The Jesuit Center was every bit as hauntingly beautiful as I had been told. I had the opportunity to join Les there for a one-day spiritual retreat for pastors and spouses.
The spiritual director gave us instruction for a variety of practices to be done in solitude. For one we were invited to explore worship in conjunction with creation through words or art or the actual physical creation. I chose art because words and woods are the media of most of my worship. It was time to try something new. Art, it was.
Until it wasn’t.
I could not find a single painting or sculpture that made me want to stop and spend an hour in its presence. Desperate not to “fail” the exercise, I headed for one of the two cemeteries on the property, reasoning that I could possibly combine art and nature via tombstones and the great outdoors.
I never got that far.
I was arrested along the way by a tree. Not an unusual occurrence for me, but it was an unusual tree.
A tall evergreen, its trunk was completely encapsulated by vines—thick, woody vines. The tree was still alive at the top, as evidenced by new growth, but I knew the vines were choking it.
My purposeful strides, intent on completing the exercise as instructed, suddenly stopped midstep. I heard this thought, clear and urgent, in my soul: You are choking your life with so many things, vines that cling and climb and squeeze the life out of you.
Vines are part of God’s creation (after all, that’s what I was supposed to be focused on), but this was not their place, leaching life from the tree. And while the evergreen was doing a bang-up job of hosting the vines, that was not its mission. Its life’s purpose was being obstructed, the noose around it tightening.
The vines sported feathery appendages that, combined with the nooks and crannies created by their twisting ascent, were catching still other debris that did not belong—oak leaves and spinners, maple leaves and dirt. It all added still more weight and litter to the tree, obscuring its bark.
I reached between vines and took a piece of flaking bark, a tactile token of the tree’s dilemma. Maybe it would cause me to think of my own life. I noticed a few pine cones on the ground and pocketed one to remind me that life is about producing fruit. It’s a way trees—and people—praise the creator. Were the vines of busyness and importance in my life keeping me from doing so?
As I walked away I noticed more evergreens covered from crown to foot with vines, truly being choked of life. Is that what my tree would look like in a few years? Is this what my life would look like—bent low and trapped—in a few years if I did nothing about my vines?
Another tree was wrapped in a thick vine that had been cut—an unsuccessful attempt by man to rescue the tree from a likely fate.
Would I ever be free of my cluttering vines without external, divine help? Unlikely. I simply continue offering hospitality to the choking vines of life—urgent tasks, others’ expectations, my own desire for more or “better”—until the vines are thick and tangled and squeezing me tightly.
“God,” I prayed, “show me what must go. Cut them, unravel them, remove them.”
A short distance away stood another of the same kind of evergreen.
The ground carpeted with pine cones that might produce other trees.
Not at all like the ground beneath my tangled tree where only a handful of pine cones rested.
I want to be a fruitful tree. Please, Lord, work on me. Free me to pursue what I am called to do so I produce abundant fruit for your kingdom. I want my life littered with pine cones, the promise of new life, rather than twisted up in the vines of excess.
So I wonder:
Are there any vines encircling your life?