I never expected to have a conversation with a tree. But that’s why we go on pilgrimages. We go to Assisi for the hope of a stunning encounter, a proverbial mountain-top experience. We return because, as a thin space, the place itself invites us into a deeper understanding of the cosmos, our relationship with the divine, and with creation itself. Often, all we have to do is listen.
Three years ago, I visited the birthplace of Saint Francis for the first time. Standing at the gates of Eremo delle Carceri (or the hermitage of cells), I surveyed the mountainside and the trees. I imagined what Francis and the twelve brothers must have experienced on their “lents,” or forty-day excursions there. Each brother found their own little cave, and they watched each other in pairs. Throughout the time, one of them returning to town to beg for food for the others. Our group would only remain for three hours, but I felt determined to taste what the brothers must have found there.
Our guide laid out the day’s contemplative exercise for us. We were to find an object from nature and “be” with it for twenty minutes. After twenty minutes, she instructed us to engage it in some way. As someone who spoke to the wind and blades of grass as a kid, I jauntily traipsed through the gates onto the wending trails. I followed one up the mountain, carefully avoiding the “expert climbers only” fork until I came to a wall separating the forest from the road. Disappointed to have found the edge, I ambled along the wall, still uncertain of what object I would choose. Suddenly, a bulbous growth caught my peripheral vision. Looking up from the steep path, I found myself gawking at the ugliest tree I had ever seen.
Imagine that a person, short and squat of stature, had been frozen into tree form with their arms stretched out overhead, lumpy face turned towards the sky, mouth gaping open. Except where its chest would have been, a huge, misshapen, twisted growth sagged forward. It looked like a tumor. Indeed, I would almost have imagined the tree howling at the weight of it.
Of course I immediately knew that I would perform our contemplative exercise with this tree. I whipped out my journal and sat before it, willing myself to behold without internal commentary. Mostly, I spent the time trying to shoo away thoughts of how unbelievably diseased this tree looked.
My timer beeped – the twenty minutes had passed; it was time to engage the tree. Without thinking, my mind blurted a question. “Are you happy?” I asked.
An unearthly voice, cold but not unkind, rose in my mind.
“I have stillness and I am whole,” it rang, “what is happiness to me?”
The answer stunned me into silence, as did the foreign sound of the voice. My mind whirled as I grappled with this response. I have always desired happiness (as many of us have). And yet this idea struck me as deeply, profoundly true. If I could live in true stillness, know my wholeness before my creator, what, in fact, could mere happiness add? Or rather, were those two elements the pieces of true happiness, albeit from an arboreal perspective?
While I chewed on these thoughts, the voice in my mind returned. “I know I look sick, but I will be here as long as the others.”
I sat a while longer with the tree, recording this conversation in my journal. I wondered if I even believed it was possible for a tree to speak with me. When our time on the mountain had ended, I thanked it, and gingerly returned down the steep path to the entrance gates. I couldn’t explain what had happened. I still can’t. But as I turn over the words I heard from that tree, I cannot help but recognize that they are true. More than that, they are true in a way I would never have understood on my own.
Each time I go to Assisi, I visit this tree-friend. I have never taken its photo. Perhaps you could say it has been out of respect. But if you come with us to Assisi one day and would still like to see it, I’d be happy to introduce you.