Lessons from Trees

by Kathleen Glavich, SND on September 5, 2018

in Blogs

I said to the almond tree, “Sister, speak to me of God.”

And the almond tree blossomed.

~ Nikos Kazantzakis

My new home, an apartment on Pine Grove Trail, faces east, and the view is the lovely pine forest—a place I’ve always considered sacred. Lately I’ve been hearing a great deal about trees: how they support one another through their root systems, how they even “speak.”  A Facebook post last week was Advice from a Tree:  Stand tall and proud, go out on a limb, remember your roots, drink plenty of water, be content with your natural beauty, and don’t forget to enjoy the view!

Here is my chapter on trees from my book “Voices ~ God Speaking in Creation.”

Most people have favorite trees: the oak from which Dad hung an old tire, the apple tree whose lowest branch is the perfect perch for reading, the graceful willow by the side of a stream. No doubt Zacchaeus’ favorite tree was the sycamore that boosted him toward Christ and salvation.

How convenient for Zacchaeus that a sycamore tree grew along Jesus’ route. This tree’s short trunk and wide lateral branches make it ideal for climbing. So Zacchaeus took advantage of what nature provided, a tree, to make up for what nature had denied him, height. The wealthy tax collector, probably pompous and rotund, clambered up the tree as fast as he could. He was not afraid to be up a tree in order to see Jesus.

Keeping our eyes on Jesus is not so easy. It requires initiative, courage, and discipline. Sometimes it means risking our job, our friends, our reputation, or even our life. Sometimes it means standing alone. Followers of Jesus must be willing to be labeled “fool,” “oddball,” and “goody-goody” as well as “troublemaker.” After all, Jesus, who was accused of being crazy or possessed, did warn, “A disciple is not above the teacher. . . . If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul [Satan], how much more will they malign those of his household!” (Matthew 10:24–25).

Archbishop Oscar Romero knew what it was like to be out on a limb for Jesus’ sake. For three years he preached Christ’s values of justice and peace, condemning the injustice and violence perpetrated by the government of El Salvador. He endured mockery and persecution. Four other bishops in his country opposed him. The transmitter in church that broadcast his sermons was destroyed by a bomb. He was the object of a million-dollar smear campaign. Aware that he was on “the list,” the Archbishop offered his blood for his people. He refused personal protection, saying, “The shepherd does not want security while security is not given to his flock.” On March 25, 1980, Oscar Romero was gunned down as he celebrated Mass in the cancer hospital where he lived. His foolhardiness gained him the beatific vision. [This October he will be canonized.]

Granted, we are not all called to be martyrs by blood. We all know, though, how daily decisions and circumstances can be calls to Christian heroism. We draw strength to answer these invitations by being united with Jesus through prayer and the sacraments, and from people who share our vision. When we encounter someone living simply or hear of someone forgiving an enemy, then we are more disposed to live that way ourselves. We are so interrelated in the body of Christ that we constantly affect one another. Our goodness and the good that we do somehow influence everyone else. Unfortunately, so do our badness and the bad we do!

One way we can exert a positive influence is to play the sycamore tree in the lives of people searching for God. If we are deeply rooted in love and faith, we are able to offer others the support they need to behold the divine. A woman invites her friend to return to the Church and accompanies her to the sacrament of reconciliation. A man lends a co-worker a good spiritual book. A busy pastor makes time to counsel a seventeen-year-old who is undergoing a crisis of faith. Evangelization is every Christian’s mission. We carry it out by raising our children to know and live the faith, by participating in the parish programs, and by contributing to the missions at home and abroad. To lift others to Jesus we needn’t proclaim him on street corners. Our lives shout him by our kindness, prayerfulness, and concern.

Trees figure largely in salvation history. Many of them are symbols of life. Genesis tells how God planted the tree of life in the garden. This same tree grows in the city of God described in the Book of Revelation. Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God in terms of a flourishing mustard tree in whose branches many birds nest. On the other hand, some biblical trees represent death: Eden’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the tree that ensnared King David’s son Absalom’s hair, making him easy prey for the enemy; and the fig tree Jesus cursed for its lack of fruit. The tree of the cross paradoxically belongs to both categories. Although it is an instrument of death, it brings about eternal life.

Zacchaeus’ tree is a symbol of life because it led to reconciliation, a characteristic of growth. Sin saps our energy and results in decay. Although it is really not a black mark on our souls, sin makes us feel dirty, marred. It is a disease that also harms those around us. When Zacchaeus is healed and purified by Jesus, not only he, but everyone in his house and in the neighborhood benefits.

Jesus still works dramatic miracles of grace in some sinners. Jim Townsend served a sentence for killing his pregnant wife. She had tried to prevent him from attacking a man during a card game. While in prison, Jim came to know Jesus better and was drawn to him. After he was released, he became a Franciscan brother, devoted to bringing other people to Jesus, the Life, by his preaching.

Some theologians identify mercy as the greatest of God’s attributes. God described himself to Moses as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, . . . forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6–7). Repeatedly God forgave his straying chosen people, and repeatedly Jesus forgave sinners he met on Earth. Our God is the God of second chances and third and fourth . . .

Undeniably, the healing of our body is remarkable. We scrape a knuckle. Soon a scab forms. Underneath it skin grows, just enough to fill the injured space. The scar shrinks and falls off, uncovering the new layer of skin. Gradually even the scar fades. Broken bones too knit to become whole again. Likewise, our supernatural life can be healed when it is damaged. Through encountering Christ in the sacraments, we are repeatedly restored to health. There the Divine Physician mends our fractured humanity. The working of grace makes us like new.

It is always possible for a Christian to make a 180-degree turnabout to God. But such dramatic conversions are rare. Today the concept of life-long conversion has taken hold. We realize that all of us are constantly challenged to turn more toward the Lord. In many ways the Holy Spirit is quietly renewing the Earth. How appropriate that the Renew program, a program for continual conversion, chose a tree for its logo, a symbol of life and growth.

A major part of conversion involves being reconciled with one another. The all-too-human reaction to an offense or injury is to return evil for evil, reverting to the Old Testament morality of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The number of liability suits in recent years has skyrocketed so that liability insurance is practically unaffordable for most. The entertainment media advocate revenge along with their general sale of violence.

Contrary to today’s culture, Jesus taught forgiveness. He lived it when he forgave his executioners as he was dying on the cross. His followers try to live it. The world was stunned at the sight of St. Pope John Paul II embracing his would-be assassin. It was also amazed when Amish people comforted the family of the man who shot at ten of their schoolgirls, killing five. Actually, forgiving is healthy. Unforgiveness threatens our well-being. As someone noted, holding a grudge is drinking poison and expecting the other person to die from it. Harbored within a person, bitterness snowballs until it destroys individuals, families, and nations.

Anyone who has borne resentment toward another knows how miserable it makes one’s own life. To nurture a grudge, one must always be on guard, thoughts are absorbed, and sleep is lost. Like other evils, this hardheartedness is upsetting emotionally and perhaps even physically. If we would abolish all silent treatments, other petty meannesses, grudges, retaliations, and lawsuits, much of our suffering would disappear.

In order to be a peacemaker by extending forgiveness, we have to be strong. We have to own a good self-concept. Then we will be free enough to be humble and loving and Christian. We will be able to say “I forgive you.” We will also be able to say sincerely “I’m sorry.” With Jesus’ loving encouragement, Zacchaeus could do both.

Trees are majestic creatures. Upheld by sturdy trunks, they reach into the sky and tower over us. Whether the wind rustles or howls through their branches, they only bend and sway. Most impressive are the redwood trees of California that can grow to be an amazing three hundred and fifty feet high. Surprisingly, the roots of these giant trees are very shallow, only five or six feet deep. How do the redwoods remain standing upright? Their secret is that they grow in a group and their roots intermingle. The trees hold up one another—a lesson for us all!

The giant sequoia trees that grow only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada also teach a moral. Their seeds are trapped inside their pinecones. It requires a fire to dry out the cones so that they crack and release the seeds. When these seeds fall to the ground, new life begins.

The psalmist draws on trees to deliver an important  message. He makes an apt comparison. He says that people who follow God’s laws “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). An upright person has an air of dignity. Moreover, he or she bears much good fruit.

Trees have multiple uses. They provide shade, fruit, nuts, lumber, tea, and maple syrup. We have seen how Zacchaeus’ tree served both as a ladder to God and as a bridge to reconciliation with God and others. Shel Silverstein beautifully illustrates the concept of total sacrificial love by means of a tree. In his book The Giving Tree, a boy receives gifts from his tree all his life long. At the conclusion of the story, the boy is an old man, and nothing is left of the self-sacrificing tree but a stump. Generous to the end, the tree invites the old man to rest on the stump.

We can imitate this self-giving by sharing with others our time, talents, and treasure. We truly give ourselves to others in the simple gift of presence just like the sycamore tree was there when Zacchaeus needed it.

Michel Quoist recounts a time when his presence meant a lot to a little stranger. One evening during a stay in the hospital, he heard sobbing. He traced the sound to a child who was severely burned. He sat beside the child a while and talked soothingly. Whenever he got up to leave, the child’s crying increased. Quoist spent the rest of the night being there with the child, helpless to relieve the pain, but offering comfort nonetheless.

It is important to be with others: in hospital rooms, at wakes, at graduations, and at celebrations. It is important to be waiting up for others when they come home. Our presence speaks volumes. Conversely, how lucky we are if we have reliable friends who are there at the right time. “Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel,” Shakespeare has Polonius advise in Hamlet.

Trees, like the sycamore, raise our minds to God by their beauty. Palm trees, fir trees, giant redwoods, and a multiplicity of other trees enhance our planet. With the changing of the seasons, most trees advance from one kind of beauty to another. In the summer, luxuriant forms of all sizes and shapes clothe the land with shades of green. In the fall, flaming leaves set the world afire with brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds. Winter days alternately bring breathtaking scenes of bare, black branches against purple skies, snow-laden limbs, and ice-encased trees glistening with cool beauty. Then the coming of spring is heralded by a rush of green, buds, and lovely blossoms. No wonder Joyce Kilmer in his poem “Trees” concludes, “Only God can make a tree.”

Trees evoke images of play. Who has not built a treehouse, swung from vines, picnicked under a tree, or hidden his or her face against the trunk of a tree, counting to a hundred for a game of hide-and-seek? To play is to be like the child Jesus exhorted us to resemble: carefree and ready to be thrilled by life. Anyone who is concerned about personal well-being attempts to balance work and play. Our bodies, minds, and souls need periods of relief from pressure and tension to be re-created. Rejuvenated through play, we can accomplish our work more efficiently and in a happier frame of mind.

Equally important, it is through play that we come to know ourselves and others better. It affords us time to reflect on who we are and what we are doing. Through playful interaction with others, we discover truths about ourselves, consoling as well as disturbing. We also forge the bonds of friendship and community more strongly through such experiences as the shared joy of viewing a funny movie together and the healthy competition of a good tennis match. On the whole, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches,” as Robert Frost comments in his poem “Birches.”

Since Zacchaeus, tree climbing has become well established in Christian tradition. For taking on himself the sins of the world, Jesus climbed a tree to become the Great Reconciler.


What is your favorite tree? Why?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Collins-Smith September 5, 2018 at 1:50 pm

I never thought so much could be written about
the wonder of trees!

A tree that grows wiser and older by the year must surely
be looking at God all day long! Joyce Kilmer was
exactly right.

What a wealth of wisdom trees show us. I can only gaze and gaze at their
magnitude. Just like God..

Mary Collins-Smith


Kathleen Glavich, SND November 5, 2018 at 9:51 am

We are learning more and more about trees, creations that share the earth with us.


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