EVERY YEAR I TREAT MYSELF TO A TWO-WEEK RETREAT.
The price is affordable, the location convenient and the director
excellent. During the waning days of Advent and throughout the
Christmas season I simply go to my living room in the predawn
hours. There our trimmed Christmas tree, my spiritual director,
stands waiting. This retreat, which I call "Revealing the
Inner Self," has provided me with gradual insights. It has
been, as spiritual growth is wont to be, a process.
Let it first be said that a retreat
of this nature can be done by anyone and can use something other
than a Christmas tree. I have come to realize that each aspect
of the created world reflects something of the God we recognize.
Suzanne Zuercher observes as much in her book Enneagram Spirituality:
From Compulsion to Contemplation: "God is everywhere.
God is in the Scriptures--and the music and the liturgy and the
novel and the daily newspaper...." Any person, place or object
can become an occasion for prayer. For me it has been our Christmas
My initial experience began the year
my husband and I bundled up our six small children for the adventure
of cutting down our own tree. As it happened, we went to a tree
farm that had only short-needled and, I must add, sparsely branched
trees. Heretofore we had spent a lot of time and money getting
the "perfect" Christmas tree. But this year the tree
that found its way to the trunk of our car had done so because
of my husband's tact and the overriding enthusiasm of the kids,
not due to my personal stamp of approval!
Hardly a pleased purchaser, I complained
every mile of the 40 we drove home. It was our oldest child, only
10 at the time, who set my transformation in gear when he said,
"Don't worry, Mom. It'll be just like Charlie Brown's tree
when it's decorated. Wait and see." He was right! And so
it happened that this scraggly conifer became my first "teaching
Since that time our family has spurned
the lure of advertisements offering artificial trees, regardless
of their price. Instead, we have made it our tradition to head
for a tree lot on December 22 or 23 and select a tree overlooked
by earlier shoppers.
For some 15 years these orphan trees
have been trustworthy revealers of my strengths and weaknesses,
my foibles and idiosyncrasies, as well as my countless blessings.
During the years of listening, I've become more and more aware
of the commonality we humans and our leafy--or in this case needle-y--friends
Tree and Me
The most basic similarity between trees
and humans is the manner in which growth occurs. Both make their
appearance--be it through the ground or birth canal--with genetic
components in place. But the unique shape a tree takes, like the
personality a person develops, happens when it begins to make
adaptations to cope with its environment and achieve what is necessary
for acceptance, if not survival.
When we bring the untrimmed tree into
the house, it's easy to see how the tree has adapted in order
to survive. The stunted limb or the "bad side" may well
have happened because another tree was too close, denying it the
opportunity to grow. Perhaps the particular branch grown longer
than the others did so to compensate for an apparent weakness--almost,
it would seem, as a means of getting attention. The bend in the
trunk makes one wonder, "Who or what may have stepped on
the tree in its fledgling stage?" Its direction was affected
A tree, by its very nature, seems gifted
by God to be a teacher of spiritual insights. During my annual
Christmas-tree retreats I have come to know myself in a much deeper
way than I would have by looking in a mirror. Mirrors distort
an image; our Christmas trees have allowed me to see myself as
I truly am. They indicate areas where growth is needed and reveal
a veritable cornucopia of blessings.
Although it would be some five years
before the word enneagram would sound in my ears, our first
"Charlie Brown tree" served to identify me as an enneagram
"type one": a person whose compulsion is to be perfect.
Enneagram experts suggest that people like me feel acceptable
to others only when we are perfect.
I might have said I experienced disappointment
that cold winter day at the tree farm. Actually, it made me angry
that this species of evergreen did not meet my standards. After
all, in my own self-perception, for me to be perfect it was vital
that my children, my cooking, my home, even my Christmas tree
were too! Seeing that first tree transformed became a powerful
lesson in redemption. I learned to lighten up and to choose my
battles, but most of all I learned that seeming imperfections
are an entry point for God.
I think, too, of the tree with the
three-pronged top which revealed my dominant personality trait:
intuition, the ability to envision possibilities. My policy has
always been, "Why stop with one idea when a second or third
might be better?" That year, rather than one angel singing
a solo atop the tree, it was as if we had a choir of angels!
Another tree revealed my tendency to
go off on a tangent without consulting or being concerned about
others. One branch had grown way beyond the confines of the tree's
basic shape, throwing it out of symmetry. The errant branch bothered
me (It wasn't perfect, you see!) until I heard its message: "Take
a look at yourself! You need to become more attuned to others.
Perhaps you can trim this tendency to shoot off on your own in
the coming year." It became a reminder that I am, indeed,
In learning more about my family of
origin, I have become aware of a bend or two in the trunk of our
family tree. I have come to understand that what happened before
my time is beyond my control, much like the tree run over when
small. Yet my choice to recognize my weaknesses and make them
sources of strength will help me to lighten the burden of bends
and twists for future generations.
Just as the unadorned tree readily
reveals its weaknesses, so does any decorated tree become a thing
of beauty. In a manner of speaking, a trimmed Christmas tree is
a symbol of the redeemed self, a person who has been touched and
transformed by God. How does this happen? In countless ways, as
I have learned during my annual two-week retreats!
My instructor for "Transformation
101" happened to be a small basket-shaped ornament made from
half an eggshell. It simply said, "You must first recognize
your brokenness, my dear. Then be open to God's working in your
life." The little basket walked its talk, for it had been
totally transformed by a red gingham covering and a dainty ribbon
No victim of the wastebasket this eggshell!
"See," it seemed to say, "God can work wonders
because of your brokenness. By your being open, wonderful
changes can happen!"
This came home to me the year our tree
revealed a personal weakness in a manner which made me laugh.
As one who sees the big picture, details have never been my forte.
In fact, my inability to remember details could well be termed
a gap in my personality. This tree, like me, had a gaping hole,
but guess what? The bare spot had been filled perfectly by a paper-plate
wreath our youngest daughter had made years before in nursery
school. It couldn't have been more fitting, for it was she whom
I tapped to help me remember the time of an appointment, the place
I had stashed a particular item or the name of a fast-approaching
person! As it happened, my weakness had become a place for God
to enter (quite fittingly as a child!) and move me toward wholeness.
Lights and Ornaments
I have come to see, as well, over and
over again how God is present in my life. We have almost 200 ornaments
on our tree; each has a story to tell. In her book The Star
in My Heart: Experiencing Sophia, Inner Wisdom, Joyce Rupp,
O.S.M., writes words with which I truly resonate: "Sometimes
something external can trigger a treasured memory." By reflecting
on a particular ornament, I, too, have been taken "inside
to where light and happiness dwell."
Certain ornaments have been gifts from
persons who have fallen out of our lives, yet who have touched
us. Others represent places we went or special events. Each adds
to the tree's beauty, much as people and experiences add dimension
to my personhood.
So many of the ornaments have been
made by our children over the years; each has an inner message.
I think of the one made from an egg-carton section covered with
macaroni. It reminds me to pack as much fun into life as our little
Brownie put pasta on her ornament! The candle made from a toilet-paper
roll by a kindergartner speaks of the need to "make do with
whatcha got," while another's prize-winning free-form ornament
says, "It's O.K. to be different."
On our first scraggly tree we strung
popcorn to fill the many bare spaces
in the sparse branches; this, too, has become a tradition. How
the tree to life! It symbolizes the old-fashioned family fun we
had through the years. Tinsel is placed sparingly, strand by strand
on the branches. It points out that, although ours is a simple
life, we do like a little glitter in it now and then!
The lights, again the old-fashioned
kind, speak of values imparted early in our lives. The blue bulbs
speak of truth, the green represent hope, the red symbolize love,
the yellow lights joy, and the white--made up of all colors--humility:
knowing that all we have and are is a gift from God.
On occasion my gaze will fix on a certain
color. Doing so, my eyes wander from bulb to bulb of that hue.
Perhaps one day I look deeply at the blue lights, reflecting on
basic truths to which I hold. Another day it might be yellow that
catches my eye and I recount joyful moments.
The angel perched atop keeping vigil
over the tree symbolizes our guardian angel. Throughout the years
it has kept careful watch, seeing us through incidents such as
scrapes with the kids, my husband's open-heart surgery and Mom's
struggle with terminal cancer.
the Ordinary Reveal the Holy
Lest you think each tree, each morning,
is a source of revelation, let me say that some mornings go by
with few, if any, glimmerings of insight
from my director. It is when I go open and accepting that I am
most apt to encounter the divine.
Somehow, realizing that the tree's
days are numbered makes me more aware of the need to appreciate
Consequently, it is when I simply gaze at its uniqueness and beauty
am blessed with insights. Kathleen
Fischer, in her book Autumn Gospel: Women in the Second Half
of Life, writes, "The root meaning of the word contemplation
is to gaze attentively at something. If we look long and lovingly
at someone or something, we have time to capture its uniqueness
and depth. We learn the power of the ordinary to reveal the holy."
That is precisely what happens in graced
moments during my retreats. The awareness of having encountered
the divine is verified, if you will, when I feel a tear trickle
down my cheek that came, without my bidding, from the wellspring
Taking the teaching tree down at the
end of the season has become a rite in itself. As it is undressed--the
ornaments and angel packed carefully away, the popcorn and tinsel
removed, the lights unstrung from the branches--I come to an ever-deepening
awareness with each passing year: Our Christmas tree is more than
a means to celebrate the season. It is a means to celebrate who
I am and, even more, who I am becoming. The tree, from its bare
branches to the fullness of its glory, teaches me what it means
to be transformed by God.
Judy Schueneman is a free-lance
writer who lives in Jackson, Kentucky. She and her husband of
36 years have raised six children and now share the job of pastoral
director at Holy Cross Parish, a priestless parish. She has an
M.A. in pastoral studies from the College of Mount St. Joseph,