“In every religious tradition there is a practice of devotion and a practice of transformation . . .Thich Nhat Hanh in Living Buddha, Living Christ
Devotion means trusting more in ourselves and in the path we follow. Transformation means to practice the things this path imposes on us.”
I took this picture on our Canadian Thanksgiving walk at Shaw Woods. It’s difficult to grasp this picture at a glance, so I’ll walk you through it. The sheer rock face to the left used to be the surface on which the tree grew. The clump of brownish tangle forming a V shape opposite it are the roots of the tree. We know the tree sustained itself for many years on that precarious and not-very-nourishing place because it grew to a substantial size. You can see the circumference of the trunk above the heads of my mother and my son. Their size gives you some perspective on the size of the tree.
The roots of the tree could not penetrate the solid rock to grow deeply, so root tendrils reached out horizontally over the slanting rock in their search for sustenance.
Such a precarious state could not endure. At some point, a storm-driven gust of wind exerted such pressure on the tree that its roots peeled away from the impenetrable stone and it toppled. Without deep roots solidly anchoring it into the ground it could not survive a storm.
We can learn lessons from this tree.
Metaphorically speaking, to survive life’s storms, people need roots entrenched deeply into solid, anchoring sustenance: faith, nurturing friendships, loving family. Sure, some can survive for a while by spreading themselves thinly over precarious and not-very-nurturing surfaces, reaching out for sustenance through such things as jobs, money or alcohol and drugs. Like the tree in the photo, some people last surprisingly long that way. But eventually a storm comes with a wind too strong to withstand: the job disappears, the money dries up or the alcohol and drugs destroy ability to function effectively. Then the shallow roots peel away and everything topples.
Are you deeply rooted and ready for a storm?
When my husband and I strolled through St. James’ Park during our recent vacation to London, England, we passed this tree. Its harshly pruned branches made a sorry silhouette against the dusky skies of London.
We slowed our steps and looked up at the denuded tree. “Maybe it will come back,” my husband said, sardonically.
Then we looked more closely. One determined twig of new growth sprouted from the side of an upper branch. This tree, that to our eyes appeared cruelly pruned past the point of rejuvenation, prevailed.
We continued our walk feeling a little lighter.
Even when life prunes us down to bare essentials, new growth and rebirth is possible. It’s a matter of faith.
I’m going to show you three blankets.
When my children were born—first my daughter, then my son—I made them each a blanket. Here is my daughter’s blanket now:
Do you think she used this blanket a lot? Do you think it’s been washed a few times? Yep.
My daughter loved her blankie. It went with her everywhere. She slept holding it and dragged it around when she walked. When she started to kindergarten, she tucked into the bottom of her backpack everyday. When she got older and started going on Brownie and Girl Guide camping trips, she didn’t want the other girls to make fun of her for wanting a blankie, so she tucked it into the bottom of her sleeping bag. She felt it as she slept, but her friends didn’t know it was there.
Eventually she stopped sleeping with it. It didn’t go to school anymore. It stayed at home during camping trips.
One day years later when I was leading children’s time at my church I decided to tell this story to the kids. I wanted to take my daughter’s blanket with me to show everyone. When I asked her where it was, she didn’t have to think for a second. “It’s right beside my bed,” she said. She didn’t use it every day anymore, but she knew exactly where it was.
Now I’m going to show you my son’s blanket:
Do you think he used his blanket much? Nope.
My son barely glanced at his blanket. He never slept with it. He rarely picked it up. It never went to school or on any camping trips.
I had made this blanket for my son, and I was a little hurt that he had no interest in it. I wanted him to love it. Why didn’t he need a blanket in the same way his sister did? Sometimes I even tried to push him to use it. When he couldn’t sleep, I’d tuck it in beside him, sure that it would help. He tossed it on the floor. If he fell and scraped a knee, I wrapped him up in it. He shrugged it off. Eventually I was the one who had to adapt. I had to accept that he was going to have his own kind of relationship with his blanket.
But you know what’s really interesting? When I asked him where it was, he didn’t have to think for a second. “It’s right beside my bed,” he said. He never needed it, but it was a gift of love from me, so he kept it close.
Now, let me show you a third blanket:
This one I made for my daughter when she was about 7 years old when it became clear that the original one was disintegrating. It’s a new and improved version of the first. I thought she would love it.
She would have nothing to do with it. She wanted the comfort of the original, thank you very much, even if it was battered and torn and no longer serve a real function.
I shared this story with the kids at church because I think my kids’ blankets give us an insight into how we need to accept different approaches to faith.
- Some people need to hold their faith close, sleep with it and touch it daily.
- Some people’s needs change over time. When they are younger, they need a strong faith relationship, but when they get older they let it go. Or, some people don’t want faith in their youth, but when they get older or suffer a crisis, they seek it more.
- Some people know right where it’s kept but don’t need it very often.
- If we make fun of other people’s needs, they’ll tuck them away, but it won’t change anything.
- We can’t make people let go of something until they are ready.
- Just because something is new, doesn’t mean it’s better.
- Just because something is old, doesn’t make it right for everyone.
- If something is given with love, people will value it even if they don’t need it every day
- We give our children a gift if they never have to think for a second to know where to find their faith.
- One thing is for sure, we can’t force other people to have the kind of relationship with faith that we want them to have. It’s very personal. Even if we hand-make it for them or hand it down generation to generation, people have to forge their own relationships with faith.
First there is a mountain. Then there is no mountain. At last, there is only a mountain, just like there always already was, right from the beginning. And it couldn’t be more obvious.
—Buddhist saying as found in Integral Life Practice: A 21st-Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening by Ken Wilber, Terry Patten, Adam Leonard and Marco Morelli
Seeing the mountain
Alex and Jane McKeague of Ottawa lived and worked for two years in Africa.
Several times during their stay they drove by Mount Kilimanjaro. Each time clouds shrouded the mountain and it couldn’t be seen. The people with them said with great excitement, “There’s Mount Kilimanjaro!” But they couldn’t see it. They couldn’t believe that a mountain was even there.
One day, when a visiting friend required a drive to the airport, they headed out in the dark of night. They delivered their friend to the airport, saw her flight off and then returned to their car for the drive home. When they pulled out of the airport, the sun of a new day shone on the full glory of Kilimanjaro.
The awestruck couple stopped the car, climbed out and gaped in wonder at the snow-capped mountain standing alone in the midst of sun-drenched Africa. They marvelled at something they had heard about but couldn’t believe.
I have many friends who don’t “get” faith. That’s OK.
Maybe it’s not their time yet. Maybe one day the clouds will dissipate for them and they will see a snow-capped mountain that they can’t believe was there all along.