Excerpt from her new book, A Good Way Through. Available now!
In my experience of Los Angeles, everyone who lives there, regardless of years, seems young. You have to be resilient, creative, and perhaps just a little bit self-focused to survive there. On my first day of teaching, just after we had moved to LA, I noticed trucks unloading equipment in the school soccer field. “What is that?” I asked a colleague.
“The industry,” she said, as if that explained everything. In time, I would discover it did. “The industry” in Los Angeles is the entertainment industry, and much of the life of the city revolves around it. The culture is fast-paced, even cutthroat. People hoping to “make it” in LA save up all the money they can, and land there ready to work around the clock to succeed. They sacrifice sleep, comfort, even friendships to try to live into their calling. A few succeed overnight. The rest doggedly keep at it, get day jobs or head “back East” to save up more money and try again.
Our life in Los Angeles was rich, but it lacked perspective. Most of the people we knew were under forty. So, when my therapist introduced me to Sister Margaret, my hopes were high for a deep connection with someone who had the perspective of a lot of life behind her.
I drove the thirty miles to my first meeting with Sister Margaret, 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 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. When we met, she had been a nun for 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. I could see signs of growth: I felt safer in the darkness and I experienced more love and joy than I had in prior months, but I was still struggling. Can’t I just fix this and move on? I wondered. 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 with her that morning, I saw in my mind a great tree, and I thought of this great, old earth. The tree in my mind was tall like a mountain and dressed in a pattern of green boughs. It was quite still, but I knew, beyond my ability to perceive, it was stretching ever taller with the turning of the earth.
A few weeks later, at a Kairos worship gathering, one of our pastors spoke about being oaks of righteousness. Afterward, as we sang, 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.”
I drove home under the bright blue sky. I wondered, what does it look like to grow like an oak? To let go of responsibility for my own transformation and just to allow myself to be loved? I didn’t know yet, but I would continue to make space in my life for this God I wanted so desperately to know. I prayed, 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.
Kristen Leigh Kludt is a contemplative Christian writer and spiritual guide. Mother to two boys, she lives, works, and plays in San Francisco’s East Bay, where her husband is a pastor. She is growing daily toward a life of integrity and love.
Excerpt from A Good Way Through: My Journey with God from Disappointment into Hope (February 21, 2016)