Sister Christine doesn't talk when she's working with her flowers. She tends to them silently, like a mother settling a brood of small children. She inspects the stem of one, picks a speck of dirt from the petal of another, straightens out a leaf, leans back to admire a branch.
Tenderly, one by one, a handful of daffodils and twigs are assigned their places in Sister Christine's arrangement, which will grace the refectory table at St. Margaret's House, an Episcopal convent in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Such work is her joy, the silence a canvas for her prayer.
"Yes, you can get on your knees and say an Our Father. But there are many different ways we express our love for God," said the 57-year-old nun. Formal prayers--including the daily Eucharist and the communal recitation of the Holy Office four times a day in the convent chapel--are the stabilizing and nurturing root system of her prayer life. But she said her personal spirituality truly flourishes when she's working with nature.
"This centers me," she said.
|"There's nothing more spiritual than watching what you've planted in the ground. You plant it, you nurture it, and God provides the sun and the rain...."|
"We each have our own way of being with God, and that's fine. Each person has to find their own way. There are formal ways that are very good. But there are also informal ways," she said. "I'm not a great reader. I tend to feel, look, touch, smell, taste--all are very important things to me."
The prayer life of a vowed religious tends to be more cerebral than sensual, she said. But in time, with some struggle, she grew confident in her own, informal approach. True to form, she is more comfortable practicing it than talking about it, which she did with some hesitation.
The British-born nun, whose habit one recent day consisted of sweater, corduroy cargo pants, sandals, and a simple black cross, has had a lifelong love of flowers.
She began growing them as a child in a small corner of her father's wee vegetable plot in Yorkshire: "He always left me a little spot."
"There's nothing more spiritual than watching what you've planted in the ground. You plant it, you nurture it, and God provides the sun and the rain and helps it to grow. You see the absolute mystery in what God has given to us in growing things...also the absolute beauty. There's beauty in the simplest of things--the flowers or the bark of a tree. Sometimes it behooves us to stop and look."
Sister Christine spent most of her life in Canada, where, as a nurse, she worked with the deaf. In 1984, she returned to England and entered the Society of St. Margaret, an Anglican order of nuns founded in 1855.
With some 40 U.S. members, it is the largest of about a dozen Episcopal orders in this country, said Sister Mary Gabriel, superior of the Germantown convent. The nuns take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and charity, or love of neighbor. "Love first, love midst, love last" is their credo, she said.
Sister Christine shares responsibility for day-to-day running of the convent, which is home to four sisters. Through a variety of retreat programs, the nuns aim to offer a "haven of peace" for individuals and groups. Clergy often come to "crash" after major holiday seasons, she said. The house accommodates up to 15 people for overnight stays, and several dozen for quiet days or special programs.
Sometimes, Sister Christine may shop and cook for up to 40 people. She's undaunted, though, for cooking is another prayerful exercise for her.
"We may take only a half hour over that meal eating it, but think what's gone into it. Someone's planted the food, grown it, harvested it, made it into what comes into the kitchen, and then you prepare it. Preparing it beautifully is giving thanks not only for God's creation--food--but also for the people who have worked to prepare it and the people who are going to eat it."
That flowers and food are such fleeting pleasures only increases their appeal: "You have to stop at that time and give thanks."
Happily, much of her other work also allows room for her informal kind of prayer. She is a member of the parish St. Fiacre Guild, which has been beautifying the parish grounds with help from the nonprofit Philadelphia Green.
She is responsible for the floral arrangements for the house--including the chapel, where the community spends a good part of its day in prayer.
She also took on the task of cajoling back to bloom the long-neglected convent garden. It is presided over on one side by a modern sculpture of the crucified Christ, on another by a tall Celtic graveyard cross. Inside the old stone walls, all is emerging life as sprouts and buds from roses, spring bulbs and perennials push forth.
Digging in the dirt in the quiet, the convent dog, Holly, for company, is an experience like no other for Sister Christine. "The garden for me is a time of prayer, a time of thanksgiving. To actually put my hands in the earth is to feel God's creation."
While her work flows from no particular spiritual prayer formula or program, she does have her own ritual of sorts. "I guess I actually put myself in the presence of God just by the silence," she said.
From there, a rich store of personal meaning wells up in her while she works. When she takes notice of the blooming forsythia, whose cuttings were the gift of a friend, she gives thanks for the gift and asks blessings on the friend. When arranging flowers for her Society's feast day, or working with the Marguerite daisies she associates with St. Margaret, "my prayer will probably be for the community and what it means to be," she said.
|"Beauty--that's not of my creation. It's what God has given me to work with."|
Her prayer may focus on Mary when she works with roses, or on St. Joseph when working with the lilies he is often depicted carrying.
When alter flowers have been donated in memory of someone who has died, she will pray for the deceased as well as for the family when arranging them.
She likes to give her flowers space. "So much of the world is clutter, clutter, clutter." A beautiful arrangement "can be just five flowers, because they've all been created by God." And so it follows that Sister Christine's prayer is full of praise for the Creator, not pride in her own artistry.
"Beauty--that's not of my creation. It's what God has given me to work with. With this gift He's given me, I'm trying to give back to other people."
When I design arrangements of flowers, it's an offering," she said. "It's a thanksgiving for what God has given us, and it's a thanksgiving for the gift He's given me to be able to do this."