of Covid. People throughout the world will miss Morning Prayer with him. Of course, we will miss his faithful companions: Lilly, Tiger, and Leo. I pray that he may discern another online ministry as he was a veritable balm of comfort during an especially trying time in my life. God bless you and may your retirement be restful and fruitful!

  • John D. WEBB
    Posted at 17:49h, 06 May Reply

    Please read Mark 16 . 15, and think again

  • Gillian Glean-Walker
    Posted at 12:24h, 08 May Reply

    What a powerful and positive and true description of our Garden Congregationand all that we continue to enjoy . There must be a way for it to continue. It is touching so many lives . And, if it does continue, how will we be informed ?
    This has been my way to start each morning for more than a year. I will feel lost without it..

  • Tyler Montgomery
    Posted at 17:49h, 09 May Reply

    Those of you for whom the GC has been significant: it would be lovely if you might put a face to your names in a short video tribute for Dean Robert using this link:

    It would be a small act of kindness for him as he moves to a new call.

Post A Comment

Subscribe to igNation

Subscribe to receive our latest articles delivered right to your inbox!