Bush Hogs, Berries, God

A nun finds a connection between blueberries and her life.

ILLUSTRATIONS BY P. SAVAGE

We feast this day the death of death,” we chant as the tractor chugs down the driveway. We are beginning Lauds of Easter Saturday, the seventh day of the Octave dedicated to celebrating Easter joy. I finish the hymn, but then must leave the chapel to speak with the driver. The bush hog has arrived.

He came early, Tom explains, to finish before it rains. I hadn’t heard about rain, but I don’t care. He and his bush hog have a date with our overgrown blueberry field—the next step in our project of bringing it back into production.

I sense a kinship with the blueberries. This is their niche. This place is my niche, too.

Tom unloads his bush hog and prepares for work. I walk the field with him, explaining that I want as much cleared as possible, especially the juniper. We have an abundance of juniper, that creeping evergreen shrub with the prickly needles. It thrives in poor, rocky soil, the same type of soil that the blueberries like, but it’s a big bully of a plant, crowding them out and starving them of soil and sun. Today, however, it has met its match in the bush hog.

Tom starts the tractor and the bush hog moves noisily down the hill and onto the field. Chips, needles, and long shreds of trunks spew out behind it. I remain safely uphill, well away from the melee. The sound and sight are most satisfactory; I’ve had it in for that juniper ever since I first saw it.

This might seem a bit strange—perhaps it really is a bit strange. The blueberries bring out all my protective instincts. For one thing, they’re tiny, only about 6 to 8 inches tall. These are wild berries, not the cultivated highbush kind. They are tiny, with tiny berries, but oh, so delicious! They’re also hard to pick—it’s necessary to bend over constantly and use a tined instrument, a combination rake, comb, and bucket. Blueberries don’t make you rich, either, as the price isn’t all that high. And blueberry fields only produce every other year!

So why would we go through all this work to bring back the blueberry field? Certainly, clearing the field will help keep our view open for years to come, and we love our view of the distant hills. It opens us up to transcendence and leads us into prayer.

Certainly, we hope we will at least break even on cost. A new community, we struggle financially.

Certainly, too, it will be attractive for our guesthouse and retreatants. Blueberry fields, called barrens here in Maine, are amazingly enchanting. They produce impressionistic swathes and drifts of subtle color, from deep to pale green, to gold, to rust and tan, and all over the cream of the tiny white blossoms. Just six inches high, they are interspersed here and there with the thrusting curlicue heads of new ferns, with young birch and poplar, and with knolls of rock outcrop. The overall effect is an invitation to prayer, a beautiful reflection of the God who created all beauty and is Beauty itself.

Like those blueberries overwhelmed by the juniper, I often felt I’d go under.

All of these are good reasons, important reasons. Yet I personally harbor another, secret reason. I sense a kinship with the blueberries, a subterranean identification. They belong here. They just naturally want to grow here. This soil is right for them, the climate is right for them, everything is right for them. All they need is a helping hand to get back into the sunshine, and—varoom!—they will hurl themselves into new growth, throw out underground runners, recapture territory long surrendered to the invading juniper and other shrubs and trees. They love it here. This is their niche.

This place is my niche, too, and the niche of any who dwell here, those who are called here to live a life of prayer and solitude, prayer and community. Our particular form of monastic life is called semi-eremitical, which means “half solitary.” Most monasteries are cenobitic, that is, they focus on prayer in community. A few are exclusively oriented to prayer in solitude. Fewer still foster a blend of both elements, prayer in solitude and in community. It’s a very unique blend, and it’s very difficult to get it right. Yet for those called to it, it’s vitally important. It’s our niche.

Finding our niche, our location in life, is sometimes easy, but sometimes extremely difficult. The more unique one’s calling, the longer it sometimes takes to discover it.

Growing up as I did on a small farm in Connecticut, I already knew I was different from all the others in school. But I was way too different! I found it impossible to fit in. This wouldn’t have been so bad if I had another mold to fit into. But what mold? I wasn’t raised Catholic, or even religious.

I liked books and long solitary walks, not parties, sports, and surreptitious smoking in the school girls room. As I entered my senior year, I stumbled into a course on the intellectual history of Europe. The class had only eleven students—and was a revelation! I wasn’t bored, I was challenged. It was an intellectual awakening for me, and something more.

The teacher was Catholic, an adult convert who taught as if ideas were important, as if they counted for something. His faith influenced him, and while he never proselytized, it was clear he had a sympathy for matters of faith and spirit. One day he offered me a book about a saint, a great contemplative saint, Theresa of Avilla. I was captivated, entranced, overwhelmed! My heart opened, and I knew my calling.

But there were some hurdles, such as not being Catholic, not thinking I actually believed in God, and not having any idea how to find a monastery. Not to mention that I was signed up to go off to college.

One B.A. later, I was still struggling, still on the roller-coaster ride between faith and no faith. I signed up for a seminary, foolishly thinking these issues could be decided by reason alone. Blessedly, the seminary taught me how to read the Scriptures, and while there, the silent times I spent in the little Catholic Church at the foot of the hill opened my heart to God. I was finally caught, and God reeled me in.

Even so, it’s been a long journey to find this niche. The journey has led me through an established monastery, through leaving it, through the trial and error of looking at other communities, and finally to a life of solitude here in Maine. It was always a struggle, a pioneer journey, or so it seemed. At times I thought there would never be a right place, that there wasn’t a place. At times I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the world, and how different it is to have a calling to solitude and prayer. Like those blueberries overwhelmed by the juniper, I often felt it was impossible, and I’d go under. But now I understand that God provides what we need to live out our own unique call. God always upholds us on our journey when we are truly searching. Like Abraham, we journey in faith without a roadmap. Each one is called in a unique way, and each of us must respond.

Today I am again in a monastery, one in which we devote ourselves to prayer. We devote ourselves also to a life shared together in community, a life in which we try to give each other the necessary space for solitude and the transformation in God that can happen in solitude.

How comparatively easy it is to describe the outer journey. Yet the inner journey, the road to deepening intimacy in God, is the heart which drives the outer. Transformation into the one we desire and an ever-expanding heart for others is the goal and the path and the signpost of this journey.

As with the blueberry field, this takes time. Slowly we shed the layers that keep us from this path, the major obstacles, the lesser encumbrances, and the tiny things that cloud our vision. This is the labor of resurrection, and it is hard work.

The blueberries are returned to sun and warmth. We return, ever so slowly, to the sunshine and warmth of God’s love and life. The blueberries grow well here, but they need our helping hand. We grow well here, too, with God’s help. Everyone grows well, when they are in the right soil, the right climate, the right space. Everyone grows well when they’ve found their calling, their vocation, their niche. Everyone grows well, and bears fruit, abundant fruit, fruit that will last.


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