In today’s first reading, the Israelites complain that they have no food in the wilderness, and God sends them a kind of bread that they’ve never seen before—a kind of bread that, to be honest, doesn’t make too much sense to me. It’s compared to frost or dew and it appears on the ground, which doesn’t sound particularly appetizing or substantial. No wonder the Israelites see it and ask, “What is it?” Moses tells them it’s bread from heaven, but that must not have elucidated things for the people, because the text says that after they got this answer, they started to call the food, “manna,” which literally means, “What is it?” in Hebrew.
That used to strike me as kind of funny: you stumble upon a complete mystery, your most revered spiritual leader tells you, “This is a miraculous gift from God,” you survive off of it for forty years, perfectly nourished by it, and yet in response, the name you give it is equivalent to “whatchamacallit.”
After almost 10 months in the novitiate, though, I find that that reaction really makes a lot of sense. It seems to me that most of what happens in our lives, both the things that are really difficult and the things that you can instantly tell are gifts, are baffling on at least one or two levels. I don’t think we stand to lose anything by admitting how little we understand.
Take a micro example, for instance: After twenty eight years of doing everything I could to avoid manual labor, time outdoors, and thinking about climate change, much of the last seven months have been spent doing all kinds of jobs to try to root out invasive species (both plant and insect) from our property, and working on a committee focused on helping the community find ways to work for the health of the planet. Mostly, I enjoy this work, much more than I thought I would. There is something very rewarding, meditative, addictive, about cutting winding, thorny multiflora rose branches and then pulling them out of the bramble, or snapping the supple new shoots off of an old grapevine that was cut in the winter, before they can grow long enough and wide enough to swamp a tree. There is something very beautiful and gentle about a lot of what goes into tending to the willow saplings in their little pots, or the 270 saplings of all different species that were recently planted at our Glinodo property—making sure they’re getting enough to drink, that they’re getting enough light and enough affirmations spoken to them.
What I hate about this work is all the killing of insects that goes into it. The spider mites on the willows were pretty devastating, but at least those could be eradicated by spraying the leaves with soap and water. The Japanese beetles that recently descended on the saplings at Glinodo were much nastier to get rid of: they could be sprayed with an organic insecticide, but the main thing to do was to remove each bug manually, one at a time, and drown them in a bucket of soapy water, with them squirming in my hands, trying to burrow between my fingers, on the whole trip from the tree to their watery death. As I squatted down next to the hundred-and-some infected saplings, evening after evening (this had to be done as the sun was setting so that the beetles would be drowsy), and wrestled them to them to their doom, taking a perverse satisfaction in hunting them down that overshadowed my guilt, I kept thinking, “Who am I? What is this?”
This task, this life... it’s not something I ever would have designed for myself, and yet here it is, complicated and rewarding and challenging. To give a simple answer about what it means to suddenly become so concerned with nature, so involved in the minutia of encouraging trees to grow, is impossible. Even trying to look for a clear-cut lesson about what it means to be responsible for this little slice of the Earth, what it means to have to kill insects and vines in order that trees would live, would be to trivialize it all. Like this Israelites, I think the best thing I can do is to keep asking, “What is this?”
That doesn’t mean that I don’t strive to find answers, navel-gaze, spiritualize, treat the very literal as metaphorical, trying to understand exactly what all this is. I do that all the time—especially about bigger, and more serious matters. I ask myself what is monastic life? What is it, to be a Catholic, a Christian, a nun, a Benedictine?
Some weeks ago, when there was a lot of news coverage of the mass graves of First Nations children at Canadian boarding schools run by religious orders, I had a conversation with a young man, which I’ve been thinking about ever since. He was an atheist, though a spiritual seeker, and in the course of our conversation, he asked me how I could reconcile the ethical principles that I try to follow, with being part of an institution with such a checkered-at-best history. What is this church, and what does it mean to be a part of it?
I gave him an answer. I said something like, I hope that being part of such a flawed institution helps to keep me honest—I hope that it’s something that I can check myself against. I hope it keeps me from becoming complacent, from regarding myself as such a good Christian person that I couldn’t fall into the delusions of superiority and violence and callousness that the Sisters who ran those schools fell into.
I wish I wouldn’t have said all that. I wish I wouldn’t have given the impression that I have any answers to questions like those—that there are any answers to questions like those. I wish I would have said to him, “I don’t know what this institution is. I don’t understand all that has been done. I just believe that I could give my life to puzzling over its contradictions, being changed within it, and hopefully changing it a little in return.” That would have been a much more truthful response.
There is enough here in monastic life to puzzle over for a lifetime, and I don’t know what else I would rather do than to keep asking, what is this?
What is it that pulls us all out of bed and into chapel so early in the morning, and opens our mouths in song?
What is this, this long conversation with a friend, this little compliment or affirmations from a Sister you love?
What is this conflict, this disagreement, between two people who have the same values and different visions?
What is this house, where sixty women live their regular daily lives, and guests find a unique, restorative oasis?
What is this love that lives inside each one’s heart, that makes them so able to listen to each other, to anticipate each other’s needs?
What is this stillness, watching leaves open and grow? What is this peace, lingering at the table?
What is this novice? What is her God?
No explanation would ever make sense of all these little flakes of manna, these mysterious, nourishing gifts of the bread of life. All I can do is say, like the Israelites, “What is this?” and like the disciples in today’s Gospel, “Give us this bread always.”
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.