The Theology of Trees

After our wedding, my wife and I had the opportunity to spend several days in the Olympic Peninsula. It was impossible not to be impressed by the beauty, venerability, and the fragility of the ancient forests. Some of the fragility is due to nature itself. I noticed this after I observed a “colonnade” of young spruce trees growing rather conspicuously on a fallen “nurse” log and then realized that most of their fellow seeds that had fallen on the forest floor had almost no chance for survival. And, of course, some of the fragility is the result of human actions.

I was also struck by the fragility of our language to describe the theological significance of these trees. It is common now to hear talk of our “kingship” or “stewardship” over nature. These terms are indisputably biblical – usually drawn from Genesis. But they are easily misinterpreted. The Orthodox Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, in a recent lecture at Fordham, said that, although our kingship is meant to be “a true icon of the divine kingship,” we often display “the arrogant and insensitive mentality” found in the more readily available accounts of earthly kings. As for stewardship, Bishop Kallistos warns, “It could be taken as implying a utilitarian, managerial approach to nature, such as regards the world around us as an ‘asset’ to be developed and exploited.”

But there is a third model, which I’ve already described here. Bishop Kallistos says that we are called to be priests of the creation, offering the praise of our fellow creatures as thankfulness to our Creator. But, if we are to transform the world into a “eucharistic offering,” we must be aware of two things. First, there cannot be an authentic priestly offering without sacrifice, without bearing the cross. Bishop Kallistos quotes the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I:

There can be no salvation for the world, no healing, no hope of a better future, without the missing dimension of sacrifice. Without a sacrifice that is costly and uncompromising, we shall never be able to act as priests of the creation in order to reverse the descending spiral of ecological degradation … Without sacrifice there can be no blessing and no cosmic transfiguration.

Second, there can be no priestly offering without love. “It is love that expresses the image of God within us, love that enables each of us to act as priest of the creation, offering the world back to the Creator with thanksgiving.” Some of us too narrowly constrict the boundaries of our love. Bishop Kallistos writes:

This love that gives meaning to our human personhood is to be extended, beyond our fellow human beings, to all levels of the creation. In the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81), “Love all God’s creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything.” I recall how, when I was a deacon at the Monastery of St John the Theologian on Patmos in the 1960’s, our geronta or elder, Father Amphilochios (who died in 1970), used to say to us, “Do you know that God gave us one more commandment, which is not recorded in Scripture? It is the commandment, ‘Love the trees.'” Whoever does not love the trees, so he believed, does not love Christ. “When you plant a tree,” he told us, “you plant hope, you plant peace, you plant love, and you will receive God’s blessing.”

An ecologist long before ecology had become fashionable, when hearing the confessions of the local farmers, Father Amphilochios used to assign to them as a penance the task of planting a tree. Nor was this all. He would himself go around the isalnd to see how they were carrying out their penance, whether they were keeping their tree-penance properly watered, whether they were making sure that it was not eaten by goats. Under his influence, the centre of the island has been transformed: where, a century ago, there were bare and barren slopes, today there are flourishing groves of pine and eucalyptus. “Love the trees,” Father Amphilochios insisted. Do we not find there, in his emphasis upon love, the answer to the ecological problem? We cannot save what we do not love.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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