Seasons of Glory
A tree gives glory to God…by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be, it is imitating an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.
The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like him….For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is, in fact, the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.
Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.
With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
I’m not sure when my love for trees began. Perhaps it was in the fifth grade when we were required to memorize “Trees,” a poem by Joyce Kilmer. As a ten-year-old, the likelihood of trees as icons of prayer enchanted my young imagination, stirring a feeling deep within that was accompanied by a profound sense of wonder. Decades later, I remain captivated by the size and scale of these “cathedrals of nature,” but it’s the seasonal changes of deciduous trees that have come to serve as spiritual guides. Not unlike an artist’s rendering of the metamorphosis that takes place within the landscape of the soul, the seasonal changes of these ambassadors of prayer herald the transformation that takes place during the deepening stages of prayer. The alternating sequence of death and new life bear witness to the cyclical nature of growth, offering visual reassurance to prayer-weary souls that death is but a precursor to new life.
Consider that in the springtime, tiny shoots erupt from budlike cocoons through a process that mirrors the miraculous. Leaves, which only days earlier were barely visible, are transformed into lush, green vegetation, signaling the advent of new life. Just as leaves unfold and mature gradually, so does prayer that resides in the depths of the heart awaken purposefully under the watchful eye of the Creator. In its infancy, the interior cries of the heart are audible only to God, who is quietly at work in the deepest alcoves of the soul. But as hearts respond to God’s initiative, those subtle yearnings find voice in words of praise, thanksgiving, and intercession.
In the early stages, consolations drench the soul like spring showers. The warmth of love’s embrace encourages those in the springtime of prayer to continue the search for a deeper relationship with God. However, if progress is to be made, confronting the shadow side of one’s self is inevitable. Amid storm clouds of past and present sins, tears of contrition glisten like morning dew on sun-drenched leaves. Motivated by a desire to make amends, novice seekers commit to a daily schedule for prayer while basking in the light of another sunrise. Surrounded by the vibrant green of new life and armed with new resolve, hope springs eternal, even as unknown challenges lie ahead.
In God’s own time, spring turns into summer and relentless heat parches the soil of the soul. Just as leaves look monotonously the same when mature, so the initial enthusiasm about prayer seems ordinary and routine. The seeming lack of progress mirrors the slowing of growth evidenced during the summer months. However, such assessments are not to be trusted. Root systems once accustomed to drinking freely from soil dampened by an abundance of rainfall now strain to quench their thirst. Extending their tentacles, they twist and turn first in this direction, then in that, in search of water reserves that lie far inside the belly of the earth. As the root system extends deeper and wider, it becomes stronger, providing greater support for the tree that it nourishes. And so it is with prayer.
The practice of prayer, which had only recently been the heart’s sole desire, is now undertaken with great effort as prayer becomes hard and dry. In the absence of consolation, those who are inexperienced in the ways of God wonder what they might be doing wrong. Heartfelt prayer, once so richly rewarded during the springtime, now seems to go unnoticed by God. Unsure of themselves, people consult others: a confessor, a spiritual director, spiritual books….And so begins the stage that the author of the Song of Songs eloquently described:
On my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves—I sought him but I did not find him.
“Let me rise then and go about the city, through the streets and squares; Let me seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him but I did not find him.
The watchmen found me, as they made their rounds in the city: “Him whom my soul loves—have you seen him?”
Song of Songs 3:1–3
At this stage, those who remain faithful begin to understand that prayer is about seeking the God of consolation rather than the consolations of God. Like the foliage that withers under the heat of the summer sun, aridity during prayer becomes normal. Consumed by distractions and distraught by an unexpected distaste for prayer, the soul languishes, grows weary, and may become discouraged. However, despite the negative impact on spiritual sensibilities, such trials act like fertilizer in the soil of the soul.
Responding to the hidden grace within, those who remain faithful to the path of prayer when aridity threatens to overtake their resolve offer proof that their love for God is more than a passing infatuation. Since temporary lapses are not uncommon during times of drought, self-discipline and perseverance are necessary. This is not the time to abandon prayer but an occasion to rely on a root system that combs the depths in search of living water.
Like an Indian summer, the heat at times seems relentless. Scorched leaves turns brown as the soul burns within, crying out to God for a few drops of water to quench the piercing thirst. At this stage, trusting that God will supply what is needed to grow spiritually is important, for relief will come to those who trust.
Like a sudden afternoon shower that seems to fall from nowhere, God rescues languishing souls, but only in God’s own time. Such relief may come while reading Scripture, watching a sunset, or listening to a symphony. A friendly smile, an act of kindness, the laughter of a child may flood the soul, providing it with much-needed assurance. Regardless of the form relief takes, God will give each person what is needed and at just the right moment. Patience, prayerful listening, and self-discipline during the heat of summer prepares the soul for the autumn months, which herald a need for greater detachment.
External obstacles and suffering are now required for the soul to become single-minded in its search for God. The school of prayer expands its reach and is no longer confined to the interior life. A more established root system requires people who are serious about prayer to relinquish the false gods that previously claimed their allegiance.
As the commitment to prayer grows, obstacles that threaten an ever-deepening relationship with God lose their hold, not unlike leaves that fall from trees in due season. Despite outward appearances, the soul is strengthened as grace supplies what is needed to conform seekers more closely to the image of the Creator.
Just as leaves of green are transformed into a panorama of crimson and gold during frosty nights, in a similar manner, the Divine Artist transforms the soul unseen and in secret. The grasp of lesser gods of power, prestige, and possessions are loosened and gradually fall by the wayside. Veiled in silence and under the shadow of the cross, the agony and the ecstasy of God’s grace are at work. Worldly pleasures lose their attraction as the cross is embraced, a sweet paradox that reassures the soul and becomes a prelude for the winter months that lie ahead.
Like the long dark night of winter, that which transpires in the dark night of the soul is hidden to the external world. Just as snow blankets the earth in silence, so the soul seeks refuge in God alone. Wrapped within the mantle of the divine embrace, it is indifferent to the wind and chill that sends less-advanced souls indoors seeking shelter in the warmth of earlier stages of prayer.
Ironically, as the gradual maturation process continues, the harsh reality of the soul’s unworthiness produces a newfound security. A holy indifference settles the heart as the soul at this stage is content to lie dormant. Despite life’s raging storms—or perhaps because of them—the soul leans in and discovers that its heart is beating in unison with the heart of God. Sweet surrender gives voice to the soul’s solitary cry: “Thy will be done” in imitation of the Master in whose footsteps they follow.
Emboldened by the presence of the indwelling Trinity, the clamor of lesser gods falls silent during winter nights. Nature’s messengers that vied for attention at an earlier time fall mute amid whisperings of the Holy Spirit that descend like drenching rain on the soul. No earthly substance can compare with the lingering certitude of love divine that is neither felt nor seen.
In the absence of sensory satisfaction, happiness is no longer dependent on external circumstances. While on the surface, life may look bland, even distasteful to casual passersby, the soul remains at peace, knowing that it has chosen the better part. Bare branches that once boasted a glorious crown of leaves lie dead, scattered upon a bed of snow. But such sights are deceiving. As springtime beckons, remnants of those same leaves comingle with melting snow that nourishes new growth, mirroring the infusion of grace that awakens the soul.
Rather than signaling the end of growth, this newly discovered contemplative stage signals the onset of labor and the birth of a renewed urgency to build the reign of God on earth. Saint Teresa of Ávila, mystic and spiritual guide, explained that the reason for union with God through prayer is always good works. Prayer is never an end but a means that enables people of prayer to go forth and bear much fruit. The cyclical nature of change and growth is evidenced in nature, experienced in the human heart, and sustained through prayer. The invitation to change is all around us. It’s part of the Christian journey, as Blessed John Henry Newman wrote: “To live is to change and to change often is to become more perfect.”