Be a Cactus!

Posted by Solange Hertz on

Be a Cactus!
Solange's motto is "Be a Cactus!" What's yours?

(From Women, Words, and Wisdom)

As the gambler said, “I know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town!”

A housewife may not particularly want to be holy, but what else on earth is there for her to do? In itself, a duller and more pointless existence than hers can’t be imagined ―unless she’s headed for Heaven. And she’s got to head for Heaven, because no housewife in her right mind would want worse than she’s got already, in the other place.

I’m not mentioning Purgatory, because the way I see it, deliberately shooting for Purgatory is an insult to Almighty God. It’s a fine place for people who aim high and miss, but as a target, it has nothing whatever to recommend it.

Our Lord said very clearly, “You therefore are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), which is such an outrageous command on the face of it, that if we hadn’t gotten used to hearing it, we could hardly stand it. He didn’t say this, moreover, to a select little coterie in a small room. The Gospel tells us He said it to a crowd (the vulgus again) out in the open, for anybody who cared to listen.

There being little choice in the matter, as the gambler said, we might as well settle down to winning the game, if possible. And the game really is crooked. God stacks the deck in our favor to a degree few gamblers would dream of. Didn’t He say, “I am the God of Jacob”? Jacob means cheater in Hebrew. And we know he certainly played to win! When you bet on a sure thing, you put every cent you’ve got in the pot. You even borrow what you can. You make side bets. Any gambler can tell you that.

First of all, I understand you have to have a slogan, some little catchphrase that will cheer you up and keep you playing when you don’t seem to be getting the cards. Our encyclopedia says a slogan is “a word or phrase designed to persuade people to take some action.” It must work. “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” certainly elected Tyler all right.

Of course dignified people don’t have slogans. They have “mottoes.” Why a motto is more uppity, I don’t know. The word comes from the corrupted Latin muttum, which means mutter or grunt. It is presumably something you gasp out in desperation when the going gets really rough, like Sir Jacob Astly before’ going into battle: “Lord, I’ll probably forget You, but don’t You forget me!” So it really doesn’t matter whether you call it slogan or motto. Just have one!

Popes, bishops, abbots and other prelates, who often have a very rough time of it, choose a motto suitable for their coats-of-arms, or devices, when they are elevated to office. It is meant to set the general tone of what they hope to accomplish. St. Pius X chose “To Restore All Things in Christ.” My Bishop, who has a great devotion to our Lady, chose Per Matrem Dei. St. Ignatius picked out Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam ―For the Greater Glory of God ―when he founded his Society. St. Francis de Sales liked Vive Jésus! St. Joan settled all her problems with Dieu le Veut ―God Wills It ―because that settles anything.

These were of course made public, which adds an extra incentive to living up to them, but they don’t have to be. As a matter of fact, I learn that private mottoes change right along as one progresses in the spiritual life and one’s views enlarge. Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity began with Agenda Contra while she was still fighting hard against external failings, then worked through “God in me and I in Him” before arriving at the pinnacle of the Laudem Gloriae by which she is known, God’s Praise of Glory.

Janet Erskine Stuart, a great Mother General of the Society of the Sacred Heart, thought up oodles of good mottoes. One was taken from a poem about a sinking ship:

As the screws said to the rivets,

“In case of doubt, HOLD ON!”

This is a peachy one, I think, a real muttum, comparable in its lowly way to the Church’s “Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina!” (“O Lord, make haste to help me.”) It’s good for anything from a wobbling vocation to soap in your eyes.

It’s best to start small. A crony of mine decided on “Sursum Corda!” (“Lift up your hearts.”) It has dignity and can be said quickly. It seems to cheer her up on blue Mondays. Frankly, I had some trouble settling on one. Though I liked the gambler’s, it somehow didn’t seem quite personal enough. I thought about “Don’t give up the ship!” but that sounded as if I were in command of something.

Everybody tells me what I need first of all in the spiritual life is humility, and I found just what I wanted eventually. It was in the comics. It’s “I yam what I yam and tha’s all that I yam, I yam Popeye the Sailor Man!” Don’t sneer. This is a very good spiritual slogan, quite untranslatable into Latin. It has all sorts of overtones and possibilities: “I yam what I yam, I yamma housewife who does the ironing wishing she owned the works of Tertullian,” or “I yam what I yam and I’d better do something about it.” Oh, it’s limitless.

"Popeye himself as an inspiration is no slouch. He is what he is. "

Popeye himself as an inspiration is no slouch. He is what he is. First of all, he’s a creature and admits it. It’s not “I am Who am,” like God, Who is pure Being. It’s “I yam what I yam.” I yamma creature. What that means in his case is being pretty homely and spindly, a simple seaman with no privileges of rank and little control of the ship, but with a strong sense of mission. Every good that Popeye accomplishes he does purely by virtue of spinach, a strengthening green cordially detested by many. With this spinach in him, however, he sallies forth and tackles bullies several times his size and pulverizes them with his “fisks.” (Obviously, he can’t even speak good English.)

He is what he is, no airs, no illusions; he eats his spinach (does God’s Will); and proceeds to give battle to his enemies (the world, the flesh and the devil). It’s the life of the Christian in a nutshell. Really, I like Popeye’s attitude. St. Francis of Assisi, who was fond of saying, “What I am before God, that I am and nothing more,” may have inspired Popeye’s creator with this solid sense of reality.

It’s a good frame of mind for approaching all situations where the job seems too big, but inescapable, like being asked to sell kisses at the bazaar, or to Be Perfect. Oh, well, you say, “I yam what I yam. I’ll do the best I can and let the chips fall where they may.”


"St. Bernard gave his monks, 'Be ye cisterns,' ...because cisterns are deep, cool and quiet ... and they store water from which others may draw at any time without becoming depleted themselves."

I have a variation on this. It’s “Be a Cactus!” It owes something to the slogan St. Bernard gave his monks, “Be ye cisterns,” but not much. St. Bernard told them to be cisterns because cisterns are deep, cool and quiet, unlike babbling brooks and leaky faucets, and they store water from which others may draw at any time without becoming depleted themselves. It’s the apex of contemplative apostolicity. I simply haven’t reached this stage.

“Be a Cactus” was my husband’s idea, and I have a feeling it wasn’t meant to be a compliment. “Look,” he said, “go ahead and get the works of Tertullian if you want them, and don’t worry about not liking to do the ironing plain. Some women may actually like to iron and want nothing else, but who cares if you don’t? Stop trying to be a lily, or a shrinking violet, or a night-blooming cereus! If you happen to be a cactus, Be a Cactus!”

My husband isn’t the voice of authority for nothing. He’s written more of this book than he’ll ever know. Nobody ever sizes me up so well, to my face. Frankly, though, after the first shock to my pride, I liked this slogan. The more I thought about it, the more “Be a Cactus” seemed to be just the one for me. I would try to be God’s little cactus!

Just think a minute about the cactus. If you had never seen one or a picture of one and somebody described it to you, you might want to call him a liar. A cactus has to be seen to be believed. What’s more, there are some thousand varieties, all native to the New World, all growing in incredible shapes ranging from “Organ-Pipe Cactus” to “Bishop’s Hat” and “Purple Hedgehog.” I forbore telling my husband the night-blooming cereus is a cactus, because I didn’t know it then either. Like the Carmelites, it wakes up in the middle of the night to give glory to God. Being a cactus gives you a very wide field of play.

It’s also tough. It normally stands out in the open, completely exposed, but protects itself quite well, thank you, by virtue of its bristles and spines. I have a sneaking suspicion it was this prickly aspect my husband had particularly in mind, but to continue: the cactus is a desert plant and needs practically nothing for its support. That’s because its roots spread very, very far and it catches every little bit of food and moisture that’s to be had. It manages to stay green where everything else dries up and blows away. Definitely, its leaf does not wither.

Most remarkable of all, it manages to produce outlandishly beautiful blossoms just where you’d expect them least: from the same places the bristles grow. Sometimes these blossoms turn into fruit, some of which makes pretty good preserves. As well as any cistern, the cactus manages to store water in its insides which has saved the life of many a parched traveler and is the ordinary refuge of all kinds of small animals and wildlife. Big cactuses provide about all the shade there is in open desert. Some are edible. Others can be dried and used for fuel and frames for houses.

Smaller ones can thrive in hothouses, or like the housewife, in almost any house, growing on windowsills even when nobody remembers to water them. I’ll leave you to draw all the other obvious analogies.

Definitely, I promised, I’ll try to BE A CACTUS!

I’m still trying, so I haven’t made any headway yet toward a Latin motto. I do have my eye on a French one. It’s Toute la Corbeille! and might be translated “Shoot the works!” I got it from St. Thérèse, who wasn’t a little cactus, but a Little Flower. She didn’t see any sense in shooting for Purgatory either.

In her Autobiography, as you may remember, she tells about the time her sister Leonie, who had just gotten too big to play with dolls, brought a whole basket (corbeille) filled with doll clothes, scraps for making more, and her doll as well, to pass on to her younger sisters.

“Here, my dears,” she said. “Choose whatever you like.” Therese’s sister put in her hand and picked out a wad of braid that struck her fancy, but not Therese. She stopped to think a minute, then put out her hand and announced, “I choose everything!”

Then she proceeded to take the whole basket without further ado. Nobody objected because, after all, she had been asked to take anything she wanted and was well within her rights.

Writing many years later of this incident in the Autobiography, Thérèse drew the following conclusions from it:

I think this trait of my childhood characterizes the whole of my life; and when I began to think seriously of perfection I knew that to become a saint one had to suffer much, always aim at perfection and forget one’s self. I saw that one could be a saint in varying degrees for we are free to respond to Our Lord’s invitation by doing much or little in our love for Him; to choose, that is, between the sacrifices He asks. Then, just as before, I cried: “I choose everything!” My God, I do not want to be a saint by halves. I am not afraid to suffer for Your sake; I only fear doing my own will, so I give it to You and choose everything You will.

Me too. Toute la Corbeille! Pins and all.

What’s your motto?

This excerpt is taken from Solange Hertz's book, Women, Words & Wisdom.


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