Not for the first time, I almost collided with one of the Sisters yesterday, as I was on my way to leave the monastery after supper.
I wasn’t particularly in a rush, but I was rushing anyway, because that’s my habit. Chalk it up to youth, or to my aggressive New Jersey upbringing, or to a quirk of my personality—for whatever reason, I was walking fast and not paying much attention, exactly unlike Sister Mary D, who was standing completely still in the middle of the hallway, held up by her walker, staring, smiling, at the canvas print hanging on the wall.
The hallway has been decorated with art by sisters, oblates, and friends, since the beginning of March, as part of Women’s History Month. And I’d seen the picture Mary D was looking at before— a large photograph, a close-up of the inside of a flower—but I hadn’t noticed too much about it besides the color, which was a nice warm pink. But Mary D, age 92, didn’t seem to realize that I’d almost bowled her over, because she was so caught up in the detail of the flower. “Oh–that’s what people are supposed to do when they see something beautiful,” I thought.
The past few weeks have been full of reminders for me that I haven’t really developed my appreciation for beauty very well. As the weather has started to warm up, I’ve been overhearing my coworkers and friends excitedly report hearing robins, and seeing crocuses or daffodil heads peeking out from the remaining crusts of snow next to the sidewalk that leads to the office. That kind of thing never seems to register with me, I confessed to the people gathered around the office lunch table on Tuesday. There’s so much beauty around me, but I either don’t notice or don’t pay much attention.
When I was growing up, I was perpetually blocking people’s carts at the grocery store, bumping into door jambs, walking around with my nose in a book. I can still hear my mother’s refrain, “Jacqueline! Pay attention to your surroundings!” I got a more liturgical version of that admonition from one of the Sisters at the lunch table. “Open your eyes, Jackie,” she teased, singing along to this tune. “Try just to see God’s face.”
It is a kind of deprivation, living so myopically like I tend to do. When I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I underlined these sentences from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and maybe because I really need them, they’ve stayed with me over the years: “Look at everything as though you were seeing it for the first time or the last time. Then your time on earth will be filled with glory.”
With all that on my mind yesterday evening, I felt a little guilty about almost knocking over Mary D. I decided that I’d better join her in looking at that enormous photograph of a flower, even though I couldn’t quite figure out what, exactly, I was supposed to look at. For months, I’ve been posting resources for lectio divina with art on Monasteries of the Heart, but this was the first time I could really sense what it meant to pray with an image. Mary D, who in recent years has started to need help navigating the psalter at prayer times, was, here, exactly the model of prayer that I needed. I kept staring at the photo, just copying her, and gradually, what felt like a little miracle happened: I started to see things that I hadn’t noticed before. Patterns of veins in the flower. Variations in that warm pink. And then, shockingly, I saw a big beetle perched on one of the petals.
“Do you see that huge black bug?” I asked Mary D.
“Yes,” she said, laughing. “That’s a part of the art, too!”
And even though I have no great fondness for bugs, I could see, in that moment, that she was right. That beetle’s inky body was perfectly, beautifully shaped, full of details and tiny working joints and eyes. And Mary D herself seemed, for that moment, to be part of the art, too, intricately made like all of us are, somewhat in her own world and somewhat in mine. She pointed out more and more little aspects of the photo to me, lines and shades and parts of the flower, smiling and laughing and saying, “You see a lot when you really look carefully!” It was all so much more beautiful than I’d realized all the times I’d breezed past it.
I know this is something to work on: really noticing things, savoring what’s around me, not speeding through the world with blinders on. Paying attention is how you “fill your time on earth with glory,” how you might “see God’s face.”
In that spirit, tonight I walked down to the lake by myself, to watch the sun set. It occurs to me as I write this that maybe I shouldn’t have brought a book with me, to entertain me in case the sunset “took too long.”
But I think this new resolution to be patient applies to being patient with myself too.
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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.
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