Congratulations to Holly Huff, whose essay “Since Plants Are Asleep” was selected by Christian Wiman for the 2019 Frederick Buechner Prize. Learn more about the Frederick Buechner Prize here.
From a conversation I’ve forgotten with a friend whose face has blurred, I remember a single line. It was a warrant, the handrail from one point to the next. The steps have dissolved, but I have kept hold of that rail:
“Since plants are asleep—”
A bewildering assertion, but illuminating. Since plants are asleep, they must be alive, and in more than the biology class sense. I see the pothos vine on the sill, squared by morning windowlight. Though the eyes of its knowing are closed to me, its marbled green leaves and their waxy finish contain a knower, who sleeps. And dreams?
Since plants are asleep, the world is their dream. Or they live in this world only as they dream in another, like a collie who sleeps sprawled on hardwood with twitching feet, chasing wisps of rabbits.
How awake are the blue jays that root through the fading November grass? Saturday I saw four. Are fish awake? Do ants sleep? If wakefulness is consciousness, but plants are asleep, where do the rest of us fall? Have I ever yet said good morning?
I live and work in a church down the hill from my school, and each night I walk through that complex of buildings: a faded mansion joined by a cinder brick nursery school wing to the 1950s Swedish Lutheran sanctuary, whose bowed wooden ceiling looks like Noah’s ark hung out to dry. It leaks badly in the rain. In the fall, the wind from Whitney Avenue herds each passing leaf through the parking lot up to the entrance of the church. Invisible feet track them into the building and press them crumbling into the carpet. As caretaker I watch over the ‘leaf ministry,’ as Richard, head of facilities, calls it. Each night I rake the door clear again.
On my rounds I check lights and locks, check for trash. On Tuesdays I find plant clippings in the bins. Sue trims the houseplants that populate the Sunday school wing: viper’s bowstring, devil’s ivy, and dracaena crouching in drafty windows, and long ferns trailing from wicker stands. When certain vines spark fancy or pity, I pluck them from the trash and deposit them in glasses of water in my kitchen where they drift and dream and grow roots.
At the end of the night, I pause in the chapel to pray compline on my way out. “Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”
Simone Weil said, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” Prayer is a training of perception and so any action can take on prayer. Ultimately prayer is to be not action itself but the quality of all action. “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” This side of Eden, prayerfulness is wakefulness.
Weil made it her practice to pray the Lord’s Prayer once each day with perfect attention. She began the discipline while working in a vineyard. “If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention.” Gathering her mind tightly to the form of those words, she entered into a silence that was “not an absence of sound” but a positive presence. “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”
A priest I know told me about his yearly prayer retreat. Ten days of silence. This is how he keeps sane. Ten, because the first three days are spent sleeping. This is necessary, he told me. After this repose, he is ready to make the exercises.
I have been weary lately. During fall break I spent a day at Mercy by the Sea, the former novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy. This small complex of painted brick buildings grounded on Long Island Sound is now open to the public as a retreat center. I came with a spirit flattened under its own weight. My mind was the leaf bin: overflowing, pressed down too many times.
So I walked on sand and renounced all usefulness. I picked up stones that pleased me. I added shells and grasses to the shrines arranged by others who have passed there. The froth came in to salt my boots and I tripped and laughed on the water’s edge.
Back in the main hall, there is a room with rocking chairs and a view of the sea where no one may speak. In that relieving silence I stretched out my shoulder and read the Gospel of John. “I am the true vine. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
All that day there was no effort but the cessation of effort. Quite apart from my doing, an electric wakefulness started to flow through me. The wash of the waves rooted me back to the ground. This vitality was not dammed against pain but conductive. I closed the circuit with my body—better to keep both hands crackling on the main than let one slip. I laid in the grass by the labyrinth. I ate a fig sandwich and took a nap. And then it was easy to pray.
Paying attention is staying awake, but staying awake is no act of self-will. Attention doesn’t correspond to effort. We cannot keep watch even one hour.
I am grown weary of those who demand more effort for God. Try harder, be better, pray more! A delusional project of self-creation. We can’t save ourselves—we can hardly get up in the morning. “Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer,” Henri Nouwen said.
Paul says prayer is what the Spirit does in all creation. Not we who pray, but the Spirit of God who prays in us. Every tree and stone groan and sway in the wind of prayer inarticulable. And since plants are asleep, they are always praying.
In Salt Lake, a neighbor I’d never met who was about to move gave me three spider plants. She entreated me to take good care of them: she had nursed them for four years and grown fond. Two lived in bottles of water. I took them and have since moved myself. In the new apartment, a large and happy spider plant, five times its original size, sits perched on a blue bookshelf. I had been there about a month when I looked up from my corner chair to see six tiny white teardrop blossoms extended from a plant I had only ever known to be green.
Nouwen again: “The paradox of prayer is that it asks for a serious effort while it can only be received as a gift.”
For a time I lived under the California sun as a missionary. On the sidewalk, most people determinedly ignored us, but Maria had flagged us down from her motorized chair, brought us in, sat us on her grimy couch to hear about her back pain and asked us to walk her pit bull. One day as we approached her door we heard an awful moaning through the window screen. Maria’s spinal injury sent electric pain snaking through her legs and feet, and this morning she wailed and screamed, really, rocking back and forth in her chair. “Just leave,” she groaned—“It’s bad today.”
Her pain was too searing to abide. We left, our hair standing up. But before we had passed the laundromat, a pain in my side towed me to a halt. In the center of this affordable housing complex, there stood a small gritty cement fountain—a birdbath—brimming over with rare rainwater. The wind had blown dogwood blossoms into the basin, where they floated, bruised.
Hermana Howell and I lingered here a few minutes, and I prodded the petals suspended in the water. The flowers were striped by discolored veins; they wouldn’t last much longer. Behind us, through a chain-link fence, children shouted as they splashed in the pool. “We have to go back.”
Maria was weeping now. We let ourselves in. Obeying an instinctual gravity, I knelt at her feet. She talked a little, and we cried with her. Despite the impulse to be useful—we brought water, cleaned out the vacuum she couldn’t reach—we had no real offering but silence, and our witness to her pain. So passed the morning.
In Catholic devotion, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is revered as Our Lady of Sorrows, the Mater Dolorosa. She is often depicted with seven daggers piercing her heart, one for each of her seven great sorrows. It is said that she still weeps for the sins of the world and for the pain of her son. Though Christ be risen, Mary is in a sense not yet comforted.
Mary is the one whose flesh can bear the voltage of divinity. When the disciples fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane, when Peter ran—Mary stayed, and kept awake. Rooted at the foot of the cross, she is the faithful witness, the model of Christian prayer. Mary tends pain, attends to pain, pays attention with tenacity and tenderness. Can she hold it? There is too much. With piercing focus Mary keeps vigil over the sufferings of the world, seeing always the suffering of Christ.
“Where is wisdom to be found?” Job cried. Humans have tried to find wisdom on our own, apart from God. There was once a tree whose fruit was desired to make one wise, and when they had eaten, their eyes were opened, they woke up, and they left the garden. The sin is in coming to consciousness outside the awareness of God. We want to will our own being. We know ourselves as separate. We fancy we are awake.
God’s wisdom contains sorrow, and we separated ourselves from that pain. But our separateness brings us pain, too. Severed from the energy that makes us, clipped from the vine, we are fading. Our faces have blurred.
St. Irenaeus wrote about the restoration of the image of God. Incarnation reimpresses the imago Dei into creation, rooting our wakefulness in God. Scott Cairns renders Irenaeus this way:
The tender flesh itself
will be found one day
to be capable of receiving,
and yes, full
capable of embracing
the searing energies of God.
Go figure. Fear not.
Christ stamps the face of God afresh. And so, wide awake, we can bear the pain we thought we could not bear, letting God lead our vision as though we were dreaming.
And at last I have remembered that I share a name with a plant. This isn’t the first time I’ve forgotten. Several summers ago I walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Under delicious dry heat I slowly stretched out my Spanish, remembering distant flashcards and learning to lisp my ‘z’s. The Camino winds through innumerable small villages whose proper names blended together. I walked through El Acebo and wondered idly what ‘acebo’ meant. I wasn’t paying attention. (Denise Levertov: “Lord, not you, it is I who am absent.”) 50 km and three days later, as I passed through O Acebo, I remembered with a jolt that I knew that word. ‘Acebo’: holly tree.
A holly bush keeps watch just down the front steps from my second-floor apartment. It holds vigil over a large cross made of stones laid into the grass. A small fountain bubbles praises at irregular intervals. This is the “healing waters garden” at a church named for the pool of Bethesda, where angels troubled the water and the wounded lay waiting. The path to the preschool arcs through this small garden swatch. In the morning, children traipse through yawning; in the afternoon, they follow their parents home, ready to nap.
Martin Laird says, “Union with God is not something that needs to be acquired, but realized.” We are already in God. We need only remember.
Though the garden still sleeps in the peace of God, we cannot go back to sleep, nor should we. We must live in sharpest memory, as if we were dreaming. Awake the way plants are asleep, with total attention and no effort. Assenting to witness the shock of all things, we watch with Christ. We mourn, but we don’t fade. We rake away the leaves. We slip clippings back into their jars. And “whether we wake or whether we sleep, we are the Lord’s.” Even as we lie forgetful, absent, asleep on the hardwood, we remain always and already held, rooted in water.
Holly Huff is a writer by night, professional church lady by day. She enjoys hiking, doing puzzles, and improvising in the kitchen. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her dog Macrina, who is going through a teenage phase.