Lessons about God from a tree

There is a tree at the Jesuit Retreat House on Lake Winnebago that stands right on the shore close to large boulders. The tree has a special story due to the fact that at one time it was probably the largest tree on the property. During a summer thunderstorm, a lightning strike reduced its size to a mere 20 feet or so. The first thought was that it was time for the tree to go to the woodpile, but due to circumstances it was not cut down; and then, someone realized that it was growing a new set of leaves. To this day the very top of the tree sprouts new leaves during every growing season. The tree has become something of a spiritual icon at the retreat house. Many people find this tree a manifestation of God’s enduring presence in their damaged and suffering lives.

As we celebrate the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity the tree manifests the permanent presence of God in each human life. In the reading from Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people “you must fix in your heart that the Lord is God in the heavens above and the earth below and that there is no other.” Because of the solidity and constant presence of the tree, we see in it the strength and stability of God.

When we read the text from Romans, Paul tells us that we are joint heirs with Christ, “if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. The tree has suffered catastrophe, just as Christ experienced death and suffering. Yet, Christ rose from the dead and the tree in its own way came to new life through disaster.

Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus exhorts his followers to “make disciples of all nations,” to “baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” “to observe all that I have commanded you.” He concludes, “I am with you always until the end of the age.” I wonder often how much more eloquently that tree proclaims the Gospel than the staff who by ordinary words preach and teach about Jesus to the retreatants. How much more does that tree show us by its mere presence what it means to obey God? Above all, the tree speaks about God’s constant presence in our lives by its overwhelming glorification of God who endures forever.

Jesus uses many simple images in the Gospel stories. A son leaves home and returns. A woman loses a coin and finds it. A shepherd loses one of his sheep and seeks it out. He talks of the harvest and the grapes. For those familiar with the tree its dignity tells of an enduring love of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The tree, as does nature in general, gives us lessons concerning an all-embracing God who is the Trinity.

Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.