Gardening With Soul

There is something very poetic about a gardening nun, don’t you think? Jess Feast, a documentary maker from New Zealand, obviously feels the same way as I, so much so that she made a film about such a lady. Enter Sister Loyola, head gardener at the Home of Compassion at Island Bay, near Wellington in New Zealand. Loyola is a wonderfully compassionate, matter-a-fact, and very entertaining green thumbed nun.

Feast’s documentary, Gardening With Soul, follows the escapades of Sister Loyola over her 90th year. It is a warm, wise, and joyful film. From sorting tools in her garden shed, seaweed-harvesting trips to the beach, to her interactions with others in the nun community, the film is an intimate exploration of Loyola and her world. Jess and I had a chat about the film. This is how it went:

How did you discover Sister Loyola and her story? Loyola won gardener of the year in New Zealand in 2008. I heard her speak and was taken by her wisdom. I was interested in the women of her generation and what they had lived through, their knowledge and kindness. Now, more than ever we need to preserve that wisdom. For ourselves and for our children. I called her, without really knowing what I was going to do, and she kindly agreed to have a cup of tea with me.

From then I visited her every Monday. I called it Nun Day Monday. We got to be quite good friends and we talked about a lot of things. I was initially going to make a book, then a short film, and then it ended up being a feature film!

I first met her in late 2008. I didn’t start shooting till mid 2011. It was a five-year journey from start to finish. It was a long process but I think that was very important. If I had said to Sister Loyola on the first day that I wanted to make a documentary on her she never would have agreed. It evolved, and it needed to.

Can you tell me a little more about Sister Loyola as a person?

She is a human being. She’s not a saint. She struggles. People still annoy her but she is always making a conscious decision to be non-judgmental. That was one of the big lessons for me. She lives compassion.

It’s not like she is super human – she is more automatically compassionate than most of us because she has trained herself over many years, but it still requires a conscious decision. She certainly does that. That was a really nice thing to observe. She enjoys a good laugh and she is very well read. She reads a lot of science-based literature. I was fascinated to talk to someone who is obviously intelligent, open minded and well read about faith. I was like, ‘How can someone like that really believe in that stuff? Especially as a woman within the Catholic Church.’ It was very interesting to talk to her about that.

Something that really interested me about the film was the relationship between gardening and spirituality. What are your thoughts on the connection between the two?

I am not religious but my connection to spirituality has always come through nature. That’s the level I understand it and that’s the way I access it. I think this is the case for a lot of people of our generation. We are now less religious than we were but I don’t think we’re less spiritual.

Lots of people reconnect with their spirituality  through gardening. The sense that people are looking for a path back to the fundamental, spiritual part of themselves was very much a motivation for making this film.

So, a person’s spirituality is supported by the act of gardening?

Definitely. It is a reminder of being a part of something bigger than oneself.  Gardening is about having a certain amount of control but also having to be responsive and intuitive. Loyola is looking for these metaphors all the time and utilizing them, taking them onboard as wisdom. What she learns in the garden teachers her about things outside the garden.

What I loved about being with Sister Loyola was that the sacred and the profane existed so comfortably side-by-side from one moment to the next, even within the same sentence. That, to me, is very livable spirituality. It is fundamentally about nurture and love. Once you break it down to that it’s really quite simple.

What lessons did you learn from Sister Loyola?

I learnt a lot about gardening from Loyola. Especially about seaweed! She swears by the stuff. She collects it fresh from the beaches of the south coast after a storm. She chops it up and puts it on the compost and also makes teas out of it. From a personal point of view – I was affected by the simplicity of her way of being.

She is at the end of her life, and is looking back on it as a happy, satisfied person. She has  never really owned anything and has spent the better part of her time nurturing other people and her garden. She shows that that can be really, really satisfying. That’s a very good thing to have drummed into you.

Check out the trailer:

The folks in New Zealand loved this film –  it won the best documentary at the 2013 NZ film awards. Now, you lucky plant and nun lovers, it’s on the big screen in Australia. If I were you I would visit their website, find a cinema near you, and go see it. You will be wiser for it.

All images by Dion Howard and supplied by Gardening With Soul.