“Who is God for you? Who are you in relationship to this God?” Pondering these questions recently, I savored an image of God that has often stirred my heart in prayer. The image now holds new meaning for me in light of our Dominican charism.
Trees speak to me of who I am in relationship with God. Trees declare God’s glory by simply being. There they stand, majestic and elegant, rooted in the earth, dancing in the breeze. Their growing upright seems to me a miracle: against the universal force of gravity, they sprout upward and extend their branches toward the sky. Soaking in sunlight, they convert that energy into oxygen, which makes life on this planet possible. Birds rest in their branches, and squirrels nest in their trunks. Millions of micro-organisms spawn among their roots. Trees even communicate and share resources with each other through complex social networks. We humans have only begun to learn about their secret processes of growth and regeneration.
I marvel at the beauty of trees. Like the late poet Mary Oliver, “I would almost say that they save me, and daily.” Her poem “When I am Among the Trees” captures their message:
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
Trees remind me to be still and know that I am loved by God, just as I am. They call me to slow down and contemplate beauty. I want to share God’s delight in the goodness of such creation. Trees tell me to reach out for God, the Source of Life, with all my strength and trust that God will provide. I learn from trees how to nurture others: make sure they have food and shelter and clean air to breathe. Trees teach me about the interdependence of all creatures, including humans; only together can we survive and flourish.
Leaves Aflame: The gorgeous Japanese maple
that graces our front yard, filling the chapel window
The image of a tree from Scripture provided significant affirmation in my discernment journey. I attended a mission immersion at my congregation’s motherhouse, named St. Mary of the Springs for a freshwater spring on the property. One afternoon, while practicing yoga in my room, I balanced in tree pose: one leg rooting into the earth, the other bent and resting on my standing leg to form a triangle, arms extending upward. As I held the pose, joy and gratitude filled my heart. I sensed that, in this place, I would be blessed “like a tree planted near streams of water, that yields its fruits in season; its leaves never wither” (Ps. 1:3). Planting myself among the Sisters of this community would, I knew, be a life-giving choice.
Holding Tree Pose: This magazine image “chose me” for an exercise
we did during a day of reflection on art & spirituality
Trees also spoke to Catherine of Siena about who we humans are in relationship with God. Catherine introduces the image of the “tree of charity” to explain that a life of virtue and discernment must be grounded in humility and self-knowledge. In the Dialogue, God instructs Catherine:
Imagine a circle traced on the ground, and in its center a tree sprouting with a shoot grafted into its side. The tree finds its nourishment in the soil within the expanse of the circle, but uprooted from the soil it would die fruitless. So think of the soul as a tree made for love and living only by love. Indeed, without this divine love, which is true and perfect charity, death would be her fruit instead of life. The circle in which this tree’s root, the soul’s love, must grow is true knowledge of herself, knowledge that is joined to me [God], who like the circle have neither beginning nor end… This knowledge of yourself, and of me within yourself, is grounded in the soil of true humility.
Catherine understands that each of us is created by Love and made for love. God encircles me so completely that I cannot come to know myself apart from knowing myself in God and God in me. This is true self-knowledge for Catherine: God is in the soul and the soul is united with God. So planted, the soul-tree blossoms with virtue, bears fruit in grace and blessing, and yields praise to God. God reveals to Catherine, “And so it does what I created it for and comes at last to its goal, to me, everlasting Life.” Catherine sees the Truth of who God is: the Gentle Lover, always already united with us, who draws forth our desire for life.
Preacher of Truth, Female Doctor of the Church:
A statue in St Catherine’s Casa, Siena (Photo courtesy of Cathy Hilkert, O.P.)
Catherine’s beautiful image of the “tree of charity” helps me connect the Dominican charism of Truth with my own experience of who God is for me on this discernment journey.
 Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, trans. Suzanne Noffke. The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 41-42.