I was quite happy to hear from my friend Adam the Northern European legend behind the Christmas Tree and how it became a symbol for that which points towards the light in the darkness—towards the Star. Trees were also the topic of this past Sunday’s gospel reading which spoke about the fruitless trees being cut down and how “the axe is laid to unto the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10) signifying the imminence in which judgment comes.
The tree itself is an interesting image to contemplate often as it shows up not just in Christmas but in religious symbolism in general. It is not my place since I am not a historian of religious symbols to point out all the examples of where this is so, but I like to ponder about what it is about the tree in particular that makes it compelling. I suppose one such consideration is how it is an organic, natural symbol of growth. Trees, in general, are the tallest organisms on the planet; they are the most vertical, spatially speaking. They also rely on four ingredients for their manifest growth: the invisibility of air, the “invisibility” of light, the nourishment of water, and the stability of earth. It’s not difficult to see the balance and harmony of the four elements here although one could argue that the regality of the solar contribution is more quintessential which leaves the destruction by forest fires—yet another necessity for forests—a viable alternative. Trees, therefore, are these mysterious creatures of spirit and light which grow towards heaven. They are vertical signposts towards the divine.
The growth in trees is something to be pondered as well. Unless one can be as stable and patient as a tree is, he cannot “see” the growth of the tree. It, too, is invisible. Only do we notice that the tree has grown another foot or meter a few months later does it become quite obvious that it is increasing. It is this slow and continuous pace that serves as a model for the kind of spiritual growth that I am looking to emulate. The tree endures seasons of great foliage and great barrenness throughout the year, but, year after year, without fail, it does grow. Barring some natural disaster or the natural cleansing of fire, one can even say that these are immortal creatures. The link of trees to proper spiritual growth is even more apparent when I was meditating on the wise tome I mentioned in last week’s Advent meditation. In it, the author speaks about the difference between the growth of a tree and that of a tower:
A tower is built; a tree grows. The two processes have this in common: that they present a gradual increase in volume with pronounced tendency upwards. But there is at the same time the difference that the tower rises by leaps and bounds, whilst the tree shows a continuous elevation. This is because bricks or hewn stones are put one on top of the other in the process of building the tower, whilst the microscopic bricks—the cells—of a tree multiply through division and growth in volume. It is the sap in the tree, rising from the roots into the trunks and branches, which renders growth of the tree possible and which makes it shoot up through the multiplication and growth in volume in its cells. Whilst the tower is dry, the tree is filled with sap in movement, which underlies both the division of its cells and their growth. In a word, it underlies the process of growth.
Growth is flowing whilst construction proceeds by leaps and bounds. And what is true of the artificial and the natural in the physical domain is also true in the psychic and spiritual domain. “The righteous flourish like the palm tree… they are ever full of sap and green…” (Psalm 92), “but a down cast spirit dries up the bones…” (Proverbs xviii, 22).i
In other words, it is the fluid, organic, and natural growth and evolution of the human spirit which is modeled in the physicality of the tree. A tower, in comparison, is that growth set in an artificial mode and while this may appear to be an advancement over the slow pace of the tree, the outburst of a tower usually entails a great “fall.” Whether this is Babel or whether it is the eventual collapse of the precarious system exemplified by the towers of the modern world (one does not even need to think up of the horror scenarios of terrorist attacks since modern towers are bulldozed and replaced almost every other day; the precariousness of the modern world should be obvious to anyone who observes towers spring up in major cities and ponders their titanic natures), a downfall—a destruction—is imminent.
So as we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christmas, I also ask myself how much of my spiritual life is immortal and natural like the tree and how much has it been built artificially like the Tower of Babel or a modern skyscraper? How many times must I insist to myself that I must advance a certain amount every year and then get discouraged when I have obvious setbacks and corrections? Just like Advent allows us preparation-in-time for Christmas, so, too, is it an invitation to properly pace our spiritual lives. If we take our model of growth to be the tree—of expanding only when we have been filled by the grace, the sap, the agent of spiritual growth, then any other expansion is artificial; it is a Tower; and, without the sap, it is empty and ultimately fruitless as we await a “correction.”
Often our hewn stones or bricks of our spiritual life can also be heavy burdens and weights that easily get disturbed by the earthquakes and winds of the world around us. It is one indication that perhaps our spiritual achievements have not been of an immortal and organic nature when they are so easily snapped or broken by the changing currents of the world. After all, brick sinks in water while wood floats. It is the incorporation of the invisible spirituality of air in the very pores of the wood that allows it to rise above the element of water—the element of dissolution (water being such a universal solvent). When the flood came, the Ark was built of wood rather than stone. And how often, upon reflecting in my own spiritual journey, had I relied on the solid rocks of accumulating apologetics like a fortress I was making around me to avoid the high tide of the modern world’s dissolution. It may create islands and pockets of safety and orthodoxy for plenty of us—and it is sorely needed—but there is also a great freedom in relying on the spiritual wood; the Barque of a living spirituality rather than an ossified one.
This is part of the challenge I ask myself and my friends who seek to strengthen their faith. Do they strengthen it through leaps and bounds and the solidity of brick or do they accept the slow, organic, living, and merciful aspect of the tree. And yes, trees are merciful and resilient. We had some rather heavy winds the other day here in Southern California and I noted how the trees in front of the house bent low. Their living flexibility allowed them to weather the storm. They may have looked bent at the time, but anyone watching the tree bend and says, “what an idiotic tree, it’s not pointing towards Heaven,” would be laughed at like a fool. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people—though sometimes with good will—who point to the Barque of Peter and condemn it for steering along the waves of the flood in order to avoid capsizing or, through its living flexibility, for bending like a humble reed—like a humble tree—awaiting the promised return of calm weather and sunlight. I suppose for them, they prefer an artificial, plastic Christmas tree. One that is perfect in its pretend-green colour and looks un-scandalously upright…
This living flexibility of trees also brought me to a little epiphany I had. Thanks again to Adam, since he and I had been discussing Dante the other day, I thought about the trees in the Wood of the Suicides in the Inferno. This was a wood where those who had committed suicide were condemned to be barren trees for all of eternity. Their torment, too, was that they could not speak unless someone broke one of their branches or otherwise harmed their trunk. I have plenty of thoughts already on this beautiful contrapasso—everything from the inversion of the Cross to the meaning of why they could only speak while being hurt—but I thought of something new: about how suicide was the opposite of this flexibility and vitality that trees possess. It is no wonder, then, that those who killed themselves—those who would not adhere to the living truth of flexibility—are given that inflexibility in death.
To live through life, therefore, is to also practice the art of flexibility—it is to be like the tree. It rarely snaps; it never betrays its vertical alignment by virtue of its organic and adaptable nature. It keeps growing despite the distractions and storms around it. Indeed, cell by cell and silently, a tree’s verdant bounds increase. Like many of the wise men of old, we could do well to understand our Christmas trees better and what they can offer as models for spiritual growth as well as the warning they possess to avoid the sclerosis of our spiritual lives.
i Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, Letter XVII: the Star.