We begin at the beginning by entering the garden. One of the first things we notice is that God planted a garden in Eden and placed the first humans in it. This tells us that God’s intention for us is a garden, a place of delight, color, vitality, energetic engagement of our powers. He wants us to have life and life to the full.
How does this life come to us? Through an acceptance of God’s grace and a willingness to let that grace flow through us to others – a state that existed at the beginning of Creation.
God gives the first humans, Adam and Eve, practically free rein in the garden. The Church fathers saw this liberty as expressive of God’s desire that we cultivate the earth and our powers as fully as possible, that we develop our skills as scientists, politicians, poets, lovers, and friends.
But there remains a tree from which we should not eat: “it is only from the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘you shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.'” Why does this symbolic tree stand in the very middle of the garden? Because it represents the criterion of good and evil, that over which God alone has control. It is the standard by which the good life is to be distinguished from the tragic life.
The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and desirable for gaining wisdom. When that fruit was seized, when the man and woman tried to appropriate godliness for themselves, when they – and by extension all of us – make ourselves and our own wills the criterion of good and evil, the flow of grace is interrupted.
So it goes in the order of sin. Our autonomy and independence from God looks desirable, but in fact, it leads to deep vulnerability. (Adam and Eve realized that they were naked.) Ultimately, it leads to the expulsion from the Garden and introduction into the desert of self-regard and fear.
With thanks to Fr Robert Barron