The Christmas Tree, Icon of Wisdom

An icon of the Tree of Life. (Source)

Perhaps the most ubiquitous tradition of Christmas in America is decorating a Christmas tree. Whether live or artificial, green or white, festooned in tinsel or bedecked with bells, the Christmas tree is the image that adorns all our houses and heralds the coming of the Yuletide. And not just the houses of Christians. Many who celebrate Christmas as a merely secular holiday will still put up a tree. It just wouldn’t really feel like Christmas without it.

One of the better meditations on the meaning of the Christmas tree. (Source)

Yet the Christian discerns in this symbol something more than just a festive sign of the season.

First, a short excursus about symbols in general. Metaphor opens the speaker to the experience of “augmented reality,” though not at all in the way that phrase has come to be understood in the world of cheap tricks and tacky technology. Pokemon Go is not a metaphor. It’s just an add-on. It discerns nothing essential and establishes no real connections between unlike objects. Metaphor can. The truer the metaphor, the firmer the connection. It’s a dialectical process. Or, if you like a Trinitarian one: two unlike things are drawn together by the speaker, thus forming an entirely new third.

The Sophianic potential of language lies in metaphor. Name and metaphor permit us to imprint, image, and discern a level of reality beyond the merely immediate and sensible. That is why metaphor is impossible in the face of the Beatific Vision. All words die away, since the soul experiences the most heightened level of reality – Being itself.

Sophianic vision relies upon this kind of metaphorical thinking. Without dissolving the dogmas of the faith, Sophiology reads them sideways so as to gain an insight into the mystical realities more properly understood via poetry than, say, the logical language of the manuals. American Sophiologist Dr. Michael Martin has called for a “poetic metaphysics” by which we more potently discern the presence of God in His Wisdom, seen throughout Creation.

What would this “poetic metaphysics” look like beyond textual confines? That is, what would it look like if people actually lived out this search for the Wisdom of God?

For one thing, the soul that sees all in Wisdom will be always immersed in metaphor. The eyes of their heart would discern the connection of lower things to the higher. This is not mere cataphasis, the use of images in prayer. I mean that the daily impressions of life are experienced as taking place on more than one level of reality. The events of the day are read as symbols and metaphors. We encounter this in the life of the Ven. Seraphina di Dio:

The Ven. Seraphina (Source)

“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”

-Ven. Seraphina di Dio

Such is one example of sapiential living. We might turn to another. Over at Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has furnished a charming passage from St. John of Karpathos:

St. John of Karpathos (Source)

Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and ex­treme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect : ‘If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’ (2 Thess. 3 : 1o). The spider is far more silent than Pythagoras, whom the ancient Greeks admired more than any other philosopher because of the control that he exercised over his tongue. Although Pythagoras did not talk with everyone, yet he did speak occasionally in secret with his closest friends; and often he lavished nonsensical remarks on oxen and eagles. He abstained altogether from wine and drank only water. The spider, however, achieves more than Pythagoras: it never utters a single word, and abstains from water as well as from wine. Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work – nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps . 1 1 3 : 5-6 . LXX), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.

-St. John of Karpathos

One could name many other saints who exhibit this Sophianic tendency of vision through metaphor. For St. Paul of the Cross, as Fr. Faber notes,

St. Paul of the Cross, arguably the greatest Catholic mystic of the 18th century. (Source)

“…everything served to remind him of God, and he used to imagine that all creatures cried out to entreat the love of man for Him who made them. He was often observed, when walking in the fields, to gaze earnestly at the flowers as he went along and to touch them with his stick, saying, ‘Hold your tongues; hold your tongues!’ And he used to tell his religious that the flowers were always calling upon them to lift up their hearts in love and adoration toward their heavenly Creator.”

-Fr. Faber, All For Jesus, Ch. 6, pg. 153

When carefully fostered in the soul – usually by ascetic rigors and conscious efforts of love – it ceases to be merely Sophianic and takes on an iconographic character, such that everything in our field of sensible experience becomes a symbol of union with the higher realm it represents. Namely, God. Thus can we preserve the presence of God in our waking hours out of prayer.

So what does this have to do with Christmas trees?

The decoration of a Christmas tree is, in a certain sense, a concrete realization of this process. Bringing a part of the natural world into our home imprints something of the human and thus of the spiritual. We can see this with animals who have been domesticated. Cats and dogs become part of the family. We discern their personalities. They are not just “dog” but “Buster” or “Gabby.” Thus, name and metaphor go hand in hand in elevating the merely natural to something approximating the human.

We don’t personalize Christmas trees. But in placing them in our homes and filling them with glittering lights and baubles, we heighten the tree into something more than what it was. As we were commanded to do in Eden, we improve the creation and make it radiant. We lend it a new beauty, the fruit of our Godlike creativity. We place a star or an angel at its peak, and a reminder of Our Lord’s Nativity at its base. Thus we turn it into a little Tree of Life, reaching between Heaven and Earth, the natural world manifested in the splendor of its potential divinization.*

In other words, the power of metaphor allows us to experience the tree as something more than what it is at the purely material level. It becomes for us an icon of Holy Wisdom, of Christ abiding in His redeemed Creation.

I am reminded of today’s O Antiphon.

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

-O Antiphon for 17 Dec.

These words are manifested in so many ways throughout time and space. They don’t just belong to Advent. Yet the Christmas Tree can (if we come to it with a Sophianic imagination) serve as one meditative example of Wisdom “sweetly ordering all things” in this holy season.

An icon of Holy Wisdom (Source)

It’s no surprise that Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov wrote favorably of the Christmas Tree.

*I realize of course that not all families use real trees, and that they don’t all place a Nativity under it. But even here, the power of metaphor enters in. In calling an assemblage of wire or aluminum or plastic a “tree,” we are already entering into the world of metaphor and artifice. In that case, we are only one degree removed from what I have described above.

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Elsewhere: Pater Edmund on Goggles, Cranmer on Bishop Philip North

PhilipNorth

The Rt. Rev. Philip North, Bishop of Burnley. Alumnus of St. Stephen’s House. (Source).

I refer you this morning to two excellent pieces I had the good fortune of reading last night. The first is a winsome yet profound meditation on goggles by Pater Edmund Waldstein O.Cist. of Stift Heiligenkreuz. Right out of the gate, Peregrine Magazine is putting forward excellent content. Here’s an excerpt:

Putting them on, I suddenly remembered why I spent so much time swimming as a child. What a world opens up! Looking down: the still forest of water plants, the rays of the sun lighting up the particles of algae. Looking up: the strange silver shield of the surface with the blazing sun above it. And the freedom of movement of swimming! The rigid postures of life on land yield to the wonderful abandon of the water. (What sense of freedom is that, I wonder).

Among other things, I was stunned and somehow delighted to learn that the good monks of Heiligenkreuz are permitted to swim in a lake.

The second offering I have for you is a piece posted by Archbishop Cranmer. In it, he quotes at length from a recent address given by Bishop Philip North of the C of E. Bishop North is no stranger to controversy, having been shunted out of his appointment as Metropolitan of Sheffield due to his (orthodox, Biblical, and traditional) view that women cannot be priests.

…When my old Parish in Hartlepool, a thriving estates Church, was vacant a few years ago, it was over two years before the Bishop could appoint. Clergy didn’t want to live in that kind of area, they didn’t want their children educated alongside the poor – you’ll know the litany of excuses. At the same time a Parish in Paddington was advertised and at once attracted 122 expressions of interest. That is the true measure of the spiritual health of the Church of England.

This phenomenon is, incidentally, a good argument for a celibate clergy. If you don’t have children, you don’t have to worry about their safety and upbringing when it comes to ministry. But I digress. More from Bishop North:

…we need to reflect on the content of our proclamation. There is a perception that there is a single, verbal Gospel message that can be picked up and dropped from place to place. ‘Christ died for our sins.’ ‘Life in all its fullness.’ Those well-known statements which so easily trip off the Christian tongue. But the Gospel is not a message. It is a person, Jesus Christ, and the way he speaks into different contexts and situations differs from place to place. If you turn up on an estate with nice, tidy complacent answers to questions no one is asking, they will tear you to shreds. Successful evangelism begins with intense listening, with a profound desire to hear the issues on people’s minds and a genuine open heart to discern how Jesus speaks into them. If you’re in debt, what is the good news? If you’re dependent on a foodbank to feed your children, what is the good news? If you’re cripplingly lonely and can’t afford the bus into town, what is the good news? Simple formulae, or trite clichés about God’s love won’t do as answers to these questions.

This is sound Christian wisdom for all, not just Anglicans. It reminds me of the old Anglo-Catholic radicalism that animated such priests as St. John Groser, V.A. Demant, not to mention Mervyn Stockwood (before he publicly debated Monty Python), Ken Leech, and the late, great layman R.H. Tawney. Anglo-Catholicism has long been a hotbed of Christian Socialism, but a very peculiar kind. Like almost everything Anglo-Catholic, there is a note of eccentricity about their politics. These are, after all, the same people who venerate Charles I as a Martyr. Yet the prevalence of Christian Socialist ideas among Anglo-Catholics of the classical period was so great that in 1918 a priest could place an ad in The Church Times for one “healthy revolutionary, good singing voice” (quoted in Spurr 78). In his authoritative study of T.S. Eliot’s religion, ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’ : T.S. Eliot and Christianity, Barry Spurr tells us of the man popularly known as the “Red Vicar”:

Perhaps the most famous [Anglo-Catholic country parish], apart from Hope Patten’s Walsingham…was Conrad Noel’s parish church at Thaxted, in the diocese of Chelmsford, where elements of Roman Catholicism were combined with neo-mediaevalism and extreme socialism. (Spurr 78).

ConradNoel

Rev. Conrad Noel. (Source).

Bishop North is cut from this cloth, having attended St. Stephen’s House for his theological studies. While I can’t confirm this, the House’s Wikipedia page says that “Many former students, in the tradition of the college, go on to minister in urban priority areas and parishes which suffer poverty and deprivation.” I am proud that I, too, will be an alumnus of that same college, steeped as it is in some of the better traditions of English Christianity. I may not be studying for ordained ministry, but I hope to profit by the example of those who are and have.

May God prosper Bishop North. Let those who can make a difference heed his cryand, with grace and bit of luck, perhaps some day he’ll bring his prophetic voice across the Tiber.

 

 

Elsewhere: More on Julien Green’s Life, Death, and Love of God

KlagenfurtChurch

St. Egid Church, Klagenfurt, Austria. (Source)

Pater Edmund Waldstein O.Cist. was kind enough to mention my recent post about Julien Green on his superlative blog, Sancrucensis. But what’s more, he built off of my essay in a really wonderful way. In his post, you can find more information on Green (particularly his later years, death, and entombment) as well as a wonderful homily he wrote incorporating elements of Green’s life and spirituality. I highly recommend a view.

JulianGreenKlagenfurt

The tomb of Julian Green and his adopted son, Jean-Eric Green. (Source)

The only thing I’ll add is only tangentially related to Green. St. Egid Church, where Green is interred, is also host to one of the most remarkable chapels in existence. The Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs, a Catholic whose work draws upon the best of the Western visionary, symbolist, and esoteric tradition, was commissioned to create a chapel in the crypt. The result is…something. Although I’m a fan of Fuchs generally, I’m not convinced that his was the best approach to sacramental space. And…a clear altar?

KlagenfurtApocalypseChapel

The Apocalypse Chapel, by Ernst Fuchs. St. Egid Church, Klagenfurt, Austria. (Source)

It’s a bit too psychedelic for a temple of God, I think. But hey, I’d rather attempt to worship in this overabundance of color and image than, say, a vaguely imposing and tomb-like structure that leaves its visitors depressed. I must emphasize that Fuchs’s art really can be mystical, even sophianic. Perhaps I’ll write a post on it some time soon.

 

apocalypse-chapel

Those really are a rocket and the Statue of Liberty. Really. (Source).

And perhaps I’ll someday have the chance to visit St. Egid Church, make the pilgrimage to pray for Green at his tomb, and see the chapel myself.