Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Tree of Life: Reflections on the Sixth Sunday of Easter

This Sunday’s reading, from the Book of Revelation (Rev. 21:10, 22-22:5).

“And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it.

“And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it. And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life.

“And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

“And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.”

This is one of the richest, most beautiful, and most vivid passages in Scripture. In it, St. John gives us his vision of Heaven, and of the everlasting City of God which awaits us in the world to come. He describes- as well as anyone can describe that which is inherently indescribable- the beauty and splendour of that City. St. Paul said of heaven, that “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him,” and again he said that in his journey to the third heaven, he saw things “which it is not lawful for a man to utter,” but nevertheless St. John gives us a sense, and a kind of foretaste, of what Heaven will be like. Many homilies, paintings, songs, stories, and creative imaginings could be based on every single one of the sentences in this passage (and indeed, the passage is just a short excerpt from the much longer discourse on heaven in these two chapters.) How much we could write just about a single image, say that “the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl.” But I can’t write about everything in this haunting and beautiful mystical passage. I’ll just say a little about one particular image, this one: “And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

The Christian story is a story based around the icon of the tree. It begins with the Fall of Man, during which our first parents ate of the tree of knowledge, and became liable to sin, hell and death. It ends with our return to paradise, and our vision of the Tree of Life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, one for every month of the year. In between, of course, stands a third tree, that on which all else depends, the Tree of the Cross; in his sermon to the people of Jerusalem, Peter preached about Jesus “whom ye slew and hanged on a tree”. The parallels between these three trees were remarked on by the early Christians: the apocryphal Acts of Pilate, possibly drawing on ancient traditions from the first century, envisioning Christ’s descent into Hell on Holy Saturday to free the souls in prison, says “O Prince Satan, possessor of the keys of the lower regions, all your riches which you had acquired by the tree of transgression….you have now lost by the tree of the cross.” Between these three trees, the whole of the Christian story, and its explanation of why we suffer from sin, evil, and death, and of how we can eventually triumph over them, unfolds.

Genesis is a myth, of course- we know now that humans and other animals were not ‘created’ in their current form, but evolved from other life forms, in a chain going back to the first life on earth. But then, it wasn’t intended to be read as literal fact. The early church fathers saw Genesis as authoritative because Christ quoted from them and because they prophecied Christ, not because they provided a factual account of the origins of the world. All that matters for the purpose of the Christian story is that at some point in the history of life, God gifted some highly developed primates, products of a long history of biological evolution, with rational and spiritual faculties, and that almost immediately they chose to use those faculties to rebel and assert mastery over their own lives, instead of submitting to God. The whole of the Christian story takes off from there.

This point in the story- the end of our earthly story, and the beginning of a whole new, and better, and greater story, centers around the Tree of Life. The tree of life made an appearance at the beginning of the Bible, just after the Fall of Man, when God has pronounced judgment on the first humans, and also foretold the coming of Christ. He then expels them from the garden, “lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” Ross Douthat, the conservative Catholic writer, elaborates on this line, and how it hints, in an intriguing way, that death could be a gift as much as a punishment. “[this] could be read as a suggestion that the only thing worse than a life corrupted by sin is an eternal life corrupted by sin.”

But we should never forget that though we are not ready for the tree of life now, and though we need to die in order to truly live, we will be ready for it someday. The day will come when we are ready to “eat, and live for ever”, and when we will be allowed to taste of that fruit which was forbidden to us once. The day will come when we are allowed to “enter in through the gates into the city”, not jumping over the fence as a robber, but invited in as permanent and everlasting guests. C.S. Lewis, in his beautiful children’s book “The Magician’s Nephew,” gives us the beautiful image of the tree of life as encased in a garden: it yields its fruit to whoever will take it, but to those who enter through the gates and take of its fruit for others will find it sweet to the taste, and conferring long years of happy and fulfilling life; those who steal it, and take it at the wrong time and for the wrong reason, will “find their heart’s desire, and find despair.”

The tree of life epitomizes all that is beautiful in heaven, and that’s why St. John takes it as his icon of the afterlife. Like the branches of a tree, heaven is a place where we will keep becoming more and more unique, more and more individual, more and more different in healthy and good ways from one another. The branches of a tree divide and ramify into twigs bearing little leaves; in a similar way, our existence in heaven will be a deeply individual existence. It won’t be a place where we are all dissolved into a formless ocean, where we become little sparks of light incorporated into the one Light, or where we are simply ‘remembered’ to eternity by God, as some have thought. As every branch of a tree is a unique module by itself, so in heaven we will continue to be unique individuals, becoming more and more ourselves then we ever were on earth.

But the tree of life isn’t merely a symbol, it tells us that there will be real trees in heaven, more beautiful and more amazing even than the most beautiful trees of earth. Most of us have planted trees, at some point in our lives, and watched them grow, and those of us who have, can appreciate the pleasure we get out of watching our trees grow. The seedlings rise up through the dark soil; there is no light around for them to strive towards, but they can sense the presence of gravity. Plant roots have dense starch grains contained in little organelles, and the function of the starch grains is to sink in response to a gravity gradient. The plants can tell which direction is ‘down’, even if they can’t perceive the presence of light, and they grow upwards, away from gravity. Later they break through the soil surface, at least if it’s not too hard and unyielding, and enter into the bright and sunlit world. If they experience a gentle environment- partly shaded, well watered, not too fiercely cold or hot, with enough nutrients in the soil- they grow upward, towards the sun, getting taller and spreading out. Almost immediately we see the young leaves, often reddish in the first flush of their youth, then turning to a deep green, a vivid and rich green, the green of chlorophyll. Individual leaves live out their lifespan, turning yellowish and then fading and dying as the nitrogen and other nutrients in them is absorbed and recycled to new leaves; and newer leaves succeed older ones, all carrying out the same function of catching light and using that light energy to produce food for the plant. Eventually we see the seedling branch out, and divide. We see the green sapling begin to produce wood, the pliable young stem become firm and tough, We see the development of tough and dry bark, we see the tree grow to the height of our knee, our waist, our chest, above our head; we see it begin to produce flowers- white flowers, pink flowers, blue flowers- and then fruits. We see it, at last, become full grown- maybe in our children’s time or our grandchildren’s time. Many trees can live for decades or centuries, some of them even thousands of years.

The happiness that we get from seeing our tree grow is the happiness of seeing the process of life unfold, and witnessing the miracles that evolution has given us through plants and what they do. It’s something akin to the happiness that God experiences when he sees his children unfold their destinies, learn and grow, become greater in virtue and love. What an amazing thing the green plant is; Shakespeare said, “what a piece of work is man?”, but the same could be asked of green plants as well. Green plants are the workhorses of life on this planet. They convert the light of the sun into usable chemical energy, and they convert the gases of the air into food sugars, and they incorporate dissolved nitrogen in the soil into proteins. The plant leaf, thin and flat, exposed to the sun, often (in many species) changing its angle depending on the hour of the day, is perfectly built for catching energy, allowing water to escape and carbon dioxide to be dissolved. Flowers, for their part, are in many cases nearly perfectly adapted to the needs of their pollinators- bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, bats, in a few cases even bizarre situations like rodent pollination. The depth and angle of the flower, the colors of the petals and sepals, the height of the anthers, are exquisitely adapted to allow for pollination to happen and for pollen to spread to other flowers of the same species. The scents of flowers and tastes of fruits can be wonderful sensations, and God promises us that what evolution has done on this earth, he will replicate for us in heaven, but at an even higher and better level.

Do you love the feel of the resins on a pine tree, sticking to your hands and drying to aromatic, yellowish-brown beads? Heaven will have trees like that, but even better. Do you like the scent of magnolia flowers and cherry blossoms in the springtime? Heaven will have trees like that, even more beautifully perfumed. Do you love the grayish, almost blue color of a blue spruce tree? Heaven will have trees like that. Do you like the reds and oranges of maple trees in the fall? There will be reds and oranges like that in heaven, and the pink of the cherry and magnolia and dogwood flowers in spring, too, for there will be seasons there; as it is said, “[she] yielded her fruit every month”. Do you like the euphorbias of the tropics, with almost no leaves, with succulent green stems that bleed white latex when you break them? Do you like the swollen baobab trees, that store water in there trunks, whose crumbly soft wood the mushrooms grow on when the trees die? Do you like the bristlecone pines of the southwestern desert, that can live for up to 5,000 years, and some of which are alive today, and were alive when Christ walked on earth? Do you like the flamboyant trees of Madagascar, planted all over the tropics today, with their brilliant red flowers like a particularly feverish sunset? Do you like the fig trees of the tropics and subtropics, each of whose inflorescence contains a myriad of hidden and enclosed flowers, inside of which the male fig wasps live out nearly their whole life cycles? Do you like the moringa trees, with their edible leaflets, contained on finely divided leaves like feathers? Do you like the citrus trees, which can be grafted with related species such that they really do, like the tree of life, bear more than one kind of fruit? Do you like the apple trees, with their fruits ranging from sweet to tart to crisp tastes, from brown to green to red in color? Do you like the trees of the rain forests, which support little bromeliads (in the pineapple family) on their trunks, that get all their nutrients from dust carried by the air and the rain? Do you like the trees of the north, with their ability to survive temperatures down to 60 degrees below zero? Do you like the way the trees of the winter regions can evacuate the water in their cells of all dust and impurities, and allow it to stay liquid at temperatures well below freezing, because its near purity will keep ice crystals from having any surface on which to form? Do you like the way other trees can allow water to be withdrawn from their cells as it freezes, so that the cells stay unfrozen even as ice forms outside them? Heaven will have trees as beautiful, and as wondrous, as all these, and even more.

A third century Christian text called the ‘Apocalypse of Paul’, probably drawing on earlier visionary experiences and traditions, goes into more detail of what the trees of heaven will look like. The writer sees date trees, with branches dividing into clusters, and clusters into dates: “From the root of each tree up to its heart there were ten thousand branches with tens of thousands of clusters, [and there were ten thousand clusters on each branch,] and there were ten thousand dates in each cluster…..And there were other trees there, myriads of myriads of them, and their fruit was in the same proportion.” Some ecologists nowadays tell us that this isn’t a bad structural model for the way many plants are built: they consist of ‘fractal’ structures in which a main stem divides into two or three smaller stems, each of those divides into two or three smaller stems, and so on, with each point of division involving a similar proportion of daughter to mother stems, or branches, or veins. Think of a parsley stem, for example. That a pseudonymous writer in the early Christian era would anticipate something that no one really thought about for many centuries afterward does suggest that he really had some kind of vision and insight into the hidden nature of things, and in itself suggests there was some core of genuine supernatural experience behind this vision, and that perhaps we should take the writings of this and other mystics seriously.

But more important to our point, the writer of the Apocalypse of Paul is telling us that the order, and proportion, and beauty, and fertility, of trees and other living things on this earth are just pale shadows of the order and proportion and beauty and fertility in heaven. The trees of heaven will have more fruit then any tree could bear on this earth, and will be better proportioned, and more beautiful. All the beauty that we see around us in this world is a foretaste and a signpost towards the beauties of heaven; the wonders of nature on this earth are foretastes of the wonders of transformed, resurrected, transfigured nature in heaven. As St. Paul tells us of our own bodies, “It is sown corruptible, it is raised incorruptible”, and so it is with all good things in this world, including plants and animals.

We live in a world of shadows, like the benighted cavemen in Plato’s cave, and though we can see the shadows, which are real things and pretty in our way, we can only imagine what the substance behind the shadow must look like. For the existence of a shadow testifies to the existence of the substance, and from the existence of partial and imperfect good we can infer the existence of pure and total goodness. Which makes it all the more necessary that we treasure and cherish those rare moments in human history, including but not limited to this powerful and beautiful vision that was vouchsafed to St. John the Apostle, the best friend and adopted brother of our Lord, as he laboured in the mines of a Roman prison colony, in which individuals were given flashes of insight into the nature of heaven and allowed to share that vision with others. We walk in a world that is often dark, bitter, and lonely, and to have hope, which is a theological virtue as well as an existential necessity, we need to know what we are hoping for: as the Creed tells us, “We look to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” We don’t know what the life of the world to come will be like, but we can and do know that it will be better then anything we can imagine, and that it will have trees in it, lots of trees, more amazing and more beautiful then the most beautiful tree of this earth- in its shape, its structure, its height, its scent, its leaves, its flowers- could ever be.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

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