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My Teaching Tree

To some, it's just a Christmas tree. To this woman, it's a teacher whose twists and turns reveal her own strengths and weaknesses.

By Judy Schueneman


ILLUSTRATION BY JULIE LONNEMAN

The Tree and Me
Transforming Inner Weaknesses
Let the Ordinary Reveal the Holy
It's About Personality
Loaded Lights and Ornaments

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 tree.

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 tree."

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 share.

The 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 forever.

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.

It's About Personality

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, under construction.

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.

Transforming Inner Weaknesses

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 handle.

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.

Loaded 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 it brings 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.

Let 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 it. Consequently, it is when I simply gaze at its uniqueness and beauty that I 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 deep within.

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, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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