Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Wisdom of Trees

“In A Tree Full of Angels” Macrina Wiederkehr wrote...

I must share with you a story about a particularly barren time in my life when I used a tree for a spiritual director. I learned so much that year because I listened in silence…

Because it was small I couldn’t lean on it but could only sit beside it. That taught me a lot about what the role of spiritual guide should be.

Even though it was small, it had the ability to give me a certain amount of shade. You don’t have to have a lot of leaves to give shade. Because it was silent I listened deeply. You don’t need a lot of words to connect with God.

When it got thirsty I watered it. The miracle of water is a little like the miracle of God’s love. That little sycamore taught me a lot about foot-washing. Watering it was a great joy. A soul-friend relationship never works only one way. There is a mutual giving and receiving.

I learned from my tree that being transplanted is possible. I can always put down roots again, connect with the Great Root, and grow on…

I wouldn’t recommend using a tree for a spiritual guide all the days of one’s life, but that sycamore got me through a long stretch of barrenness. It was only a little tree, and I didn’t know it was holy until I spent time with it. Truly, holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary."

A lovely piece I thught...It got me thinking of the wisdom of trees...

One of the many gifts of ministry is that it compels me to pay attention to the turning wheel of the year. It is a gift for which I am eternally grateful, for it brings so many delights.

Part of my annual cycle are twice yearly visits to Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, with the ministry group I am a part of. I will be there again this week. During the two days away I often go for a walk with my friend and colleague John Harley. Now the last time we were there we passed another colleague who was out walking alone. We asked how she was and she replied that she was well but had just seen a deeply upsetting sight. It was interesting that both mine and John’s initial thought was that she must have seen a dead sheep. She simply told us to pay attention and we would see what she meant. So we carried on walking and saw no dead sheep. What we did see was an ancient and once great tree that had finally succumbed to the elements and had broken apart and died. It lay there lifeless on the ground. A tree that had no doubt seen so much over the centuries.

Trees are humbling things. Their presence keep our all our too human hubris in check. They outlive most of us, they live for centuries standing still and silent throughout the changing seasons and years. Yes eventually their lifespans do come to an end, they do not live forever like no element of life does. They come from the Great Mystery and return to it too. They experience the changing seasons, but offer no commentary on it.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this but the trees have remained barren a little longer this year, Spring has flowered a little slower. Why this is I do not know, but I have noticed so. Thelma Gott (a member of one of the congregations I serve)made reference to this as I visited her and her husband Malcolm last Monday, May Day. She said to me that the trees appeared barer this year and then all of a sudden they just seemed full of green and life. She said it was as if it had happened overnight, suggesting that this was probably due to the few days of sunshine we had a couple of weeks back.

I agreed with her suggesting that the spring seemed a little later blooming this year. I mentioned that the cherry blossom tree in the garden at the chapel had only just begun to flower and how it had done so several weeks earlier the year before.

Now the reason I know this is thanks to Social Media, specifically Facebook. Each day Facebook reminds me of posts I have made on that day the previous years. Well this Tuesday the day after my conversation with Thelma it reminded me of a “blogspot” I had created and posted that day the year before. In it I talked about my love for Cherry Blossom, beginning with a conversation about the very same tree in the garden at the chapel. This again proved to me that blossom was later blooming this year, as by this time last year it had been in full bloom for a couple of weeks. I smiled to myself as I re-read and posted the piece as I began to write the service that this "blogspot" has come from. Thank you!

Please click here to access Cherry Blossom Blogspot

So yes the spring has been later blooming this year…why I am not entirely sure, but I offer thanks and praise that the cherry blossom has finally arrived.

I have grown to love the way that trees celebrate the changing seasons, in silence and security. Just standing there as symbols of the changing nature of life. Yes they bend and reshape and change in colour. They look different throughout the year and yet stand there safe and secure expressing the eternal nature of life.

The trees have much to teach us. My name sake and American colleague Rev Greta W. Crosby has recognised this. In “Tree and Jubilee” she describes a silent none judgemental presence that the trees offer her, something we humans cannot give no matter how well we may think we are at listening. The trees simply stand there erect and open, never shrinking away or rejecting, offering unconditional love and acceptance. She wrote:

“I have long had a sense of fellowship with trees. Since I was a child, I have sought their company from time to time because I like the way I feel in their presence. I enjoy their beauty, but it is more than that. I used the word “presence” in a very strong sense. I felt their presence as living things. And in that presence, I often feel relaxed and centered, peaceful, restored to inner equilibrium.

For many of us, life is the meaning of the tree. But for me, perhaps the greatest thing about the tree is its silence. Whatever the tree says to us, whatever it answers to our questing, the tree gives its message without words. And the tree bears with us well. It does not judge. It does not react to our anxieties. It does not run after us. It just stands there with open arms.”

The great religious traditions have recognised the wisdom of trees. In many of them you will find "The Tree of Life". a beautiful and universal symbol, standing for so much. The ancient Chinese, Assyrians, Egyptians, Baylonians and Samarians all had a tree of life symbol. There is Ygdrassil, the Norse Tree of Life, The Etz Ha Hayim of the Kaballistic Jews. The Bahai's speak of it and Christians of all kinds speak of the tree of life, with healing leaves, found in the Book of Revelations. The book of Genesis tells of two trees: a Tree of Knowledge, which is the tree of good and evil, and the Tree of Life, the tree of immortality. I wonder why Adam and Eve chose knowledge over life...I’m not going there today that’s a discussion for another time and place.

The May Pole is symbolic of the barren tree, stripped of life preparing to awaken again and bare fruit once more. On May Day, - which was celebrated last Monday as I was enjoying my conversation with Thelma about the ever changing cycle of life - the May Pole dance is enacted as a symbol of rebirth and everlasting life. The bare tree is re-clothed with decorative bands and flowers, giving us the opportunity to celebrate life’s re-creation. Isn’t this another symbol of the eternal tree of life; it is a symbol of re-birth and renewal; it is a sign post to the path of enlightenment; it is revealing a timeless and eternal wisdom.

Again Thelma and myself talked of the May Day festivals that were once so popular in north of England. She and her husband Malcolm recounted dancing the May Pole up in Colne in the Pennine hills of Lancashire. I recounted the same tradition taking place in Gawthorpe where on May Day they dance the Pole and also they enjoy the coal race where the men of the village race with sacks of coal through the town. Up and down this green and pleasant land all kinds of ancient May Day traditions are re-enacted, traditions that are slowly dying off. They have not yet gone the way of the “Whit Walks" and May Queens that have virtually died off, but they are doing so. I suspect that these are further signs of the secularisation of this land. There is a deep part of me that is saddened by the fact that increasingly we fail to recognise the sacredness of life. I have a feeling that this is none too wise.

There is an eternal wisdom in the trees. The Buddha gained enlightenment beneath the Bodhi Tree. The tree blessed him and as it did it showered him with blossom. Wisdom also comes to mind when I think of the Tree of Life, an eternal wisdom that comes with age. In “Eternal Echoes” John O’Donohue recognises the wisdom of trees. He wrote:

“A tree is a perfect presence. It is somehow able to engage and integrate its own dissolution. The tree is wise in knowing how to foster its own loss. It does not become haunted by the loss nor addicted to it. The tree shelters and minds the loss. Out of this comes the quiet dignity and poise of a tree's presence. Trees stand beautifully on the clay. They stand with dignity. A life that wishes to honour its own possibility has to learn too how to integrate the suffering of dark and bleak times into a dignity of presence. Letting go of old forms of life, a tree practises hospitality towards new forms of life. It balances the perennial energies of winter and spring within its own living bark. The tree is wise in the art of belonging. The tree teaches us how to journey. Too frequently our inner journeys have no depth. We move forward feverishly into new situations and experiences which neither nourish nor challenge us, because we have left our deeper selves behind. It is no wonder that the addiction to superficial novelty leaves us invariably empty and weary. Much of our experience is literally superficial; it slips deftly from surface to surface. It lacks rootage. The tree can reach towards the light, endure wind, rain, and storm, precisely because it is rooted. Each of its branches is ultimately anchored in a reliable depth of clay. The wisdom of the tree balances the path inwards with the pathway outwards.”

...Oh the wisdom of the tree...

Trees can teach us so much of how to live more deeper rooted and open lives. If we follow their example we can become the loving presence we would love to be in the world. We just need to observe their presence and stand as they stand, arms out stretched. I was thinking this last Tuesday morning as I stood in the garden at Dunham Road, reflecting on the conversation I had shared with Malcom and Thelma and the many others I have with the people I serve. I also reflected on the short time that I will be able to enjoy the cherry blossom, in the certain knowledge that it will flower again next year and will continue to do so when I am long gone. It keeps me humble, it keeps me respectful and it helps me to revere life, to worship the earth, the clay from which all life is formed and to acknowledge the universal spirit that gives birth to it all

We are all formed from the tree of life, the tree of renewal, the tree of re-birth. May we know this wisdom and may we bring it to life through our very being.

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