Monday, January 21, 2008

Monday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
Of Healthy Trees and Spiritual Growth

Readings: 1 Samuel 15:16-23; Psalm 50:8-9, 16bc-17, 21 and 23; Mark 2:18-22

Over these past months that I’ve spent in a foreign country undergoing formal training as a Jesuit, I’ve enjoyed the view from my room. Although I can see neither very much nor very far because my field of vision is obstructed, the obstruction itself has been a source of delight. Planted just next to the building where I live is a tall tree. From my window I can see little else but its branches and leaves and a few patches of blue sky. And today this same obstruction offers some insight into the Mass readings and how they relate to what my companions and I are doing at this stage of our formation. The question that comes to mind is this: could the signs of a healthy spiritual life bear some resemblance to those that point to a healthy tree? If so, what are they? In the light of our experience over these past months, I can think of several.

The first, of course, is a happy coincidence of favorable conditions. Like the tree outside my room, this is something that my companions and I have experienced, sometimes even to an astonishing degree. God’s providence has somehow arranged things in such a way that, for the most part, each of us has been conscious of encountering the kinds of experiences that each one needs for our personal growth. Today’s readings offer just one more example of providence at work. Just when our studies of Jesuit documents have reached the subject of our vow of obedience, we hear these words spoken to us in the first reading: obedience is better than sacrifice…

The second aspect of healthy growth is rather less obvious. Put simplistically, a tree grows in essentially two directions. The trunk grows upward and the roots downward. A healthy tree is thus a tree in tension. It has to allow itself to be pulled in both these directions. And, in a way, isn’t this true too of the spiritual life? Consider again our readings today. If Saul is rebuked for his disobedience in the first reading, the Pharisees of the gospel get into trouble with Jesus apparently because they are too obedient. They want to continue following the custom of fasting even while the bridegroom is with them. Of course, from another perspective, there really is no contradiction here. The key to the difficulty is in realizing what or whom it is we are ultimately called to obey. Not so much the laws and customs, but the Son who incarnates them and the Spirit who inspires them. Still, we only come to appreciate this by allowing ourselves to live, with creative fidelity, the tensions between letter and spirit, tradition and experience.

Which brings us to the third aspect of a healthy spiritual life. Depending on its particular species, a healthy tree is one that somehow renews itself. Have you ever noticed, for example, the number of leaves some trees shed in a single day? And renewal, of course, implies death. A healthy tree is thus a tree that dies and rises. Isn’t this what is required of Saul and the Pharisees in our readings today? In order to obey God, Saul must die to that part of himself that takes pride in offering a glorious sacrifice. Similarly, in order to obey the Word made flesh, the Pharisees must die to their pride in their own adherence to the custom of fasting. And need we mention that, quite coincidentally, we also celebrate the memory of a martyr today? The operative word here is mortification (latin mortificare = to kill). As St. Ignatius tells us: in all spiritual matters, the more one divests oneself of self-love, self-will, and self-interests, the more progress one will make (SpEx 189).

There is, actually, something else that I can see from my window. Not just tree branches but also the birds that delight in perching on them. The healthy tree exists not just for itself but also for the birds. Doesn’t Jesus say something similar about the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade (Mark 4:31-32).

How might God be helping us to nurture the tree of our spiritual life today?


  1. Hello Fr Chris
    You might enjoy this poem "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer.
    It's set to music--an SCGS favourite. Here goes:

    I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree;
    A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
    A tree that doth in summer wear a nest of robins in her hair.
    A tree that looks to God all day, and lifts it's leafy arms to pray;
    Upon her bosom snow has lain, who intimately lives with rain....
    Poems are writ by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.

    Brings to mind Fr Reid's favourite tree/view at Kingsmead--a very special and uplifting sight....


  2. To add to Fr Chris' allegory of organic growth, I wish to offer my 2 cents' worth, borne out of the nurturing by the Spirit.

    The first is spiritual nourishment. This nourishment comes about in small doses at different times and different phases of one's physical growth, but throughout one's life. If the longing for God is in the heart, the individual will be moved to search in any and every event that holds out the promise of growth: seminars, talks, prayer services.

    The second is pruning. Ouch. Have you been 'pruned' by the Spirit? For a tree that has been distorted since it was a sapling, pruning can be very uncomfortable. Why? Becos old habits and mental sets are deeply ingrained. It is natural: as they say, whether good or bad, practice makes perfect. But if one grits one's teeth and let the gentle Holy Spirit take over, the possibilities are limtless.

    As St. Ignatius advises: in all spiritual matters, the more one divests oneself of self-love, self-will, and self-interests, the greater the prospects of spiritual growth.

    Come Divine Pruner to till the hearts you have created.