What does a novice do all day? Oh, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. We take classes on the Rule of Benedict and the litugical cycle and humility; I've started taking voice lessons so that I won't feel like like I'm dragging down the choir; I meet with my director once a week or so; I do an hour of lectio a day and have had the time to read about 15 books in the last two months. Every morning, I make a hot breakfast for the sisters in the infirmary--about 8 people, depending on the day--and one afternoon a week, I help out in the archives, watching old VHS tapes of the community in the 90's and early 2000's. In my spare time, I panic-read the news obsessively, take the occasional hike, and try to stay in touch with my friends outside the community. I have a couple of papers and projects I'm thinking about and researching. And most days I get a nap in.
But maybe the most interesting new hobby––at least to me––is that I've managed to become the mother of about 30 baby willows trees.
Now, I am pretty famously someone who doesn't get into gardening. I hate to touch dirt, and I don't seem to have the sensitivity for nature that other people do––I don't see, or don't remember, what makes one plant distinct from another. But I did know the big weeping willow at the edge of our yard. It's not that I spent much time really admiring it, but last summer, during our Jubilee celebration, I watched little kids, the nieces and nephews of a jubilarian, swinging like Tarzan from its long branches, and had a moment of real gratitude for it. So, when it came crashing down during a wind storm last month, and the Sisters all just seemed so heartbroken, I thought there ought to be a way to save it.
A quick Google search told me that it's relatively easy to propagate willows from cuttings of the branches, so the day after the storm, one of the other novices and I trooped across the muddy lawn with blades in hand, and cut a few dozen pieces off it. We spread them out over about 4 vases full of water and rooting hormone, and put three of them in a sunny spot in the room where I usually camp out to do my studying and lectio. The other vase was entrusted to Sister Carolyn, who has a special connection to the original willow tree––it had been a gift from the participants of her wildly beloved Spirit of the Seasons retreats, which were held at the Mount for years and years.
Now I've been nurturing it, checking in on it almost every day, changing the water once a week and methodically going over each cutting for signs of life or death. Small twigs that are shriveling up are broken off, the ends are snipped to keep them absorbing water, tiny bumps are scrutinized: is this mold or the idea of a root taking shape? People say it's good to sing to plants, but, as I said, my voice isn't too inspiring, so I play them recordings from local Indigenous singers, in case it's music that plants respond to. And I read them poetry, in case it's the carbon dioxide from people's breath that helps them. Is it silly to spend an hour every Tuesday massaging tiny strips of willow branches and reciting, "And death shall have no dominion" by Dylan Thomas? A little. But it just feels right. There is so much darkness in the world right now, and so many things that feel fragile. I'm going to do whatever I can for this one that's fallen into my lap.
Simone Weil, the great French writer, says that attention "presupposes" love. I suppose that's true, here. I don't know why I'd spend so much time trying to spark life and encourage growth in the willow cuttings if I didn't love them, or if I didn't love the people who loved the tree. Or maybe it's the time that I've spent studying them that has led me to love them; whatever the order of events, this has been an experience of falling in love with these little living sticks. And just like every other time I've fallen in love, it has been so joyful. I know "love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams," and I know love is intertwined with loss and suffering, but that makes it even more important to have these reminders that love is also beautiful and hopeful. Maybe all the willow cuttings will die tomorrow, or gradually; maybe none of the dozens now growing will manage to make it into a full-grown tree. But I'll have had these hours with them, watching them carefully, delighting in their improbable new leaves in December, and that alone is worth something.
I don't know if this is how it is for you, but I'd guess it probably is, or was at one time in your life––all of us people being more alike than different––but it is such a surprise to discover that I love something or someone that I didn't before. I know myself to have a near-boundless capacity for self-pity, for grudges, for irritations, but I'm taken aback when I remember that the human capacity for love is also boundless.
The novitiate is supposed to be a time for this kind of thing, of course, for growing in love with God and with the community and with the monastic life. Every year, I suppose, should be a time for growing in love. And so when I find myself just overjoyed to have this new willowy love-hobby that came out of just a few hours of concentrating with hope on something, I have to wonder... what else could I learn to love? The Sister whose tone of voice is always so authoritative? The process of vacuuming out a car that someone else tracked mud into? The people whose indifference or brokenness contributes to the suffering of innocent children? A would-be dictator and his enraged followers? My own self-doubt and insecurity? Only time and practice will tell.
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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.