Nathaniel gave me a small, pink-budded plant for Valentine’s Day three years ago. It has grown and grown, and, to curtail the saccharine conclusion, “It’s grown like our love!” let me tell you, it looks quite goofy. Its thick stems are gnarled and lopsided, and its flowers appear in unpredictable clusters amidst drooping leaves. This morning, I transplanted it to a larger pot in hopes of restoring some if its dignity.
Crouching on my kitchen floor, surrounded by soil, I was reminded of the intrinsically hopeful and ascetic act of liberating a plant from a too-small pot. See, you have to rend the roots of a pot-bound plant before transplanting it. Otherwise it will die.
I first learned this from Sister Esther, a Benedictine nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. I spent a summer at this abbey and 400-acre farm, working and praying alongside formidable women of God.
Sister Esther’s work, or as she called it, “obedience,” consisted largely of landscaping. One day several of the women interns helped her transfer Siberian pines from plastic pots into their new home, a 45-degree slope outside Jesu Fili Mariae church. On the hillside, Sister Esther gave us a lesson in treating pot-bound plants. “The roots,” she said, sitting on the ground with a large Siberian Pine in her lap, “have grown to fit the tight space of the pot.” She pointed to the dead roots of the tree that held the shape of the pot, and curled around the soil like shocks of gray hair. Sister pulled out her pocket knife and made jagged slashes across the roots. I had never seen this done, and was astonished at the violence. I asked her if she was destroying the roots. “If you put the tree in the ground with these roots,” she continued, “the roots won’t reach out into the soil, and the tree will die. So, am I destroying the roots? Well, yes, I am. You have to really tear them up before they’re ready to make new roots.”
This is a lesson fit for Holy Saturday. Trees that spend their life in pots aren’t ready for the wide open hillside because their pot-bound roots cannot handle the depth and breadth of the earth. It is only when the old roots are destroyed that new, nourishing roots can grow. In a time when our culture looks disdainfully upon sacrifice (“But, why?”) and approves of cultivating oneself through comfort, the garden politely objects. Sacrifices must be made in a beautiful garden. The dreams of a plant in a pot are too small, and its roots have to die and be reborn to grow, to put out into the depth of the earth.
Let us pray that when we encounter the Resurrected Christ we do not refuse his love because it cannot fit into the tomb of our too-small pot. Let us rend the roots that fit our earthen vessels, lest we cannot grow into the expanse of heaven given to us on Easter Sunday. Let us pray that those parts of us that are dead and broken might grow into the life he offers.