Jesus opened the book of nature before me, and I saw that every flower He has created has a beauty of its own; that the splendor of the rose and the lily’s whiteness do not deprive the violet of its scent, nor make less ravishing the daisy’s charm! So it is in the world of souls, the living garden of the Lord. It pleases Him to create great saints, who may be compared with lilies or the rose; but He has also created little ones, who must be content to be daisies or violets nestling at His feet to delight His eyes when He should choose to look at them. (Saint Therese, The Story of a Soul.)
While studying a few years ago for a teaching degree, I came across a fascinating article about the role that genetics play in children’s levels of vulnerability and resilience. The authors suggested that there are two kinds of people: “dandelion children,” who will succeed in just about any environment, and “orchid children,” who are acutely sensitive and will only thrive if their environment is safe and nurturing. (For more information, click here. Or, for a more colloquial article, here.) It’s not limited to certain obvious temperaments, either: I’ve had lively, sanguine students break down in tears and tell me their essays were “stupid” (orchids) while a handful of melancholics worked on quietly in the background and wondered what all the fuss was about (dandelions).
Of course, the comparison between people and flowers immediately reminded me of Saint Therese of Lisieux, and I wanted to explore the idea further. According to the popular stereotype, young women who are too delicate to cope in the “real world” retreat to the cloister – making the religious life a safe haven for orchids, while the dandelions work nine-to-five jobs, volunteer in soup kitchens, then eventually get married and populate the world with more little dandelions.
There are two things wrong with this idea. Firstly, it suggests that orchids are fragile or even weak – as opposed to intelligent, passionate, and reflective people who perceive everything that goes on around them and find that sometimes those things really grate.
Secondly, the religious life is complicated, and some aspects of it are not actually designed with orchids in mind. While the external structure seems to be ideal – long periods of prayer and silence, a strict horarium, and an established procedure for everything from cleaning a sink to meditating on a passage of Scripture – I started to see within a couple of weeks of entering the convent that the systems in place were set up for minds that worked quite differently from mine. For example, take the frequent changes of occupation throughout the day. Suppose that I’m told to scrape carrots. I might settle happily into the task and scrape away for an hour or two until the job is done, but if instructed part-way through to leave the carrots and start on the dishes, it will take me several seconds to change gears and mentally put the carrots down – a delay which, in the convent, looks like disobedience. Similarly, if you’ve ever rushed out after Holy Hour as if the chapel were on fire, breathing the air of freedom after being stuck with nothing but your own thoughts for company for the entire time, you’re probably an orchid. (Fun, isn’t it?)
Is religious life, then, only for the dandelions? Thankfully, no. I’ll summarise the study’s findings very briefly:
Dandelion in a difficult environment: success.
Dandelion in a positive environment: great success.
Orchid in a difficult environment: stress, depression.
Orchid in a positive environment: outstanding success.
So, in difficult circumstances, the dandelion will be much better off than the orchid, but in the right environment, the orchid will flourish even more than the dandelion. The same gene that points to the worst outcomes also points to the best.
I’ve begun to understand that, although I loved my community dearly, I found their way of life grinding because it wasn’t my vocation to be there; I was attempting to carry a cross that wasn’t actually meant for me, and that’s the one thing an orchid really can’t do. Somewhere in my future, though, is the cross that I am meant to carry – a yoke made so light by joy that even an orchid can hold it high. Who knows yet what it is? But orchids, too, are meant to bloom in the garden of Christ.