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Life Through the Eyes of a Tree | April 28, 2024 Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton



 

Despair is the result of each earnest attempt to go through life with virtue, justice and understanding and to fulfill their requirements.


I opened with the powerful voice of Nina Simone and the words of author Herman Hesse, two of my most important spiritual teachers. I have been feeling this despair recently as I observe our world through the eyes of so many people suffering...those that I encounter in my own home, on walks in the neighborhood, in my work with other people. We are suffering from illness…cancer, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, broken hearts. And as we have established, all are connected. Contrary to what many people believe, our mental, our physical, our spiritual health are all part of the same experience. When I see the homeless person at the park, I have to understand that this is the collateral damage of our way of life and part of what is affecting our well-being or lack of it. Without this understanding we are left with the western medical model of treating illness and the solutions to those struggling to find a home and support by cleaning up. Our attempts to live our lives in a meaningful, authentic way seem to often lead to despair…the despair spoken of by Hesse and Simone. I struggle with this myself. In everyday decisions I am torn between following medical protocol and attempting to ‘listen’ to my body…between buying food and other products that my family wants and those that are sustainable and healthy, if I can find them. We may also be torn between our traditional spiritual understandings and a more innate…personal spirituality. Many of us are engaged in an earnest attempt to live our lives with virtue, justice and understanding. We are engaged in a struggle that, at times, can feel hopeless. We are all confronted with these choices each day. What do we pay attention to, what do we buy, how do we manage our needs and aspirations?

And of course, the circle of care goes far beyond our individual concerns. We cannot escape the knowledge that like us, our earth and all of its life forms are stressed. Our short-sighted and self-centered behaviors have caused us to lose sight of our lofty goals of virtue, justice and deep understanding, as well as, our deep knowing that we are all one…that our individual and collective behaviors have consequences that we are unable to clearly see.


Hesse says that despair is the result of our attempts to live a virtuous life…a life focused on justice and on understanding. But he does not only say that we are thinking about that kind of a life, but that we are trying to fulfill the requirements that these paths demand. For if we only “think” about living a virtuous life…or about the nature of justice and the need for understanding, we are not investing our lives…our time and effort into these paths. Only when we begin to do the work…putting one foot in front of the other, that we understand its difficulty…that we may experience despair. Hesse is saying, I think, that if we did not make an earnest attempt to live out our ideals, we might not experience despair…he is saying that despair is a normal human reaction to our imperfection. And I think this is true. Despair is normal. If we are honest, we all experience it. It is the byproduct of living in this world…of facing reality. Yet most of us do not fall apart because of it. We find the hope that is needed to go on. For the most part this hope is built-in. We were made this way! In his book, Deep is the Hunger, Thurman states that;


It is a matter of amazing significance that the Creator of life assumes that human beings are able to absorb most of the negative and destructive things that happen to them without disintegration and collapse.


These are hopeful words. They remind me that our Creator assumes that we can handle all the negative and destructive things that happen to us. We were made this way…we are durable and resilient. And we have endurance. We see this on a daily basis in the world. Despite the realities that lead us to despair, we have a built-in sense of hope when we are able to connect to it. If we listen carefully we will hear it ringing…




 

The archangels are indeed ringing the bell of hope if we are able to get quiet and listen. This is something that we so often fail to do in our daily life. Yet, it has been established that just a brief period of reflection…of stopping the business of our existence can be physically and emotionally healing. It might even mean that we could step back and find the wisdom needed to find some solutions to our current struggles. Hesse writes:


Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which

you can retreat at anytime and be yourself.


And we can access this anytime, without spending any money or going to a special place. That special place is inside. It is within the altar of the soul and is part of the mystery that is a human individual. This sanctuary is powerful, yet at times even this supply of hope can be difficult to access and it can wear thin. This is when we need to reach out to other resources. Thurman often talks about how much nature played a big role in providing hope and comfort when he experienced sadness, loneliness or despair. Hesse knew of this resource as well. He wrote:


When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent.


And this is what neuroscience is suggesting we do…be still. If we were truly able to do this…and to listen to ourselves and to other life forms, like the tree, we might be able to heal ourselves and the world. The message from the tree continues…


You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.


This is a comforting message…we belong to our mother…our source…be it of nature or of spirit, we are on a journey back to our source…back home. We need this message when we are anxious…when we are feeling despair…when we have lost hope…we need the message of the tree to teach us the ancient law of life. And it goes deeper. Hesse continues with the message from the tree…


A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.


As with the tree, so with us. We are all unique attempts at finding virtue, justice and understanding…at actualizing the potential that lies within our self. And this was indeed a risk, this birthing us! Around every corner there lies danger…challenge…difficulty…in birth and in life. The tree continues with the ancient law of life…


A tree says: My strength is trust. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.


Trust can allow us to find our way home to ourselves…to what Thurman calls the sacred personality. He is talking, I think, about the authentic self that can teach us ways to come home to ourselves and that can give us hope. Yet trust can be elusive when we are experiencing despair. Hesse says that this experience of despair is not there to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity, but to mature and transfigure us. He continues:


A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home.


New metaphors for life! Yes, that is what we find when we take a step back and reflect. A metaphor can help us come to ourselves…come to the meaning of our existence and return to the source. Hesse sums up this experience:


So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.




 

 

 

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