Thursday, January 18, 2018

Deep roots, wide branches: epiphytes, champion trees and the power of heritage

One blessing of the Collaborative Dominican Novitiate’s location in St Louis is the opportunity to surround myself with beauty during weekly reflection days.  From the paintings and art installations at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art to enormous sculptures in the garden at the St Louis Art Museum to the dazzling mosaics at the Cathedral Basilica, there is no shortage of art of all kinds to accompany me in praying through and integrating each week’s learnings. 
                The gardens and greenhouses of the Missouri Botanical Gardens also offer beauty and nourishment on reflection days.  It’s a delight to sit in the temperate house’s Moorish walled garden, prayer journal in hand, surrounded by the sound of the fountain’s running water and the sight of lemon and fig trees.  Beside the temperate house is the Climatron, a geodesic dome which houses a lush, large collection of plants from the tropical rain forest.  Walking across the bridge in the Climatron one reflection day and taking in the view of the foliage, I noticed a small plant growing on a tree’s thick branch.  According to a nearby sign, this was an epiphyte: a plant with no root system that draws nutrients from air and rain water. I marveled at the brightly-colored exotic orchid that had no direct attachment to the rich soil far below.

Epiphytes on a tree branch in the Monteverde rain forest (photo credit: Brett Cole)
I stepped out of the warm, humid Climatron into the brisk autumn air and continued my walk until I came across an enormous white basswood tree.   I craned my neck to take in the expanse of branches spreading against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky.  According to nearby signage, this was a Champion tree – the largest known of its species in the country.    In contrast to the lovely, delicate epiphyte orchid, this champion tree was enormous, old, and rugged.  I could only imagine the many birds and bugs that have made it their homes over the decades.  I could only imagine the network of long, thick roots hidden under the earth. 
That sunny afternoon at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, I began to envision that champion tree as a metaphor for the history I’d been studying over the past months as a Dominican novice. Learning about the history of my Sinsinawa congregation, the Dominican family (which we will dive into at the Aquinas Institute this semester), Dominican holy women (through research during my candidacy year), and of other religious congregations (through presentations by other novices in vowed life class and the inter-community novitiate) has given me a sense of the widening circles of belonging that contextualize my own discernment of religious life.  Like branches connected to the basswood’s strong trunk with a wide, solid base of roots, these histories give a sense of the tradition in which I seek to ground myself.  Study turns into prayer as it seems that part of discernment is finding echoes of ourselves in the through-lines of our congregational narratives.  

The grounding of this history doesn’t happen only through classroom lectures, books, and archival research, but in listening to sisters’ stories around the dinner table or in a motherhouse community room over a cup of tea. Spending time at the Sinsinawa Mound over Christmas break afforded me the opportunity to hear more of these stories - which are in turn inspiring, hilarious, poignant, and challenging - of Sinsinawa Dominican life, and hearing firsthand accounts of these roots. 
As someone on the cusp of Generation X and Millennial generations, a good number of my age peers - though generalizing about generations is tough - are often wary of organized religion and are likely to self-define as “spiritual but not religious.”  People my age are much more likely to be “nones” (to check the box “none” on a survey about religious affiliation) than to be “nuns.”  According to sociologists who study generational trends, many of us in our twenties and thirties tend to distrust institutions of all types, religious and otherwise, for valid and understandable reasons.  My age peers in many cases tend to be “do-it-yourself” types when it comes to the work of meaning-making and identity-constructing – epiphytes who ask the big questions without necessarily wanting to sink roots into tradition with all its ambiguities and complications, blessings and baggage. 
I certainly understand this impulse among my peers, and I have myself experienced disillusionment and disappointments in the Church and other institutions.  Yet thanks to the Providence of God, the witness of so many joyful and radiant sisters who are models of religious life, the opportunity to study the prophetic saints of our history, and grace of tenacity, despite my loss of first naiveté, I love this tradition - and have grown to love it more and more as continue to discern religious life.
I return over and over again to my appreciation of and gratitude for these widening circles of tradition in which I live.  I remain grateful for the stories, songs, images, rituals, and liturgies in which I am grounded.  I remain grateful for the widening circles of community in which I find myself.  I remain grateful for the Dominican legacy which stretches around the globe and across a span of over 800 years – a story still being written, a story into which I have entered.   
That autumn afternoon at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, I stood before the enormous champion tree and thanked God for the opportunity to explore the deep roots and wide branches of Dominican life. 
Dominican Family Tree (from Stone convent in Staffordshire, England)


  1. I love your observations and connections. The pictures are perfect. Thank you.

  2. This is excellent Rhonda ... my reflection for this morning ...thank you so much. I remember too when my thoughts and wariness turned from being 'none' to realizing [and learning] of the rich history of the Dominicans. I remember sitting in Vespers on a certain Feast with our student brothers and every Dominican sister and brother who lived in St. Louis - a feeling came over me that I will never forget ... the deep appreciation and awe of this life and the people yesterday and TODAY who live it with compassion and with love ... the REALNESS of it. I think that is what young people [and anybody - really] are looking for - authenticity and people who are REAL!

  3. I’ve just discovered your writing, and as a woman making my way back to the Church after about 20 years’ absence, find your descriptions of the way it is for you very familiar to me! Thank you for your Dominican perspective!