The Tree at the Gate
The tree, so perfectly silhouetted, a likeness of Form: once prefiguring, then fastened with God, and now foreshadowing, it pines for the attention of a passerby. The tree is that first tree, the tree long ago, unheeded, sequestered, then forfeited to myth and parable. Still standing, casting the shadow of humanity’s paltry caprice – undesired wisdom, unwanted grace: the tree gives what we don’t want, and what we want the tree cannot give.
Can we see it today? The centerpiece of Christian symbols, the laurel hung over our shoulders, the ashes burning our foreheads? Is it not too that first tree? The way we are the first Adam, the first Eve: a great, great granddaughter tree descended from a simple garden tree? A shoot out of Jesse’s stump. The tree with a Christ nailed to its trunk, arms stretched on slivered branches. And if we can see that garden tree, and the tree fertilized with lashed, sinewy God, can we glimpse beyond this one dimension, this linear line, jump ages and epochs, throbbing, beating, ticking away, and puncture time itself to see that latter-coming tree, the last tree, which is the same, first tree – roots dangling in a crystal river, soaking up living water, baptizing and healing nations?
The tree-bearing fruit, once so beautifully forbidden, now unpalatable salvation, let me live in the shade of that tree, which is the light of the world.
When I was a child, perhaps ten-years old, a creek trickled through our neighborhood. It was a great creek for catching crawdads, with their tiny pinchers and scurrying legs and stringy antennae. For a ten-year old growing up in suburban Tennessee, a crawdad was an exotic, Noachian creature. (What kind of imagination could create such a thing?) I would pick up rocks and wait for the red-bodied crustacean. But it didn’t take long, not with these creatures pinching my fingers and toes, to lose interest. Instead, I wanted to know where the creek went. How far did it go? What was beyond the neighborhood?
Maybe I misremember. Maybe all I do is remember memories. Could yesterday and yesteryear be a mirage of stacked memories? Hallucinated history? I sometimes think so. Regardless, I suppose, I remember that I followed the creek out of the neighborhood and into what I thought, and what was, a wilderness, a handcrafted Narnia.
Not far beyond the neighborhood, the creek parched into a trickle of water that gave way to a dried up, rock covered trail. The creek bed had no end. I was absorbed. I pushed on. And on. Before I knew it, I was a mile, maybe two miles, away from the familiarity of the neighborhood in the way that childhood distances are appropriately exaggerated. For a child such a distance looped the world.
I remember believing I could live back in that dried up creek bed. The creek-bed walls staved off the wind, and the trees canopied with such a dark shade, they might as well have been a ceiling. Green moss could be collected and sewn together to make carpet. I could learn to eat berries and make small fires by rubbing sticks together. I could befriend Tennessee’s tigers and elephants who surely lived in the savannah, a waist-high hayfield, just beyond the treelined-creek bed. But when you are ten-years old, and your imagination is unsullied, you live in the moment to such an extent you cannot anticipate what is five minutes ahead of you. And soon I was hungry, and it was dinner time. My mom would be setting the table.
I went back to the dried creek bed again and again. It became for me a place of worship. Not the sort of place where I folded my hands and bowed my head, not that sort of worship; but the way certain places welcome imagination with an invocation and teach self-knowledge: what it means to have been created and breathe air, just as the trees and make-believe tigers had been created. The wind and chirping insect and chatter of song birds called out the day’s psalter.
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
The river bed stones shouted out, Blessed…who comes in the name of the Lord. And even had I been one-hundred years old, satiated with the collective wisdom of humanity, nimble minded and plunged fluently in divine meditation, I would have known that my voice could only reply with pauper-speech compared with the sapience of wind and birds and shouting stones, underneath the shade of an ancient, fabled, saving tree. When it was time to leave, the sanctuary passed its peace,
Christ be with you
and also with you, I said in my own way.
Then, this outside church sent me away with this benediction:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.
Now, one of my favorite places to go where I sense more readily that same awe of God’s work in creation is not far behind my house in a swampy land called Holly Shelter. I’ve written about this place before and I have little doubt I will write about it again. Entering from the west side of the county, the gravel road coils around several dove fields until it stretches a straight line to the vanishing point beyond the horizon. The gravel pings and pops underneath my pickup-truck like popcorn bursting out of its kernel. Both sides of the road offer differing versions of beauty. On one side of the road is a canal with slumbering alligators and turtles resting on logs. Behind the canal is a thick, impenetrable forest, a sanctuary for deer and bears and wild turkeys and snakes. The other side of the road also channels water with blue herons and egrets stalking prey. Beyond this channel, the horizon opens up into a marshy nave for ducks and geese and migrating birds. Eagles perch on the shell of dead trees like capped steeples. Pinks and reds and splotches of blue dye the sky a wine-colored kaleidoscope.
What makes this place beautiful isn’t the reverence dispatched to my soul. The swampland is beautiful because Beauty calls forth beauty. And just as the road appears to vanish at the end of the horizon, it is merely an illusion that beauty is limited to this place or that place, places set aside for roadside pullovers or national parks. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which, as John O’Donohue says, is less of a statement about the subjectivity of beauty as it is a plea to cultivate vision that sees beauty. “Works of art can die as a result of being looked at by too many dull eyes, and even the radiance of holiness can, in a way, become blunted when it encounters nothing but hollow indifference,” writes Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Beauty, God’s glory, sees you. Failure to see Beauty looking at you is a call to repentance.
I roam around Holly Shelter for hours. Gravel and dirt roads trail off in every direction. More than once, I become so consumed with curiosity that I get lost or plead with my four-wheel drive to press through a knee-deep mud trough that I have no business trying to cross. But there are things to see, beauty to behold. I can’t help myself. The garden goes and goes, and all the while I can feel the same impulse that drove me as a child further and further down a dried creek bed.
Walter’s aster, inkberry, chaffheads, false foxglove, tall milkwort, redroot, deer’s tongue, pinebarren gentian, and the fields and fields of wiregrass. If Holly Shelter were littered with pearls and sapphires, rubies, opals, topaz, and jade, fortune hunters and strip miners would ruin everything. But it isn’t. Flecked tincture, besprent with November flushes, beauty is fragile, fleeting, seasonal, and requires that sense of adventure to scour wide-open places and follow dried up creek beds. Get your shoes dirty and stare at a flower whose name you do not know is a command to worship.
And weeds. If the word weed exist in God’s garden, weeds are a reflection of rejected beauty: For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. They will be alive today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, these wild flowers, called weeds. Put away the slick, glossy-covered magazines, put out of your mind the red-carpeted fashion show, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like [the lilies of the field.]
Holly Shelter is just down the street from my house. I could go there every day. But I don’t. It is a special place for pensive moods and reflective crevices in an otherwise occupied day. And though it is so nearby, it is also such a journey. Betwixt and between, this world and the next, Holly Shelter, like that old, dried-up creek bed, is a numinous place, a liminal garden, time touching eternity; it is every corner of Eden. And there, at the gate of Holly Shelter is that tree, the same tree, the archetypal tree whose roots anchor the earth and whose shoots split heaven’s gate.
It is the tree of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: There was a tree at the center of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed.
I worry that God will command us to cut down the tree and chop off its branches, until we learn that heaven, by which I mean Holly Shelter and dried up creek beds and all the secret gardens overstocked with Beauty, is sovereign.
In today’s spiritual milieu, with all this talk of personal relationships with Jesus, as if Jesus were a possession, (think Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus, “Reach out and touch faith/your own personal Jesus/someone to hear your prayers/someone who cares/your own personal Jesus…”) And then there’s our “daddy” God, a friend, like we are chums hanging out together; oh, and sure, God did this favor for us, saving us and all because, well, we really shouldn’t have eaten that fruit: you know, we’re sinners, moral failures with bad thoughts; but really God is just this big, huggable, good guy who overlooks our shortcomings. And then there is the Holy Spirit, who authors our self-help books and builds up our confidence.
Ugh. Let me be blunt, if you have a personal relationship with God (a concept that isn’t biblical and resonates more strongly with secularity – just think of the commercials about having a personal broker or a personal grocery shopper) you have a small, emotionally induced god who can do little more than replace your imaginary childhood friend or be a stand in for a golden retriever.
God is completely transcendent, unknowable. How can our puny human minds ever contemplate the Divine? Even our more daring mystics will say with confidence that to ask if God exist is a meaningless question since existence is definitionally contingent. God does not need in order to be. I need food and water, a good night sleep helps, and a brain and a body to deal with the food and water and sleep. I am made up of parts, and without those parts working together my existence cannot sustain itself. God is not made up of parts. God is simple. God is One. And the oneness of God is so holy other, God cannot be known.
But wait a minute. The imminence of God can’t be denied. God speaks. God was with us in Jesus Christ. God is with us through the Holy Spirit. To muddy things up, if God is completely unknowable, how is it then that God intervenes in human affairs? If God were truly, completely unknowable, why does God turn up so frequently? What do we say about God’s claim on us if God cannot be known?
Faith is the appropriation of the mystery of God, God’s infinite transcendent piercing our capacity and perception. When we succumb to the temptation of turning Jesus into our personal friend, we reduce the mystery of God to human capacity. Beauty becomes pretty, sentimental, self-indulgent.
So why do I go to the woods? Why do I look at the tree of life? Because it is beautiful, and beauty does not bring God down to the created world. Instead, the crisp edge of pine needles, the fanning brushes of a bloom, the supple blue petal, the “sky is the daily bread of the eyes,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson – beauty elevates us closer to the mystery of God without diminishing God’s holy otherness. Beauty changes us; we are seized by the Divine through the beautiful. “His memory is carried back to the real nature of Beauty,” Plato teaches in the Phaedrus, “and he sees it again where it stands on the sacred pedestal.” In other words, beauty is a spiritual form that can be grasped by human senses and carry us back to our true selves who walked unashamed with God in the cool of the evening.
The tree at the entrance of Holly Shelter remembers, that is re-members, that ancient tree, the sacrificial tree, the anticipated tree by crystal water.
Have you ever thought about what is between body and soul? How they are connected? Or what’s between rational thought and emotional intelligence? Have you ever considered the paradox of knowing an unknowable God? We worry so much about what is right, and we worry so much about what is true. And rightfully so. But would we be attracted at all to the good or the truth if they were not beautiful? Beauty is not just the nexus between the natural and supernatural; beauty is the event binding the created order with the One, Uncreated. How can God be man? And how can man be God? How can we believe Jesus was both? Because beauty is the event, the gesture of God’s truth and goodness that allows paradox and contradiction.
“Beauty is the word that shall be our first,” teaches Balthasar. “Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relationship with one another.” And that is why we walk in the woods and dirty our shoes.