The following is a chapter from the current draft of my forthcoming book. These events took place several years ago, when Dave and I were in the midst of infertility and I was struggling with depression.
After one of my first therapy sessions, my therapist gave me “homework.” (After she found out the seriousness with which this teacher took any “homework” assignment, she would not use the word with me again.) “I want you to meet someone,” she said. “She is a nun, and she is very old.” Tears traced my cheeks. “I think you would like each other.” I began to cry in earnest.
Our life here is full of many things, but people who love us and are over the age of fifty are almost entirely absent. Perhaps that’s what happens in a city like Los Angeles, where everyone, regardless of years, seems young – you have to be to make it here.
A few weeks later, I drove the thirty miles to my first meeting with Sister Margaret. I checked and rechecked the GPS to be sure I had the correct address. I arrived twenty minutes early and parked across the street, using those minutes to quiet my rapidly beating heart. I was nervous about meeting this woman; I really wanted her to like me. I crossed the street to the Villa, and Sister Margaret greeted me on the concrete walkway beneath towering evergreens. “I am so glad to meet you.” She opened her arms wide to usher me inside.
Sister Margaret is small, humble, unassuming, and filled to the brim with quiet delight. She’s been a nun for over sixty-five years. We sat opposite each other in comfortable chairs in front of an empty hearth. Through the window I could see the bright green and red leaves of a poinsettia, and through that, the green grass. Sister Margaret asked me to light a candle, and we prayed.
In that season I was impatient with my own lack of transformation. Why am I still struggling? Can’t I just fix this and move on? What else do I need to do to heal and change more quickly? I interrogated myself daily.
As my impatience became apparent in our conversation about life and faith, Sister Margaret said something to me that I have found myself saying to other people, and to myself, many times in the years since: “This earth is very old, and our God is very patient. God is a gardener. Gardeners don’t go around kicking the cabbages and telling them to grow faster.”
When I closed my eyes to pray that morning, I saw in my mind a great tree, an evergreen like those outside the Villa, and I thought of this great, old earth. The tree in my mind was straight like an arrow, dressed in a regular pattern of green boughs. It was quite still, but I knew that, beyond my ability to perceive, it was stretching ever taller with the turning of the earth.
A few weeks later, at a Kairos Sunday gathering, Dave’s co-pastor spoke about being oaks of righteousness. As her husband led us afterward in song, I again closed my eyes, and a prayer settled on my shoulders like a shawl: God, grant me the faith of an acorn.
Small enough to nestle in the palm of my hand, acorns grow into trees large enough to shelter a family from sun or storm. From what we know of them, they do so without planning or effort on their own part. They don’t have to will themselves to grow faster. They are subject to the wind and the rain and the soil and the sun and they will grow, quickly or slowly. They submit themselves to burial beneath the soil, to the breaking of their skin and their hearts, and so begin their lives as trees. Years turn to decades, and they grow taller, soaking up only what comes to them – there is no thought of running after what they need for growth, only a slow, upward journey toward the light. As they grow taller, so they grow deeper, roots digging ever more surely into the soil that will offer everything they need to live, or won’t, and that will be the end and they will break and fall and rot and become new life and sing new songs as insects and grubs and salamanders.
The next time I visited Sister Margaret, I told her of my acorn prayer. She smiled her sweet smile, and said, “Come.” She led me out of the house, down through the garden, and around a corner to a nook under the evergreens. “Look,” she said. “I brought this home as an acorn. I didn’t think it would grow, but I planted it anyway, and look!” In a large pot was a miniature oak. Only three feet in height, it had the gnarled, scrappy look of the black oaks of Yosemite. It had few leaves, and fewer branches, but it was a living, breathing tree before us. “Someday, it will outgrow its pot,” she said, “and then I will plant it in the ground.”
God, grant me the faith of an acorn, that I might find life in death and trust that I will grow, like a river awash with rain, without striving.