“Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory,while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18 NKJV)
On a recent hike in our city’s Arboretum, I came across a small plaque. It showed the picture of a log cabin, built in the early 1800’s, that stood in that spot until the 1940’s when the Manhattan Project swept almost all the local homesteads away. The plaque told the story of the family that lived there, and the fortunes of its young sons, most of whom died in the American Civil War. It continued their saga up until the time of the cabin’s destruction. It was a story that, no doubt, rhymed with those of other families in the region, with but varying details. The plaque’s purpose, however, was to draw attention to two young oak trees in the photo, standing near the cabin. Those same oaks now stood, some 200 years old, as silent witnesses of all that had passed in the lives of that family. The photo, I thought, gave the trees a voice, a chance to speak of all they had seen.
I had another such experience recently while watching a program on the plight of the American Chestnut. They once comprised about a third of the Eastern forests in America, but were nearly driven to extinction by a blight brought in on imported trees in 1904. The forester in the program noted a few unharmed stands, and the slow efforts to nurture a blight-resistant tree. He noted, off-hand, that he fully expected the Chestnuts to return to something of their previous position over the next thousand years.
Both of these experiences made me think of “tree years,” to consider how the world looks to the slow vision of something that lives for hundreds, even thousands, of years (I was, of course, reminded of Tolkein’s Ents). In a world of 24/7 consumer-oriented “information,” it is difficult to see anything in long, slow, terms. We are increasingly more like mayflies and less like trees.
My grandparents were born in the 19th century, and witnessed the vast changes of the modern landscape. They were country people, largely occupied with farming and such, and were very slow to adopt technology as it came along. Indoor plumbing was quite late for one set of grandparents. I recall watching one grandmother continue to do her laundry outdoors in a set of washtubs (probably procured from a Sears catalogue) even after the plumbing was installed. They never seemed to be caught up in the news of the day or to give much attention to the “wide-world.” They were trees, recalling years of poverty, war, depression, and the constant blur of fashions, while remaining planted where they were, and steady.
The providence of God is far greater and deeper than a tree-story. The gold that we value so much and use in so many ways, was forged somewhere in the supernova of a dying star, eons before our own planet was formed. It is but a trite example of the whole of our existence. We live at a point in time that is but the crest of a wave that has been unfolding for over 13 billion years (at least that’s what they say).
That same notion struck the Psalmist, who wrote:
“When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?” (Psalm 8:3–4)
The work of God’s providence surrounds us at all times, though our hearts are frequently out-of-tune with the eternal hymn of its working. We are deeply aware of every offense against goodness, every tragedy, every rumor of evil, while we constantly ignore how we are preserved in health, delivered from danger, and overshadowed by God’s brooding goodness. In the math of good and evil, the miracle of our very existence seems to be factored as a zero.
There is a great gulf that separates us from the Psalmist. He saw the heavens, and knew only the vaguest evidence of their wonder. At the same time, he lived in a world where infant mortality would have approached 30 percent, and 50 years of age would have been thought of as well-preserved. He would have lived in a world whose dangers, at every moment, far exceed anything that touches our lives. He was, nonetheless, certain that God was mindful of him, and visited him.
I have come to think that the doctrine of divine providence is more readily seen by the old than by the young. For the old, most of life is “in the rear-view mirror,” while, for the young, it rushes towards the windshield at ever-increasing speeds. In hindsight, the hand of God seems clear, and, mostly, unmistakable. It is a mysterious working, particularly when I see good come out of seeming evil.
When most of the Fathers wrote about the divine energies, it was God’s providence they had in mind. St. Gregory Palamas defended the teaching that the energies were sometimes perceived directly as the Uncreated Light. As a young man, I longed to see what St. Gregory described. As an old man, I realize that I too long ignored that vision of the divine energies marveled at by the Psalmist. It is that vision that unfolds most completely for us when we give thanks always and for all things.
The voice of thanksgiving is, without exception, the sound that we can utter that is itself in harmony with the song of the universe. It is filled with tree-knowledge and star-wonder, confounding the lies of the enemy and those who would drown us in darkness. The Uncreated Light manifests itself in the created light, and in all creation that is light, some of which has slowed down enough for us to walk on.
Glory to God who has brought us from non-being into existence and set our feet on the path of praise. Glory to Him in all created things that sing His glory. Glory to Him in tree-friends and star-songs and the wonder of all things.
Photos: At the top – Unknown monks in an unknown tree. At the bottom – Myself and my grandson, Eli, sitting by one of the tree-witnesses mentioned in the article.