It is common for those who embrace the monastic life to refer to it as “a calling.” This is how Sister Elizabeth Wagner describes her response to reading a book on Teresa of Avila that a teacher gave her in high school. “My heart opened, my dreams expanded, and I knew my calling.”

In her collection of essays, “Seasons in My Garden,” Wagner tells of the journey that led her to a monastic life at Transfiguration Hermitage near Windsor, Maine, and the nature of her daily life there. She writes that the journey had its trials from the start. “I had fallen in love with a dream of a contemplative life, but there were some major hurdles – such as not being Catholic, not thinking I actually believed in God, not having any idea of how to find a monastery or how to enter it.”

“Seasons in My Garden” follows Wagner’s life through the cycle of the seasons of the year. Her life is ordered by the Liturgy of the Hours, the set of prayers and hymns the sisters gather to recite each day, and by the work she does in tending to the hermitage’s extensive gardens. Her book not only takes the reader inside the walls of the small cloister, but inside Wagner herself, into the interior, spiritual garden that must also be carefully tended to ensure that her faith and her connection to God continue to blossom.858932_4576 9781594716348.jpg

The book is divided into four sections framed by each of the four seasons. The contemplative life she describes is neither easy nor idyllic. In the short prologue, she writes, “I didn’t come to Maine gladly … it felt as if I’d been exiled to Siberia.” She begins the story in winter, which is the hardest season for her. She writes of how the leafless trees are reflective of her interior mood and her struggle with faith, stripped to “bare bones,” where boredom is prevalent, confined as she is largely to her cell to do her readings and prayers. “The cell,” she writes, “is so very often the place of struggle and combat,” for life in the cloister offers few distractions, such that the struggle “looms enormously large.” She misses the touch of naked earth in her hands, beneath her feet. Winter is a trial of faith that makes her anxious to the point sometimes of wanting to flee.

“Winter in Maine is truly a crucible: a slow chalice of transformation. One is pushed deep down into oneself by the weight of winter; long snowy days; long snow-covered months.” A time of standing “far off in unworthiness… in fear – for God will judge us.”

Her winter lament makes for a difficult start of the story. But moving into the spring, the story begins to open more, like new life in the garden. The writing is less discursive, the mood less somber, the specificity of detail stronger, though her struggle with faith remains ever constant.

Summer is a time of urgency, for there is much to do in tending the profusion of growth in the garden that warm weather brings. It also brings one afternoon a sudden deluge that floods the central garden and the bell tower used to call the sisters to Vespers, the evening prayers. Wagner does not want to put boots on to go out and ring the bell, so she runs through the cloister knocking on doors to summon everyone.

The next morning, the Gospel for the day was Matthew 14:22-33, about Jesus walking on water in a storm to be with his disciples in a boat out at sea. Peter, seeing this, likewise steps out upon the water, begins walking, but when he looks down he loses faith and sinks. Wagner dwells on this, drawing a comparison to her avoidance the day earlier to proceed through the water to ring the bell. “Walking on water is what Jesus did at a moment of urgent necessity for his disciples, and it was also a moment of epiphany, a revelation of who he is and what all of God’s salvation history is about. Walking on water is what we do also, each day of our lives, when we step out in faith… Walking on water, the garden tells me, is possible. Even in a storm. Even when drowning. Even when – especially when – we don’t realize the amazing story we’re caught up in.”

Wagner repeatedly draws parallels between ordinary events and spiritual lessons. Every event is pregnant with possible spiritual gleanings, she attests. “The texture of our simple daily experience is the privileged place of God’s presence. We need only to become more aware of it.” The challenge is indeed to be aware of it.

 Sister Elizabeth Wagner

Sister Elizabeth Wagner

“Rarely do we focus on the simple place where we are right now. Yet, it is only here and now in the present – this time, this place, these thoughts, this task – where God waits for us to be present.”

In “Stillness,” the last chapter in the “Autumn” section, Wagner comes full circle in her reflections on winter, how autumn begins to prepare one for the hardship. Here, in contrast to her tone and mood in the opening section, she views in a new light the returning to the time of snow and being forced inside. She realizes that winter brings its own rich gifts.

“Winter brings quiet. Winter brings stillness.” The contemplative life is all about cultivating stillness. Late in November, the first snow comes. “The snow enforces physical stillness. Inner stillness arrives by sheer gift. There are times when God’s hand hovers over us, and all our inner noise is hushed. We are dropped into a place beyond words, below thoughts, far from emotion and desire. All is stilled, and we are in Presence.”

Monasteries have been likened to “great engines of prayer.” Wagner also makes clear that they are places of extraordinary ordinariness, where one cannot flee from the profound nature of daily existence. This time, this place, these thoughts mark the journey. As Wagner makes clear, being fully present in those things is the only means of being in the “Presence” of that which one seeks.

Frank O Smith’s novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. Smith can be reached via his website:

frankosmithstories.com