I see Christmas trees everywhere. They’re delightful, part of the celebrations of our holidays. Regardless of religious affiliation, most folks find Christmas trees, with all their colorful decorations and bright lights, heartwarming.
Bright lights, however, cast shadows. For many people this season, the holidays will bring painful reminders that someone whom they’ve loved is not there. Significant losses like these can make the holiday season an occasion for sadness, and make the homes which once felt secure and happy, seem empty and even hostile. Around Christmas, the wounds from such losses often become inflamed like unhealed scars, creating renewed pain and sadness. Christmas trees cast light but they can also remind us of the darkness.
Trees belong to the same species as plants, and what we generally call ‘Christmas trees’ belong to the conifer family. They’re survivors. Conifers are the first trees in the emerging history of vegetation to have made it successfully out of the sea to live prolifically on dry land. By some counts, their historic longevity equals that of insects, one of earth’s first surface residents, outdoing the long history of even the ubiquitous cockroach. Like so many of life’s significant transitions, the conifer’s arrival on land was not without struggle. At first, it didn’t want to be on land at all. It took conifers a long time to learn how to survive outside the safety of the sea, as it does for you and me when we’re wrested from safe place and our lives are turned upside down. When plants were first heaved from the ocean onto dry land to become our first trees, they eventually discovered the means of their survival, and it arrived unexpectedly, like a gift.
Initially, all life forms lived in the sea. It was a place where they felt safe. Water provided them dependable transportation, built-in nutrition and defense against nature’s most potent force, gravity. Plants’ fragile structures were protected against gravity’s powerful downward tug by the sea’s buoyancy, without which plants on dry land would be crushed.
Storms heaved and churned the sea, however, and for thousands of years discharged its plant inhabitants abruptly onto the arid and harsh shores of planet earth. Expelled from the aquatic safety and familiarity of their lives, they simply dried up at first, and without the structural density to counteract gravity, it seemed as if no plants would never make the transition from sea to land alive. They were stranded high and dry and died. The antecedents of conifers, in the midst of their ordeal, had evolved wood cells within them. The properties of these wood cells provided plants the rigidity by which they could withstand the new realities of gravity on land. The wood cell also contained vessels for storing and transmitting water and nutrients. They could now remain sufficiently hydrated to live on land until they could grow. The sea plant evolved into a tree, eventually standing tall in its new and alien world because it found strength in its evolving cell. Where did the cell come from? It didn’t seem to be there at first. What creates such miracles of biological diversity?
My guess is that it’s all something in the divine scheme, in the mind of God, some would say, which I can only wonder at, but this I know: in the spiritual life, as in the natural world, what we may need at any time for our survival often arrives just in time. When disruptive changes come upon us, and it seems as if we’ll never have the strength to stand firm against the strong downward pull of adversity and the terrible aridity of irreversible losses, hidden sources of strength suddenly reveal themselves, and we not only survive, but begin our lives again as new creatures.
I believe there’s a biological or cosmological equivalent to St. Paul’s inspired vision in which he says: “My grace is sufficient for thee for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In moments of our greatest vulnerability we discover we are being given what we need just when we need it, most. Our life processes, our living and dying, are the mechanism of becoming. At different times our needs vary and our lives are always changing. We’re like living rivers that twist and turn but manage to stay with the banks on their destination for an unseen sea. We go with the flow, having little idea just where we’ll end.
Along the way we’re jostled by the falls and rapids, surprised at the view, saying to ourselves, “I never thought I’d wind up here.” Like the aquatic plants were, we are driven by force from the security we enjoyed. We tread water, sure that we haven’t an ounce of strength left to go on. Then a miracle happens, silently, unseen, and we discover within ourselves just enough to make it through the ordeal. That’s what happened to the first conifers, the ancestors of our Christmas trees.
In John’s first epistle he writes how as children of God “what we shall become has not yet been made known.” The conifers didn’t know their destiny, either, and their history is instructive in the ways of becoming. How we understand this process of becoming is a matter of faith. But that we will uncover new strength during the process of becoming is a matter of record, written in the story of this magnificent evolving universe in which we live.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.