Monday, April 25, 2011


My family visited Mount Auburn Cemetery on Easter morning during a week in which I'd spent seven days indoors caring for sick children. As we were about to end our trip and get in the car, I took this picture of my five-year-old, Kinnell, perched in a beautiful and very old tree.

That evening, I remembered an experience I had when my older son, Raimi, was just two years old and I was pregnant with Kinnell. Getting your child to sleep is a challenge for many parents, and at the time we were in the grips of a seemingly endless struggle to get him to go to sleep on his own, in his own bed, without a parent lying next to him. Exhausted and defeated and feeling like the most permissive and unhelpful parent on earth, I lay next to Raimi and prayed to a God I wasn't sure I believed in.

Dear God, I prayed, if you are there - if anyone is there who can hear this: I am so tired. I work hard all day and do my best to take care of this child every single day. I am frustrated. I feel hopeless, and I can't believe that something as ordinary as getting a child to sleep can make me feel so powerless and alone. I wonder what's the point of it all. If you are there, can you please give me some sign -- some reason for hope?

My body was relaxed but I did not fall asleep. An experience filled my senses, more than a vision -- a sense of complete awareness. I felt myself held up by the branches of an enormous tree with smooth grey bark -- the kind of tree I used to climb as a child, whose thick branches contained easy resting places and spots to hide behind green leaves. In another branch I saw Jesus. I didn't think he was God, he was just hanging out there, not making any demand or offering any particular comfort. I felt the smoothness of the bark, its strength and solidity holding me up as solidly as the ground although I knew I was in the air. I felt safe. I knew I was being held, and it would all be ok.

It turned out that both the child I was soothing to sleep and the child I was carrying each was born with a disability. My kids' lives stretch before them, yet thanks to the insights of genetic counseling and neuropsychological analysis, we have glimpses of the course their lives will take. Kinnell will face health problems. Genetically-determined patterns in Raimi's mind mean that he perceives the world differently than most people, and may struggle to understand and have his insights understood.

I wasn't thinking of my experience of God/prayer/tree when I lifted Kinnell up into the tree at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. I just saw the tree, and it seemed to reach out and ask to be climbed. It was open and solid, smooth and ancient. So I lifted Kinnell up and took a picture.

That night I wondered, was the tree that held me when I prayed to God also holding Kinnell as his spirit formed and his body took shape inside my belly? Thinking about these two experiences of trees, a phrase came to mind: I contemplate a tree. Here is the passage it is taken from, from Martin Buber's I And Though (as translated by Walter Kaufman):
I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as a movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air--and the growing itself in its darkness.
I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.
I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law--those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.
I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.
Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an it. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.
This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.
Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the stars--all this in its eternity.
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it -- only differently.
One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.
Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.
I first read these words when I was taking a college course in 20th Century Theology. Religious studies at the University of Iowa exposed me to the idea that religion is the place where human beings can wrestle with suffering and emerge with a sense of meaning. Not that suffering is itself meaningful, but that life has meaning even in the face of suffering. In Buber's writing, this meaning emerges when we are fully present, open, and in relationship with the world as it is and other human beings who are themselves being present and open with us.

Trees and art are part of Martin Buber's work on I-Thou relationships, but his primary concern is the human relating to another human -- the I and the Thou. Kaufman uses Thou to indicate that the you is himself or herself also an I -- it is a mutual relationship between two subjects, not a subject and an object.

Buber wrote I and Thou after a student of his committed suicide. The student had come to him before killing himself, and Buber felt he had failed to fully engage with his student and his suffering. He felt intense remorse that his student had found his suffering so unbearable as to extinguish any sense of purpose, and Buber hadn't helped.

During this time I also read Paul Tillich's The Courage to Be. Writing after an early career as a Chaplain during World War I, Tillich had witnessed and grappled with the extinction of hope; and with its resurrection. The crucifixion of Christ on the cross conveys this experience for Tillich, and as a non-Christian I was moved by the power of this understanding of the symbol of the cross. In practical terms, I realized, we live in a world that is shot through with suffering. The rational response would be nihilism, and yet we have hope. We believe it is worth it to go on living. Most of us do go on.

Studying religion at the graduate level, I hoped to find a clear sense of the way towards deeper connection, truth and meaning. I found many examples of the religious life, but I did not find my own path. The religious paths I studied had been carved out largely in solitude by Buddhist monastics, Roman Catholic mystics, social justice martyrs. I tried prayer, meditation, visited many different houses of worship, posed as a Unitarian Universalist. I lived my life relationally, not in solitude. I met my life partner and settled on working for a living. I became a parent. I felt I lost my way.

Yet, in the moments when I have felt most constrained and burdened by the work of raising a family and keeping a home, I have experienced these flashes of insight and meaning. I contemplate a tree and meaning emerges.

Above, Buber's phrase, "if will and grace are joined" seems to hold some key to understanding the process by which this meaning emerges. Through an act of will, we can choose mindfulness and seek to remain open. Through some external grace, meaning breaks through.

So perhaps the path I am walking is not as well-defined by the footsteps of those with the time to document and map their way; but it does seem to have been worn deep by the laboring of everyday families and communities seeking to live and to love. Not everyone uses their will to create openness to grace, but how is a monastic retreat chopping wood and preparing meals so different from the daily work of dishes and laundry, working and cooking dinner, caring for children? Doesn't patting a child to sleep require the same discipline as sitting zazen? Your body is tired, your mind strains against the monotony, you lose your sense of self. Isn't the work of parenting, working, loving and friendship just as abundant with richness as any work there is?

I'm not trying to be lazy or get out of doing the spiritual work so many teachers have written about. I'm seeing the path I have been given, and finding that the difference between a right path and a wrong path may be an illusion. Is the difference really the path, or the openness of the one who walks it?

1 comment:

Susanne said...

Wow. Thank you, Rosalie.