Vibrancy and Dormancy

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I’d driven to an area where Sandhill Cranes often stop to rest during their winter migration. Not too far away was an open and dry fen dressed in its autumn blonde and gold. At its lowest point a small brook meanders past poplars, scrubby shrubs, and wild grasses. This little tributary turns into a full sized creek when rains are heavy. Creek or brook, it eventually meets up with a larger river several miles downstream.

Large tussocks of grass grew on the banks. I’d decided to rest awhile, and pushed aside the fronds of a nearby tuft and sat on the leafy mound. The water was cold and clear, and glistened in the bright October afternoon. Through the knee-deep water the algae coated stones and pebbles on the stream bed were easy to see.

A lemon-yellow lance-shaped leaf from a locust tree, with tips upturned like a tiny canoe, floated and bobbed in rhythm with the current’s ripples. The leaf sped around an oxbow and spun in the little rapids created by stones and sticks. As it came to the next bend it was caught in an eddy and stopped its forward progression. There it sat nearly motionless as other leaves passed. Eventually something in the water’s movement lifted the golden leaf from the calm and back into the current.

Rapid movement…then stillness…

My thoughts drifted to my journey as a Benedictine Oblate and I remembered reading a quote by Fr. Gabriel, OCD, about the “double movement of charity.”[i] As an Oblate I am called to action and service in the busy flow of the world, with all its turbulence and determined forward movement. I am also called to the quiet eddy of prayer where I can rest in silence. In either situation the goal is to unite my efforts to God’s will “…fusing the love of God and the love of neighbor into one and the same love…”[ii]

I am a beginner, a novice at this work of action and contemplation. The balance of these two loves—of God and neighbor—is not yet easily attained. I prefer peeking around the window sash of my cloistered rooms to stepping through the door of the shelter in town—where all its noises, smells, and emotions overwhelm my senses. My nature is toward a quiet salvation of souls rather than to overt evangelization.

Sitting on the bank, my attention was drawn back to the brook as a bright red maple leaf got caught in the eddy—and surprisingly one of its winged seeds with it. The leaf was a glorious vibrant red in the mid-day sun and the spinner dull, dried and wrinkled. There they rested, side by side—vibrancy and dormancy.

Soon enough an unseen movement lifted them back into the flow. The leaf, with its unmistakable color shouting the glory of God, went ahead. Soon to follow was the unremarkable seed.

As I walked up the bank and across the field to the car I was comforted by, or rather, comfortable in my plainness. It is the unadorned seed that may eventually bear fruit.


[i] Divine Intimacy, Father Gabriel of Saint Mary Magdalen, OCD, p. 999.

[ii] Ibid, p.1000.

Image by Jerzy Gorecki at pixabay.com.

Chestnuts at Christmas, A Garden Catechism

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Edible Sweet chestnuts or European chestnuts, Castanea sativa. Image by Clarita, morguefile.com

Those lovely, smooth, shiny-brown chestnuts we enjoy during the Christmas season are pretty rugged looking at the start.

The American chestnut tree, Castanea dentata, is native to eastern North America, and nearly died out in the early 1900s from an imported blight.

Its Latin name castanea is derived from the city Castanis in Asia Minor where the sweet chestnut, Castanea sativa, has been cultivated for centuries. It was introduced throughout Europe during Roman times and grown in many monastery gardens. It’s not unusual to find trees over 1000 years old in Great Britain.

Sweet chestnut or European chestnut, Castanea sativa. Image by Magnus Manske, (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Castanea_sativa_%27Sweet_Chestnut%27_(Sagaceae)_nut.JPG)

Sweet chestnut or European chestnut, Castanea sativa. Image by Magnus Manske, (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Castanea_sativa_%27Sweet_Chestnut%27_(Sagaceae)_nut.JPG)

The sweet chestnut tree produces large round thorny burrs that encase a single nut. It is this hull configuration, and regrowth habit, that earned it the moniker, God’s Fruit.

The thorny hull evokes the torment of Jesus. Also associated with its spiny hull are the concepts of chastity and purity, a fruit protected. The Latin name castanea contains the root word castus which means chaste and pure. And it is here that it alludes to the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception—Mary though surrounded by original sin is immune to it.

The chestnut tree in paintings points to the Resurrection. Trees that are grown for their wood can be cut nearly to the ground every few years. The practice, called coppicing, results in vigorous regrowth of numerous long straight shoots.

Carlo Crivelli, The Madonna of the Little Candle, 1470 (image public domain).The brocade pattern on the cloth beneath Mary’s feet are chestnut leaves.

Carlo Crivelli, The Madonna of the Little Candle, 1470. The brocade pattern of the cloth beneath Mary's feet are chestnut leaves.

El Greco, right panel, Modena Triptych, 1568 (image public domain). Image found at Byzantine Historical Museum, http://bit.ly/1whqI8r. The baptism of Jesus under chestnut tree.

El Greco Baptism Jesus

Filippino Lippi, The Adoration of the Child, 1480 (image public domain). The two chestnut trees in the background are thought to represent the Immaculate Conception and the Resurrection.

Madonna in ADoration Filippino

George Jacobus Johannes Van Os, Grapes Strawberries Chestnuts an Apple and Spring Flowers, c.1838 (Image found at APA, http://bit.ly/1wgO6CZ).

 

Walnuts, Thanksgiving, and A Garden Catechism

walnut shell

Image from morguefile.com

If we are busy with families, we usually prepare or share in a Thanksgiving Day fare. One of the popular ingredients for that day is often the walnut. I love it in apple or broccoli salads, autumn harvest pies, or—as my grandmother often did with her Henry Quackenbush nutcrackers—unshelled in a bowl.

The black walnut, Jugulan nigra, is native to the eastern United States and the bane of most gardeners. The walnuts we are more accustomed to eating are the English walnut, Jugulans regia, which are not native, being introduced on the west coast by Franciscan monks in 1769.

Because of its tough outer hull and woody shell, the nut symbolizes the protection of precious contents. It can also symbolize the Holy Trinity, Christ, matrimony, and fertility because of it copious amounts of fruit!

Lucia Impelluso writes, in Nature and Its Symbols:

In Christian culture in general, the image of the walnut, with its three parts, is associated with the Trinity. Saint Augustine…asserts that the nut may be considered a symbol of Jesus Christ. According to this interpretation, the outer hull represents the flesh, the wood shell stands for the cross, and the kernel alludes to Christ’s divine nature. Generally speaking, the image of the walnut in art should be read in this light.

Many scholars assume that the grove of nut trees that Solomon went into searching for love (Song 11:6) were Persian walnuts, now commonly called English.

The green hull encasing the shelled nut can be steeped to produce a rich brown dye. During Jesus time the walnut trees grew around the Sea of Galilee. Some scholars propose that his cloak was dyed, probably by his mother, from the walnut casings.

The single walnut at the bottom of this painting indicates the divine child in Mary’s arms. Wallraf-RichartzMuseum, Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece, The Virgin of the Walnut, 1500-1510. (Image public domain)walnut virgin

Jesus standing under a walnut tree represents his divine nature and the fruitfulness of his ministry. National Gallery of London, The Baptism of Christ, Piero della Francesca, 1448-1450. (Image public domain)walnut baptism

St. Anthony near the end of his life, and from his desire for solitude, had a tree house built in a walnut tree as a hideaway in Camposampiero, Italy. The tree, symbolizing the Holy Trinity, sheltered him halfway between heaven and earth. This paining, being one of many portraying his hideaway in the branches, is Saint Anthony in the Walnut Tree (with two saints: St. Jerome, St. Francis of Assisi), Lazzaro Bastiani, 1505. (Image public domain)

walnut st anthony

 

In the Shadow of Birds

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Image morguefile.com

I did not see the migrating birds as they flew past, nor did I hear their calls. What I did see was fifty, maybe a hundred, small darting shadows cross over the lawn and my arms. Suddenly I felt heavy in the shadow of birds and my heart longed for home.

Where I live is within the flyway of several species of birds. It’s not unusual in the fall to stop the car when driving along farm lanes and wait on cranes coming in low, legs down, wings cupped, landing easily in marshes or corn fields.

The timing of their migrations are controlled primarily by the changes in sunlight. The day length signals the seasonal movement from the region of spring breeding to the place of wintering rest.

There is an instinctive stirring of such birds to migrate, an internal movement of the spirit towards a home. It is not the same as a journey, which is an irregular and singular event. Migration is done seasonally, aroused by light, and usually follows a path of food along the route.

There is seasonality to my prayer life as well; aroused by The Light my spirit yearns towards an eternal home. It too follows a route of nourishment.

As daylight hours decrease, a faith-filled migration draws me towards the Feast of Christ the King and Advent, and the contemplative resting in the abundance of His gifts. I am just as drawn in a few months, in the lengthening of days, to an active Lent and will long for new life and fresh air in my faith.

Like the flock of little birds that passed overhead, I am heartened by the coming winter—seasonally and temporally—to find rest.

(Image by Alvimann at morguefile.com)

Graces from Gleditsia

Image morguefile.com

It was one of those perfect fall days when the clear cerulean sky contrasted the vivid reds and yellows of the maples, poplars, and the honey locust in my yard.

Settling into this house in 1988 one of the first things I did on the property, after removing all the trash and debris, was add trees. It takes time for trees to fill in the landscape. So during the time of roof repairs, plumbing and furnace upgrades, and painting, the trees grew on.

Eventually the time came to develop the gardens, and then a few decades later it was time to tear them out. Through it all, the trees remained.

My favorite tree, now matured to over forty feet high, is the Skyline Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis ‘Skycole’). It’s a thorn-less Locust variety (inermis in Latin means unarmed) and half the height of its native cousins.

The dark gray limbs are sturdy through storms, flexing without shattering in gusting winds or heavy snows, and have a lovely curve to them—an elegant feminine line. It leafs out in the spring in a neon chartreuse turning to a bright Kelly green by summer. Small pinnate leaves offer open dappled shade and raking is never an issue. This variety lacks seed pods. I’ve never had issues with any diseases or pests warned about in the literature. I’ve called it “that blessed tree”—for its shade, for its beauty, for its endurance.

The other day I gathered my lunch and a rosary, and went to sit under its boughs to rest.

The sky was clear and the sunlight crisp. A light and stirring breeze caused the poplar leaves to chatter and, as I walked under the locust, a cascade of shimmering yellow began to fall.

Each small leaf reflected the sunlight as it fell. Bits of gold danced around me and I was elated by the tiny leaves that landed on my head and arms.

I imagined the blessings of God to be much the same as those golden leaves—small and cumulative, bearing light. We may not take as much notice of God’s blessings when they come one by one. But looking back at all the mercies in life, the cascade of light is thrilling.