I was at Vina for three days when Bernard gave me a tour of the grounds around the Monastery. As we drove around he pointed out the trees, some being very old. He then pointed to a small group of trees, large ones or so it seemed to me. Then he told me that they were 400 year old Redwood trees. I had a sudden change of perspective and instead of seeing them as rather large trees and ancient; I saw them as being young and small, far from the height that they would reach if they ever lived out their many millennium long growth. This is the first time I saw a Redwood tree that was not a Bonsai, so it was quite an experience for me.
Later than evening I went out to look at them and was amazed at how slow they grow, but as the years go by they becoming more stately and beautiful. Even in old age many get scarred and twisted, but I have found that is also a form of beauty, reached after many years of hard struggle to survive. They are deeply rooted in the earth, present always to the moment and patient with their growth cycle and not worried that they are capable of living for thousands of years.
People on the other hand, possibly grow just as much as a redwood will in its long life in their short lifetime. That is why old age, as hard as it is, and I am beginning to experience that reality, is a time of life that is possibly the most important. Yet in our culture it is seen as the opposite and something to be ashamed of. Everyone wants to look young, even if it kills them to do so. Yet I believe we should be proud of our scars, of our worn out bodies, as well as the hard choices we have made in life to become more mature human beings, more loving and compassionate. No, old age is not easy, but for many of us today, it is the crown jewel of our lives.
In the years I have been in the Monastery, I always noticed that the monks here when they reached a certain age, many of them begin to change. Their lives become simpler, they prayed/mediated more, and became gentler with others. Not all, some did have the usual human problems with memory, dementia, and personality quirks. Yet even they changed their focus. They wanted to live, but were unafraid to die. They wanted us to take care of their pain, but when we could not for whatever reason, they were still peaceful about it. They know that this life is important, for it is here that we choose, grow, and are transformed into the people that God made us to be. Yes old age is our final struggle, we get through it, and we are not ashamed of our age.
Perhaps when death is not seen as the end, when life is a pilgrimage, it is then that passing away takes on a different hue from say those who believe otherwise. We are becoming something here and by the grace of God and our own inner choices we become beings that are filled with love, or sadly perhaps some into something else. We become more human and loving or more into what we love the most, or cling to in our deep inner freedom that only God sees.
Redwood trees as beautiful and awesome as they are, do not feel pain, nor do they have to choose, they are deeply rooted in the earth and in that they become something truly fabulous. Human beings are called as well to become works of art, we do that by our choices, many hard ones, by dying to a small life of self centeredness to a expansive one where our humanity becomes fully into what it is meant to be.
God law is written in our hearts, thus no one can judge another, or pretend that they know better than others. In that we either grow by allowing God’s will (law) to work in us or not….how that works I don’t know, nor is it my business, my intent is to become what I am made to be…..what that is, I do not yet know. St. Paul talks about a seed, then the tree. Both the same life, but different, totally different…..resurrected humanity, what is that? Well perhaps the redwood tree can help us; it is something glorious, and deeply rooted in reality, that grows slowly over a long period time. Like us, in our lives, we have many ups and downs, so our growth can seem slow and tedious, but something is going on deep in our souls that perhaps will only bear fruit when we become into the mystery of what God wants us to be. Until then, we take root and through patient endurance we grow.
Mark Dohle is a lifelong Cistercian monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA.