Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Spiritual Meaning of Trees

Last Wednesday was my turn to do the devotional talk at church.  Decided many months ago to do it on the Spiritual Meaning of Trees.  The poem of a few weeks ago was the meditation that started me down that path.  This post is a result of my study and preparation for that talk.

Trees are in the background and in the foreground of the Bible.  From the beginning to end.  They are a critical part of the action.  The Tree of Life is mentioned early in the Genesis and also in the last chapter of Revelation, for example.  There are over thirty kinds of them mentioned in the Bible.  Some like the olive tree are mentioned quite often and are well know to us, both as to physical, literal manifestation and some of its symbolic meaning, ie. you know what the olive branch signifies.  In some cases it is not certain what kind of tree it is that is being described. 

Perhaps you didn't realize it but trees figure in the story of Abraham, in several places.  For instance, after the call to leave Ur we are told in Genesis 12: 6  Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.  "Moreh" means teacher.  It was a significant tree for Abraham and the Canaanites.  Was some kind of school there? Was it an Oak?  Some think it was.

As it turns out, a few days before my talk, the significance of trees for our contemporary culture was illustrated by the recent reaction to the poisoning of the Toomer Oaks of Auburn University.  There was quite an uproar.  Auburn fans are justifiably feeling hurt and disappointment.  (Rather than post a link, the reader can google to find various descriptions and pictures.)

Each tree brings its own blessing to us.  Not only do trees provide food, medicine, shade, shelter, and other useful items for our lives but many useful images and metaphors to learn from.  Hence the admonition for us to be a tree that bears good fruit.  Or to be rooted.  Or that if we'll be righteous we'll "grow like a Cedar of Lebanon" (Ps 92:12).  There are of course many other Biblical examples of this.

Here are some of the links to interesting articles on this subject. Quotes from them are in italics. 

The Spirituality of Trees

 The tree is one of humankind's most powerful symbols. It is the embodiment of life in all its realms: the point of union between heaven, earth and water. In most mythology and ancient religious imagery, the tree was believed to have an abundance of divine creative energy. 
-by the Rev Lisa Ward delivered at Unitarian Univesalist Fellowship 2000 Harford County.

Trees have long held a literal and symbolic fascination for humanity. Their source as a deep archetype of absorption begins with the earliest epic in the Western World, the story of Gilgamesh and his quest for the plant of life (a symbolic tree) that is snatched away by a serpent, thus illustrating that the use of the tree as a universal religious symbol is incredibly ancient; such utilization can be dated to at least the third millennium B.C.E. as a symbol of a rich cultural mythos, the major archetype being that of the center, the beginning where sacred powers first originated. The tree is the navel of the world, the "cosmic axis" (Axis mundi) standing at the universe's center where it passes through the middle and unites the three great cosmic domains: the underworld, earth, and sky (Roth, Stephanie. The Tree of Life, The Ecologist. Jan. 2000 v30il. TEL. ASAP. 18 Aug. 2003.).

My closing thought:

Amazingly, these ancient pagans got it right.  Their mythologies are not literally true but thy intuited something of depth and validity.  Even before it happened.  The Cross is that Tree.  And it cannot be escaped how that event changed the world and the course of history.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Human Future

Placed the comment below to this blog post titled The Human Future by Jack Whelan.

Jack said "We're in the habit of looking toward the future in the rear-view mirror, and we assume fundamental continuity with incremental changes."

Yes, that is right.  I'm 60 now, and recall thinking with pride and optimism and excitement when I was 10 that now I'm living in a truly modern world. We went to space that year. And I expected technology change in the way usually depicted by the magazine covers of say Popular Science and as science fiction films of the fifties showed it. (recall a futuristic space travelling serial show where they used slide rules!) But not many if any anticipated what has happened and how wonderfully things would unfold.  We had the VCR and personal computer revolution in the eighties, the internet in the nineties, social media (bringing with it this blog) in the 2000's.  Marvelous medical and communication advances. Don't think many saw it coming about like this.  Definitely not me and I'm an R&D engineer with a PhD.   Perhaps Teilhard du Chardin.  I listened to a book review in Philosophy of Religion Class forty years  ago and thought he was crazy.  Not looking so much that way now.

See 1959 Popular Science Covers here.  I especially recall seeing things like on the July cover - cars without wheels.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Trees - The Most Effective Preachers

Trees have always been the most effective preachers for me.  I revere them when they live in nations and families, in forests and groves.  And I revere them even more when they stand singly.  They are like solitaries.  Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, isolated men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.  The world murmurs in their tops, their roots rest in the infinite; however, they do not lose themselves in it but, with all the energy of their lives, aspire to only one thing:  to fulfill their own innate law, to enlarge their own form, to represent themselves.

Nothing is more sacred, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.  When a tree has been sawed off and shows its naked mortal wound to the sun, one can read its whole history on the bright disc of its stump and tombstone:  in its annual rings and cicatrizations are faithfully recorded all struggle, all suffering, all sickness, all fortune and prosperity, meager years and luxuriant years, attacks withstood, storms survived.  And every farm boy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that, high in the mountains and in ever-present danger, the most indestructible, most powerful, most exemplary tree trunks grow.

Trees are sanctuaries.  He who knows how to speak to them, to listen to them, learns the truth.  They do not preach doctrines and recipes, they preach the basic law of life, heedless of details.

A tree speaks:  In me is hidden a core, a spark, a thought, I am life of eternal life.  The experiment and throw [of the dice] that the eternal mother ventured on me is unique, unique is my shape and the system of veins in my skin, unique are the slightest play of foliage at my top and the smallest scar in my bark.  It is my office to shape and show the Eternal in the distinctively unique.  

A tree speaks:  My strength is trust.  I know nothing of my fathers, I know nothing of the thousand children which come out of me every year.  I live the mystery of my seed to the end, nothing else is my concern.  I trust that God is within me.  I trust that my task is sacred.  In this trust I live.

When we are sad and can no longer endure life well, a tree can speak to us:  Be calm!  Be calm! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is hard.  These are childish thoughts.  Let God talk within you and they will grow silent.  You are anxious because your road leads you away from your mother and your home.  But every step and day lead you anew to your mother.  Home is neither here nor there.  Home is inside you or nowhere.

A yearning to wander tears at my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind in the evening.  If one listens quietly and long, the wanderlust too shows its core and meaning.  It is not a wish to run away from suffering, as it seemed.  It is a yearning for home, for the memory of one's mother, for new symbols of life.  It leadshomeward.  Every road leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is the mother. 

Thus the tree rustles in the evening when we are afraid of our own childish thoughts.  Trees have long thoughts, long in breath and calm, as they have a longer life than we.  They are wiser than we, as long as we do not listen to them.  But when we have learned to listen to trees, the very brevity and swiftness and childish haste of our thoughts acquire an incomparable joy.  He who has learned to listen to trees no longer desires to be a tree.  He does not desire to be anything but that which he is.  That is home.  That is happiness.

by Hermann Hesse from Wanderings:  Notes and Sketches

Translation from First German Reader:  A Beginner's Dual-Language Book, edited by Harry Steinhauer, page 12-17.  Bantam Language Edition published 1964, 6th printing.  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number:  64-7673.

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