The lessons of the trees


By Father Joseph Breighner

Can trees teach us about life and death?

Recently I walked past some tall pine trees on the property of Villa Assumpta – the motherhouse and retirement community for the School Sisters of Notre Dame. I had passed these trees literally hundreds of times on my way to celebrate Mass or do counseling.

On this particular day, these tall trees were being cut down. The recent storms had battered them, and now the trees were a hazard. My first reaction was sadness. I love trees. They remind me of being rooted “in the now.” At one time I used to “pity” trees being rooted in one place for all time. Then one day I wondered if they pitied us poor humans who usually have so much shorter lifetimes. (As you notice, my mind never stops thinking.)

But as I watched the men working with the heavy equipment cutting them down, my sadness changed to admiration. One man was in a ‘bucket’ going up and down the trees cutting off their limbs. Other men were picking up their branches and tossing them into some kind of machine that ground them up. Finally, the sawdust was being poured through a chute into another truck. Before my eyes, the trees were disappearing inch by inch, branch by branch. Yet, what amazed me was the beautiful pine scent they gave off. It was like inhaling the scent of a hundred Christmas trees!

In their dying they still gave a gift to the world. The trees didn’t seem to be resisting, or cursing their fate, or hating their executioners. Like Jesus on the Cross, in death they gave life. I thanked these eloquent teachers.

Resistance is the root of so much of our pain. As has been so often said; “What we resist, persists!” In other words the pain of resisting just continues the pain. When we surrender, we find peace.

We humans resist many things: “I don’t want to go back to school.” “I don’t want to go to work.” “I don’t want to live here”. “I don’t want to die.” Our resistance doesn’t help us. It simply intensifies our misery.

The pine trees did not resist. They simply gave even in their final hours. I thought of Jesus saying that his Heavenly Father “lets the rain fall on the good and the bad alike.” The trees gave their scent to all. We may resist God’s grace or resist God’s love, but God won’t stop giving it!

And Jesus in the Gospel of John is even in control of his death. The crucifixion of Jesus in John’s Gospel is part of his being raised up – raised up on the cross, raised up from the dead, raised to glory with his Heavenly Father. Jesus’s words are simple and profound in John’s Gospel: “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down.”

The secret of living is in the art of giving. When we are conscious of being loving – even toward those we typically don’t find easy to love – we discover we get to live in a state of love, and they suddenly seem more lovable. As someone wisely said: “We don’t see life as it is. We see life as we are.” What we focus on, expands. If we focus on the good, we will see more good. If we focus on what’s wrong, we will see more of what’s wrong.

In counseling, I encourage people to set an intention for each day, perhaps something like: “I allow this day to flow effortlessly and easily.” Or, “I allow myself to be peaceful no matter what.” Throughout the day, recall your intention. When you find yourself disliking or judging yourself, or disliking or judging someone else, simply drop the judgment and come back to love. Continue to send love to yourself and to others all through the day. When you send love to yourself and to others, that is the voice of Christ speaking from within you! “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God.”

In life and in death, we belong to God. The pine trees reminded me of that.

Copyright (C) Sept. 7, 2012

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.