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From Acorn to Oak

This time of extended light and emerging buds (bachlóga) allows one to notice and stop in wonder at each semblance of new life appearing out of nature’s harvesting of autumn fruits with their seeds, and their hidden, slow nourishment during winter days. It is a thankful, hopeful, expectant and inspirational period as we look outward and forward.

Not surprising then to think about the Acorn.  Beautiful, simple and very particular in design. It has become known over many years as a symbol of the Presentation Congregation. Representing the amazing growth from a single small seed… Nano’s first school and community in Cove Lane (Cork) to a ‘global tree’ of Presentation People all over the world.

In the days of the Celts, Northern Europe was covered with forests so thick it was said, that a squirrel could hop from branch to branch, from one end to the other, without touching the ground.

When a tribe cleared the land for a settlement, they always left a great tree in the middle, known in Ireland as the “crann bethadh,” or “Tree of Life” that embodied the security and integrity of the people. Chieftains were inaugurated at the sacred tree, for, with its roots stretching down to the lower world, its branches reaching to the upper world, it connected them with the power both of the Heavens and the Earth.

Indeed, the sacred ecology of trees and water is enshrined all over the Celtic landscape, where hundreds of holy wells bordered by guardian trees still dot the countryside today.  Places where people have come for centuries to drink or bathe in the waters, and to pray and leave a votive offering.

The archetypal ecology of tree and water is rooted in some of the most ancient religious traditions of the world, and on a physical level it serves to remind us to pay attention to the interconnectedness of the living world, if life on earth is to survive and thrive.

‘Noiseless’ beginnings

Acorns are nuts that form on mature oak trees. The older the tree, the greater the number of acorns produced.  Trees that are very old can potentially produce thousands of these tree nuts. The Oak Tree is strong yet grows from such a small seed. It too has become a symbol of Presentation… representing the unique planting and then the strong growth and expanse.

The story of Presentation Sisters has often been described as “from acorn to oak” – a small seed growing into a large leafy tree, whose leaves provide shade and shelter and which, in time, bear fruit. It has been a Presentation tradition to plant a seed at the start of a new foundation.

For Nano Nagle the gospel image of the mustard seed was understood both as an image of disproportionate growth, and also one of powerful faith that moved mountains. This informed Nano’s thinking and her actions and was something that she addressed in many of her letters.  Indeed, Nano had a preference for small ‘noiseless’ beginnings ‘to show that it is God’s work and has not been effected by human means’. 

Nano Nagle knew herself to be engaged in a divine project and she had more than a premonition that the work would prosper.

“The phrase ‘all in my power’ occurs at least ten times in her Letters.   I think it is not unrelated to the Mustard Seed image. Doing all in one’s power may simply mean planting a tiny seed. Growth is automatic if the conditions are right.  But the act of planting it in the soil is vital.  This is the risk-taking act of faith.  Of this Nano was sure, and the story of our beginnings is linked to her practical faith – a faith which led her to do all in her power at a given time, to plant the mustard seed available to her, trusting the outcome and the growth to Divine Providence”.  ~ Mary T. O’Brien, pbvm (p. 56)*

Gradually, Nano found herself in the midst of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The story of growth from humble beginnings, trusting as Nano did in the ‘power of the Almighty’ continued right across the globe in the centuries that followed.

“Nano was creative and courageous in reading the call of God to her through her experience.  In the plight of the poor and deprived of her time she heard the call of God. We – her followers, and all who are inspired by her example and her spirit – are called to be no less creative, no less courageous and no less discerning in our time and place”.

Nano’s vision was not narrow – it was as broad as the Universe:  “My views are not for one object alone.  If I could be of any service in saving souls in any part of the world. I would willingly do all in my power”.  ~ Par 14: Nano’s Letter to Miss Fitzsimons. (p.61)*

Our Presentation story is laced with examples of growth from humble beginnings – this growth from Acorn to Oak has been repeated in many different climates and cultures since 1775.

We continue to rejoice in our humble beginnings, in our founder’s vision, faith and courage and in the vision, faith and courage of Presentation People who are a continuation of the living legacy of Nano Nagle, all in their own time and place.

Note:  Quotations from and content of piece informed by ‘Woman of Light … Sharing Nano Nagle’s Gospel Vision’ – Chapter 7: Consider the Mustard Seed – Sr.  Mary T. O’Brien, pbvm.

Also   Nano’s Letters – a digital collection                           


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