I was perched on a hay bale behind a tractor when I saw it: the tree with the lights in it. It had only a few leaves and it was rather small, especially compared to its more impressive counterparts scattered throughout the 650-acre cattle farm. It sat atop a ridge, illuminated from one side by the setting sun, and something about the angle made its few leaves glimmer like a string of Christmas lights. It glowed. My eyes glanced past it, not registering its brilliance right away, and by the time I looked back, the effect was gone. A fleeting moment of beauty, a flash of God, something ordinary suddenly revealed as sacred.
|The farm at St. Catharine, KY, where I saw my tree. |
It's run by the Dominican Sisters of Peace.
I borrowed the phrase “the tree with the lights in it” from Annie Dillard, who uses it to describe a mystical encounter she had:
“One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focussed and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The lights of the fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
Aren’t our lives like that? We move through our days, and every once in a while something comes along and knocks us off our feet. A loved one reveals a flash of the Divine through a small gesture of love. A strain of birdsong swells our hearts almost to bursting. Let's not overlook these moments! They are moments of clarity, mystical moments, encounters in which we glimpse the love with which God gazes upon us.
|The grave of Thomas (Fr. Louis) Merton|
The other novices and I have been taking a lecture series on mysticism, which Evelyn Underhill describes as “the art of union with reality.” (Think about that for a while… WOW!) Two weeks ago we learned about Thomas Merton, beloved Trappist monk, mystic, and prolific writer. He saw his own “tree with the lights in it” one day in Louisville, KY, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut. At that busy corner, after seventeen years of living under the illusion that his monastic life was somehow separate from the rest of the world, he became:
“overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs… even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)
This weekend we visited the abbey where he spent most of his adult life and is now buried, and we also went to the corner of Fourth and Walnut. It is an unremarkable place, a plain street corner with a urine-stained bicycle rack and a bronze plaque marking the spot. It doesn't seem like a place where someone would have a mystical experience, but I guess God often looks a lot like ordinary life. Maybe that's the key to mysticism.
Annie Dillard has some wisdom to share on this subject, too:
“They went… in search of the Divine, and they found it the only way it can be found, here and there- around the edges, tucked into the corners of the days.” (Teaching a Stone to Talk)
And so, it is in the unexpected and ordinary corners of our lives that we encounter God. Thomas Merton found his at the corner of Fourth and Walnut. Annie Dillard found hers at Tinker Creek. In addition to the tree at the farm, the past few months have brought me a few “corners” of my own:
- Holding hands with a sister who can no longer talk due to a massive stroke, whose sparkling eyes and unassuming smile say more than words could.
- Stopping in my tracks under a brilliant yellow tree during a jog in the park.
- Lingering around the table after dinner with my community, laughing and talking about nothing in particular.
- Getting lost in the rhythms and harmonies of the gospel choir at the church I attend each Sunday.
- Learning about mystics Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen, women who lived centuries ago and continue to reveal Divine truths to us.
- Sitting in the intimate quiet of contemplation with my sisters each morning.
I’m grateful for these corners of encounter, these trees with the lights in them. I pray that their power continues to transform me long after the lights fade.
|Eucharistic chapel at the Benedictine monastery in Ferdinand, IN.|