But desire earnestly the greater gifts, and I will show you a more excellent way.Sister John Augustine sat alone in the cloister garden. She had finished her work with the plants, and the day was so warm and quiet that she could not help but take a seat for a moment. Exhausted, she glanced at the small square of soil which she had just weeded, and then looked hesitantly at the vast gardens still undone. She would work with those later, she thought to herself. Looking then on the horizon, her dreams of the great work she longed to do flew through her mind.
(1 Corinthians 12:31)
(1 Corinthians 12:31)
The afternoon had far progressed, and she saw that the sun was just beginning to lower itself into the mountains. She gasped at the brilliance of light shining from between the clouds onto the trees below. Immediately her mind filled with great imaginings, as it always did when she gazed at the sky. Here were great canopies and temples and glorious nations filled with many ranks of seraphs armed with harps and cherubim adorned with armor. Men on great pinnacles shouted mightily the praise “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and martyrs clothed in white with red sashes showered blessings from Heaven on the Church with a mighty hand. A noise caused some birds in the distance to fly up in a twirling dance which caused her to think of the joy it would cause her to spread peace throughout the world in word, deed, and kind embraces. Suddenly, the sun, moving a centimeter further, shone full in her eyes. In her blindness the thoughts ended and silence endured for a moment, then the bell rang for Vespers.
Sr. John Augustine was tired, and hardly paid attention to the readings and prayers of Vespers, though she participated dutifully. At recreation that night she talked to Sister Agnes about the garden work she had done, thinking inside about how empty her insignificant life felt. Sr. Agnes, an older sister in the community, noticed that something was depressing Sister John and charitably began to talk about a beautiful thing she had meditated on that day: “While reading a book about St. Therese of Lisieux, (The Story of Love), I happened upon her definition of prayer ‘It is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to Heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as in joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.’” She had just finished explaining how perfect this definition sounded to her when the sisters simultaneously laid aside their mending and needlework and filed into the chapel for night prayer.
The next morning Sr. John Augustine woke early, unable to sleep, and went down to the chapel to pray. She happened to think about what Sr. Agnes had told her the night before about prayer… “That is much more profound than I am accustomed to,” she thought to herself, “My cries are not full of gratitude, but restless love, and my prayer is not great nor supernatural; something is wrong in my heart.” She could hear the first chirp of the birds, and see a grey light shining through the windows into the immaculate choir and reflecting off of the wooden floors. In a moment her mind began to wander to the flower beds she would be attending to later in the day and lingered on that subject for some time. Angry at herself for allowing her mind to wander, she began to pray in earnest, beginning, as always, with an exclamation of love:
Good Jesus, Who died on a Cross for me, I have heard that love is the greatest good. God is love, true life is love, joy is love, sorrow is love. In a world when love seems hardly real, I seem out of place… a fool living for a dream. And yet, so powerful is this dream for me that it is food and drink, punishment and reward, work and play, the purpose and orientation of my every action and the consummation of my will, my very existence. The love I have for You has been put in my heart by You Yourself, and is infinitely repaid by You. This love alone satisfies me.
She hardly thought as she said these words, so natural was it to her to pray in this way, but at the last words she fell into meditation. Was she satisfied? Her heart was so restless, she wanted to accomplish so much… her mind drifted back to the garden, and she refocused on her prayer, this time in a different line of thought:
If I should spend a long life in labor for you, my heart shall not grow restless. It is for this that my heart yearns, to serve You. I have discovered the secret to all suffering and joy, so that every moment is a precious chance to give another gift of love to You.
Another thought entered her mind, and she continued:
If only my body, and every action I performed, expressed the feelings within me. My Jesus, my life is dry and empty, and I am weak. I can have no remembrance of my past, for it can only lead to regret that I did not love more, that I did not give more. But, how happy that I have been so unworthy, so imperfect a child, and so full of faults and sins in my negligence! For, had I not needed Your mercy and healing penance so intensely, if I should not have been so intimately introduced to Humility, then I should never have received Your pity.
There was the garden in her mind again! Why did she never cease to think about this insignificant task that lay before her. Was not she supposed to be praying, and striving for supernatural meditation? Then it hit her, suddenly, what she had been missing!
How hard it is to be able to do so little. While, if I were great, I could help the sick, visit the imprisoned, clean and care for orphans, console those who weep, walk through the greatest danger to save the needy, face disease and death with courage and charity, suffer a million martyrdoms and still not die, convert nations through word and deed… All of this I long to do, but I cannot do it all, I cannot do any of it! I can only make such small strides of service. But it is right, Lord, that my tasks should be menial and my scope of apostleship small, for I am all but nothing.
Will You, my Love, leave my thirst for service unquenchable? No, You know how to help me reach these impossible goals. First You busy me with prayer, suffering, and numberless small tasks (like pulling weeds). Then, You put Your life into my heart and cause it to burst into a flame growing rapidly. I live my life without, and Yours within, and You, in turn, use what would be the perfection of my prayers and desires to accomplish for others what only You could do. How great You are! For in Your greatness, You make me great.
It was already mid-morning, and the sun was high in the sky. Sister John Augustine was sent back out to continue weeding the vegetable gardens. It was very hot work, and there were no clouds in the sky to guard her from the sun. As usual, she meditated on the mysteries of the Rosary for the first half hour or so, maintaining some silence of mind.
Some of the roots were very deep, and she had to work hard to remove the plants. As she was removing a particularly tiresome dandelion, she happened to think that this dandelion was like a disease in someone’s heart, spreading through it giving pain to whoever it plagued. With this thought, she pulled it out of the ground eagerly. Then she moved on to the other one, this one was smaller… she thought to herself that perhaps this plant was a burdensome temptation suffered by a teen in high school, so she pulled that one too. With each plant she pulled, she thought about all the good God could be doing for others as a result, but mostly, she thought of how pleased these gifts of love were to Him, upon which he laid the greatest value.
When the day had ended, Sister John Augustine sat looking at the sky, much as she had done the evening before. The sun was setting again, but, instead of dreaming, she thought peacefully of how beautiful it was.
The life of a religious cannot be lived without the greatest faith in God's Power and Mercy.