The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

COVID-19 Bible Study Reflection #4: Divine Mercy

Originally written on April 21, the following is the fourth of my weekly COVID-19 updates sent out to the participants in our parish's Bible Study program. 

The other day I was asked to transform these updates into talks and make video recordings of each. Yesterday, with the help of our wonderful A/V folks, we recorded all four. I expect they will soon be posted on the parish website. I'm not certain, but I believe they will be posted individually, perhaps one per week over a series of weeks. I'll post the details here on this blog once I have them.


As we make our way through this challenging time, it’s easy to become focused solely on the pandemic. All those news conferences, the steady stream of statistics, the hourly statements of physicians, researchers, politicians, and media “experts” have left us numb. Shut up in our homes, inundated by all this virus information, we can forget that life and death, beyond the virus, continue. Let me explain. 

So far, and this will likely change, I have lost no relatives or close friends as a result of this virus. This is not to belittle the many lives that have been lost, or the many others who have become seriously ill. It is simply a fact. 

But in the past few weeks, I have lost several friends whose deaths were completely unrelated to the coronavirus. One succumbed after a long battle with cancer, another died as a result of a massive stroke, and a third from the effects of MS.

David Lyons, Jr.
But then, just yesterday, I read of the murder of a young man, David Lyons, a senior at South Sumter High School. He was gunned down in broad daylight in the streets of Wildwood, just a few blocks from the Wildwood Soup Kitchen where Diane and I have volunteered for 16 years.

It was there, in the soup kitchen, where we met first David a few years ago. He came to volunteer for a while and joined our Thursday team doing whatever was asked of him. A bright and likeable young man, we all thought the world of him. His loss has affected us deeply. We pray for his soul, for his family, and trust that those responsible for his death will be brought to justice.

Yes, indeed, life and death continue, as does God’s love for His people. This, too, sometimes escapes us when we are surrounded by so much tragedy. But now, in the midst of the Easter season, we are also reminded of God’s great gift to the world: His Divine Mercy. 

On April 19, the Second Sunday of Easter, we celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday, and I know many of you have been praying the Divine Mercy chaplet daily. This is a good thing to do, and I encourage you to continue. The other day, reading a few pages of St. Faustina’s Diary, I came across these words of Jesus:
“You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to absolve yourself from it" [Diary, 742].
Meditating on this command from Jesus, I couldn't help but recollect all those times when I have been less than merciful, those times when I looked the other way rather than confronting another's need head-on. Sadly, there were far too many instances, too many to count.

There's nothing new about this command; indeed, if it were new, we would have every right to suspect the validity of the visions and private revelations experienced by St. Faustina. True private revelation can do nothing but confirm and reinforce divine revelation as found in sacred scripture and apostolic tradition. And, of course, this same plea to mercy is stated explicitly in the Gospel: 

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" [Mt 5:7].

We encounter this in greater detail when Jesus depicts the final judgment we will all experience [See Mt 25:31-46], a judgment focused on the mercy we have extended to each other.

As I reflected on Jesus' command, and on my own failure to obey it fully, I came to realize how grateful I am that we have a merciful, forgiving God, one who willingly forgives and forgets the sins of the repentant. In other words, our personal failure to extend mercy to others can be overcome by God's infinite mercy when we come to Him in true repentance. Without this gift of mercy and forgiveness none of us would be saved.

Whenever I become discouraged by my own failures, I turn to the Bible where we encounter not only the sins of those especially chosen by God, but also God’s mercy and forgiveness. Indeed, it’s the very humanity of those described in the Bible that convinces us of the truth of what we read. 

The lives of the patriarchs revealed in Genesis, for example, are what separate the Old Testament from the historical and spiritual writings of other ancient peoples. In the writings of other cultures, the failures and sinfulness of their human leaders rarely arise. According to most chronicles, the ancient kings and pharaohs, the priests and sages, were all near-perfect beings. They won every battle, they were always wise and just, and their children were perfect mirror images of themselves.

Among the ancients the only place we'll ever encounter two sons like Jacob and Esau is exactly where we find them, in the Bible: one, along with their mother, conniving and deceitful, and the other arrogant and foolish. And yet Jacob, with all his blemishes and sins, is one of the great patriarchs of our Judeo-Christian tradition.

Perhaps Jacob’s sons offer us one of the best examples of sinfulness in need of mercy and forgiveness, when out of envy they plan the murder of their brother, Joseph, and eventually sell him into slavery [Gen 37]. 
Joseph Sold into Slavery by His Brothers
We encounter this again and again. Consider David, the great king who also happened to be an adulterer and murderer [2 Sam 11]. David’s son, King Solomon, who neglected God's gift of wisdom, became enamored of foreign women (quite a few of them, actually), and turned to idolatry [1 Kgs 11]. And remarkably, these two kings, perhaps along with Hezekiah, Josiah, and a few others, were probably the best of the bunch.

So…What are we to think?

Well, in truth, we should thank God for the gift of the flawed men and women who fill the pages of God's Word; for what a gift they are to us! In these broken, oh-so-human lives we come face to face with God's enduring forgiveness. We come face to face with God's mercy.

If you worry about your family being mildly dysfunctional, just take a closer look at Abraham's, or Isaac's, or Jacob's. Despite all their problems, all their sinfulness, God's mercy just overflows into their lives. And God wants to shower you and those you love with that same outpouring of mercy.

Brothers and sisters, without God's mercy, we would be - what's the best word? ...We would be doomed! 

Without God's mercy our sins would overwhelm us. 

Without God's mercy, there would be no Incarnation, no redemptive sacrifice on the Cross, no Resurrection to offer us the hope of eternal life. 

Without God's mercy there is no salvation; for the Incarnation is the supreme act of mercy, the supreme act of our merciful, loving God.

He becomes one of us, He lives with us, He teaches us, He forgives us, He heals us, He loves us, and He suffers and dies for us. He does all of this for our salvation. He does all of this so we can be healed. That's right. Without God's mercy there can be no healing. And we are all, every single one of us, in need of healing, aren't we?

What about you? 

Are you in pain, physical pain, the kind that can scream at you, causing you to question God's love?

Do you suffer from illness, one of those devastating, fear-laden illnesses that makes prayer so very hard?

Have you been attacked by depression, or another spirit-draining affliction that seems to attack your very humanity?

Perhaps you are faced with a combination of many things, some little, some not so little, that overwhelm you and your ability to deal with them?

Or maybe you are simply afraid, afraid of the future, afraid of the unknown, afraid of death, and need the consolation of the gift of faith.

What kind of healing do you seek?

But what about the healing you actually need?

When we place ourselves at the foot of the Cross, when we look up at our crucified Lord, do we tear open our very being, do we rend our hearts exposing all to His merciful gaze? Do we come to Him, ready to die to self and sin? Looking at Him, do we find ourselves completely overwhelmed by this incomprehensible act of divine merciful love?

You see, brothers and sisters, I don't know the fulness of God’s plan for me, and I certainly don’t know God's plan for you...and neither do you. But I do know what He wants of both you and me.

He wants you, He wants me, He wants every single one of us to come to Him, to abandon ourselves to Him, to allow His will to move within our lives. 

But it's never easy to set aside our own willfulness and abandon ourselves to God's will. When our wills dominate, we end up broken; and yet it's through that brokenness that God call to us. This is another of the paradoxes surrounding God’s love. God knows when our need for His mercy, for His healing touch, is greatest.

At some point, though, we will all be broken physically, broken beyond repair. As St. Paul reminds us, our mortal bodies are just temporary dwellings:

“For we know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven. For in this tent we groan, longing to be further clothed with our heavenly habitation” [2 Cor 5 :1-2].
But, in the meantime, struggling through the trials of this life, we can easily slide into a kind of despair, thinking we're not deserving of God's mercy. We become like Peter who, when he suddenly comprehended the gulf between his sinfulness and God's greatness, could only say:
"Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man" [Lk 5:8].
But Jesus didn't depart, did He? In fact, it was then, at that very moment, that Jesus called Peter and the others to be Apostles, to be sent into the world, to be fishers of men.

So many, fully aware of their sinfulness, came to Jesus seeking healing; and there were others, sinful and repentant, whom Jesus actually seemed to seek out. 

Consider, for example, the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus saved from the mob of scribes and Pharisees that had planned to stone her to death. Once Jesus had turned the mob away, He said little to the woman. Their conversation was brief:
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and do not sin again.” [Jn 8:10-11]
Knowing her heart, Jesus sees both her repentance and her thankfulness, and so extends His forgiveness, His mercy. On her part, she is called to change her life by following His command: “…do not sin again.”
Neither do I condemn you...
Here we see Jesus fulfilling the Law through the application of Divine Mercy. The disciples come to understand what Jesus meant when he began His ministry with the words:

“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” [Mk 1:15].
I’ve always liked that seemingly odd Gospel passage from Matthew when the disciples of John the Baptist question Jesus about fasting. It’s a brief passage:
Then the disciples of John approached him and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth, for its fullness pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse. People do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved” [Mt 9:14-17].
It’s an interesting passage, isn’t it? It’s really not so much about fasting as it is about the New Covenant that Jesus makes with us, “the time of fulfillment.” This New Covenant is not simply a patchwork on the old covenant; it's not old wine poured into old wineskins.

No, Jesus offers us to something wonderfully new, and He demands something new from us. He calls us to “repent” of our sinfulness, to “Go, and do not sin again.”

But there is more, much more. This newness is also the Gospel, the command to love God and to love each other as we love ourselves. That's right, brothers and sisters, we're to look beyond ourselves, to die to self and sin and live for the other. And we're to do all this even in the midst of hurt and grief and illness and pain, even in the midst of a pandemic that has turned our world upside-down.

Just as He called Peter and the Apostles, Jesus calls us in our brokenness. He calls us when illness and fear seem to overwhelm us. And He calls us in our sinfulness when our flaws are most apparent. It's then that our need for His mercy is greatest.

Flannery O'Connor
Among my favorite writers is Flannery O'Connor, who wrote so many wonderful stories of sinfulness and repentance, of forgiveness and mercy, and of redemption. A Georgia girl, she died in her late thirties due to complications resulting from lupus. It was a battle that lasted her entire adult life. While in the midst of all her suffering, she wrote some remarkable words in a letter to a friend:
"I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, a very instructive place, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies" [The Habit of Being].
Have you ever thought of the afflictions of your life, of your need for healing, as a mercy? I know I never had. With the exception of appendicitis at the age of ten, my only serious illness was in my infancy, so I it’s hard for me to comprehend fully what Flannery O'Connor meant by those words. 

But our Lord certainly understands, for He reminds us always that fear has no place in the Christian's heart. And so, again, when we suffer, when we turn to God in prayer, what are we to do?

Joyce Kilmer
I really believe the first thing we should do is thank Him. 

Joyce Kilmer, the Catholic poet, and another of my favorites, was struck down by a sniper's bullet during World War One. But in the midst of his wartime experience, in the midst of the destruction and devastation and death in the trenches, he wrote a little poem called "Thanksgiving." 

     The roar of the world in my ears.
     Thank God for the roar of the world!
     Thank God for the mighty tide of fears
     Against me always hurled!

     Thank God for the bitter and ceaseless strife,
     And the sting of His chastening rod!
     Thank God for the stress and the pain of life,
     And Oh, thank God for God!

Brothers and sisters, that's exactly what we must do: just thank God for everything. 

Thank God for the joys and the pains of our lives. They are all gifts, even when they are beyond our understanding. 

Thank God for His Divine Mercy, for without it we would have no hope.

Yes, thank God for life itself. 

Then, today and every day, we can let Him focus on the healing. After all, He's pretty good at it.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Homily: 2nd Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118; 1 Pt 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

St. Paul wrote that between the Resurrection and the Ascension more than 500 disciples saw the risen Jesus [1 Cor 15:6]. These weren’t ghostly apparitions. He sat with them, talked with them, walked with them, touched them, ate with them, even cooked a meal for them. He came to them in the flesh. His glorified body, not subject to worldly limitations, is still the flesh that grew from Mary, the flesh that died on the cross, the flesh that bears the marks of His passion.

What a compliment to our humanity: the Son of God wanted the flesh He took from us to be His forever. I think sometimes we forget that. We forget that right now, today, the risen Jesus is truly alive, just as we are. Yes, His body is glorified, but it’s still a body of flesh and blood. And just as His flesh rose from the dead and was glorified, filled with God’s life, so shall yours and mine. Jesus is the Good News in the flesh! Our God with skin on!

In today’s Gospel we learn something about Jesus and about Thomas, but also about ourselves. Do you and I ever doubt? Do we ever question what we casually profess every Sunday in our Creed? You know – one God, three Persons, one Lord who came down from heaven, who died, was buried, and rose from the dead?

"My Lord and my God!"
Years ago, I had a friend named Mel. An agnostic, he told me he couldn’t understand how we Christians could believe all that stuff. It made no sense whatsoever. Thomas had set conditions for believing, hadn’t he? And like Thomas, Mel was a proof-seeker. “Show me! Prove it to me! Let me see it…let me touch it!” Jesus met all of Thomas’ conditions and did what was necessary to bring the reluctant apostle to faith. Thomas no longer had to take anyone’s word for it. But, unlike Thomas, Mel could neither see nor hear. He couldn’t put his fingers into the nail marks or his hand into that wound. 

Accepting God’s gift of faith isn’t always easy, is it? I lost track of Mel over the years but heard that he had died. I pray that he, too, was blessed with the gift of faith, even though he could not see. How did Jesus put it?
“Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” [Jn 20:29].
Of course, He was talking to all of them, not just to Thomas. After all, these chosen ones had been huddled together in fear behind locked doors. Just as today many are huddled in fear behind their locked doors. But locked doors present no obstacle to Jesus, who is present wherever and whenever we call upon Him. Jesus came to release the Apostles from their fears, so they could bear witness to all they had seen and heard, so they could spread the Good News throughout the world.

As Christians we believe that God, who created the universe, really cares about us, that God is a God of love, a love so great it’s impossible to fully comprehend it. The Good News of Jesus Christ – His death and resurrection, our redemption and forgiveness, the promise of eternal life – is so good, so remarkable, that sometimes it seems almost too good to be true. And so, the world doubts. Thomas, too, struggled with this, just as my friend Mel did.

Poor Thomas. Because of this one incident, he’ll always be known as doubting Thomas. And yet, he wasn’t alone in his doubts. Indeed, there’s one very telling verse at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel when he describes the risen Jesus’ last moments with the apostles before he ascends to the Father. Matthew tells us that the now-11 apostles went to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. Then we read: 

“When they saw him, they worshipped, but they doubted” [Mt 28:17].
They still doubted, even after weeks with the risen Christ. Yes, I think poor Thomas gets a bum rap.

A few years ago, browsing in a shop in Mount Dora, I noticed a small sign that read: “Jesus loves you, but I’m His favorite.” Maybe this is what Thomas heard in the enthusiasm of the other apostles: “Yes, Thomas, Jesus loves you too, but we’re His favorites.” A bit jealous? Maybe a little fearful? Was he thinking, “If Jesus did come, why did He come when I wasn’t here? What could this mean?”

Just days earlier, when Jesus decided to return to Jerusalem, where so many were plotting against Him, it was Thomas who, full of bravado, had said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” [Jn 11:16].

The reality, of course, was quite different. Thomas, like the others, abandoned Jesus. Was Thomas thinking of this? Whatever his thoughts, it would be another week before he would see the risen Jesus for himself. It must have been a rough week. The others, their spirits rejuvenated by their encounter with Jesus, were probably telling him, “Don’t worry, Thomas. He’ll be back. You’ll see.” 

But when Jesus appears the second time, Thomas moves instantly from doubt to genuine faith. You might say, “So what. He had his proof. didn’t he?” Well, yes, he did, but proof only in the resurrection of Jesus. Thomas didn’t exclaim, “My risen Lord,” when he saw Jesus. No, Thomas’ faith takes him well beyond that as he says:

“My Lord and my God” [Jn 20:28].
Jesus had been called many things -- Lord, master, rabbi, teacher, prophet, Son of Man, Son of God – but only Thomas, Thomas moved by the Holy Spirit, makes this ultimate declaration of faith in Jesus Christ. This is the Spirit’s gift to Thomas and Thomas’ gift to us. John includes this incident, so we too can believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Like Thomas we can freely accept or reject this grace to believe, for it’s a grace never forced on us. How does this touch us, we who have not seen and yet believe? You and I haven’t seen the risen Christ, but he is present with us.

Even today, as you watch this Mass from behind your locked doors, Jesus is with you. He’s with you in His Holy Word. And, yes, despite our physical separation, we are gathered together in His Name.

Even His Eucharistic Presence, although you can now experience it only spiritually, is still a very real presence, one that fills the world with His peace.

As Peter reminded the first Christians: In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials. Yes, there are times in all of our lives – fearful, terrifying, lonely times – when we especially feel His absence. When Jesus seems to have brushed the dust of our lives off His feet. Little wonder He calls us blessed. We don’t see, we suffer, and yet we still believe. We can still drop to our knees and utter with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

But is our faith, in itself, enough? Jesus tells us our love for others will be a visible sign that He’s among us – that this is how the world will recognize Him. If the world, then, doesn’t recognize Christ, it must be because the world doesn’t see Him in the lives of those who claim to believe in Him.

As another of my heroes, G. K. Chesterton, once famously said, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."

Yes, it would seem we have our work cut out for us. 

Fortunately, it’s a work Jesus shares. And that’s where our hope must always rest, not in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ – in Him who died for us, who rose for us, who lives for us, and who promised to be with us forever.

Because we believe in the Jesus Christ we have never seen, we may, with the help of God’s grace, learn to see Him in those see every day. In the neighbor, alone and so afraid; in the doctor, the nurse, the aide who work long hours caring for the ill and worry about bringing illness home; in the volunteer who carries food to the hungry…and in so many others.

Yes, brothers nad sisters, Jesus is here. And like Thomas, we see Him and we believe.

Friday, April 17, 2020

An Anniversary and Memories

I tend to view my life as a long succession of specific events, and I suppose that's normal. I suspect most of us measure the passage of our lives by the unique, special days that occasionally occur. For example, I can actually recall much that happened on the day I graduated from Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, NY back in June 1962. But I have absolutely no recollection of anything that took place on the days immediately preceding or following it. Certain events in life just don't seem to achieve the level of importance demanded by our faulty memories. 

There are, of course, exceptions. Some years ago, during my days as a Navy pilot, I had a friend, now deceased, who spent many years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. The communists treated him abominably, tortured him frequently, and forced him to spend most of that time in solitary confinement. He told me that he had never thought of his memory as anything but average. In fact, he said in college he had struggled with foreign languages and organic chemistry because both demanded so much of his memory. But then he was thrown into solitary confinement in Hanoi. He was not yet 30 years old, and in an attempt to maintain his sanity, he began to review his life, working backward in time, trying to remember everything he could. He was surprised by how much he was able to retrieve, and came to believe that every detail of his life was stored away in brain cells. He just had to learn how to access it all. He got to the point where he could remember the names and faces of every child in his first grade class. (I can remember only one: Bonnie Trompeter, a beautiful little girl who I later learned went on to become a supermodel. That tells you more about me than about Bonnie or my memory.)

As for my life, the key events begin with a day I cannot remember: my Baptism in 1944, at the age of 11 days. I do, however, remember my first communion and confirmation -- first communion because it was in Bridgeport, Connecticut where we lived while our Larchmont, NY house was leased to another family (We had just returned from Germany); and confirmation at age 10 because I was enamored of a cute, little red-haired girl named Sherry. (There seems to be a pattern here.) 

Yes, I was a fairly normal kid, if a bit skinny, with many extraordinary talents, as depicted in the following photos;
Little League Athlete 
Concert Pianist

Future Aviator - Model Airplane
Of course I have many other memories -- the years our family spent in Panama City Beach, Florida and Heidelberg, Germany back in the early 1950s. High school is a bit of a blur, but in the midst (or mist) of it all I can actually recall dozens of events, many good, some not so good. I won't bore you with details of my year at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service or my four years at the U.S. Naval Academy. In general those were five good years during which I made many lifelong friends and even learned a few useful things.

On September 16, 1967 I met Dear Diane on a blind date, an event that changed my life for the good. This was followed by two other events that occurred only two weeks apart. Diane and I were married in Pensacola, Florida on November 2, 1968 and I received my Navy pilot's Wings of Gold on November 15. The former was far more important, but the latter wasn't too shabby.
Just Married - 2 November 1968
This leads me to the anniversary I celebrate today. 50 years ago, on April 17, 1970, I was the co-pilot of the recovery helicopter that picked up the Apollo 13 astronauts when they returned from their ill-fated mission to the moon. Chuck Smiley, our squadron's commanding officer was the pilot, and as his co-pilot I got to tag along. When I wasn't taking pictures with my old Leica iiiF, he actually let me take the controls for a while. Chuck, who died just a few years ago, was one of those remarkable people who shape the lives of others. He certainly shaped mine. Chuck was my hero, a very special man who taught me more than even I will ever know.
Recovery Helicopter Crew - Apollo 13
Over the years I've been asked many times to speak about the Apollo 13 recovery. Eventually I put together a slide show, and then a PowerPoint presentation, to tell the key parts of the story. Here's a link to the presentation, should you want to relive that now-ancient history.

I suppose I'll continue to remember that day in 1970, perhaps even little shreds of it when I'm locked away in one of Florida's many memory care facilities. My hope, of course, is that my body does not outlive my memory.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

COVID-19 Bible Study Reflection #3: The Gift of Trees

The following post is the third of my COVID-19 updates, written for the participants in our parish's Bible Study sessions. 
"He is like a tree planted near springs of water, that yields its fruit in season; its leaves never wither; whatever he does prospers" [Ps 1:3].
So consumed are we by this virus, this microscopic bug that defines so much of our lives today, I thought it would be good to step away from it, if only for a while, and turn our attention to another, more benign, of God's creatures.

Galaxies Galore in One Tiny Slice of Our Sky
The universe is filled with wondrous objects, everything from interstellar dust to clusters of galaxies, but God's greatest creative act was life itself. As revealed in Genesis, at the pinnacle of God's creation is man: 
"Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over cattle according to their kinds, and every living thing that creeps upon the ground according to its kind' [Gen 1:26].
But before He created sea life and birds and the beasts of the earth, before He created man and woman, on the third day God created a very different kind of life, a lifeform without which the rest of His living creation could not exist. God created the plants and the trees:
"Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind upon the earth" [Gen 1:11]
It was no accident, then that man and woman were first placed in a garden. There they were nourished by the fruit of the garden's many trees and there, too, they ate the fruit of the one tree forbidden to them:
"And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" [Gen 2:9].
We won't dwell on that first, original sin here, except to affirm that it wasn't the fault of the tree. Indeed, as non-sentient creatures trees are inherently faultless. 

It's hard to dislike trees. They live such long and elevated lives that they project an air of quiet stateliness. If you've read any of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, you will know he had a special fondness for trees. Of course, there are his Ents, the wise, rootless tree herders who come to the aid of civilization as it fights the forces of destruction. But I've always thought the outcry of the hobbit Sam Gamgee in the concluding scenes of Tolkien's trilogy mirrored the author's own sorrow over the sacrificial destruction of trees by modern man:

"They've cut it down!" cried Sam. "They've cut down the Party Tree!" He pointed to where the tree had stood under which Bilbo had made his farewell speech. It was lying lopped and dead in the field. As if this were the last straw Sam burst into tears.

Trees offer us a sign of hope. Their very presence seems to restrain the powers of desolation. Deserts and other empty places, treeless places, have never attracted me. I can imagine no more unpleasant place than the Sahara Desert or the appropriately named Death Valley.

In the books of Exodus and Numbers, God leads the Israelites into the desert. This wilderness is no Eden, but rather a place of trial that tests their faith and readies them for their entrance into the Promised Land. Jesus, too, in preparation for His public ministry and all that will follow, is led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, a place of desolation, where He encounters the temptations of Satan. One senses that the evil one is quite at home in such places.
Jesus in the Wilderness

I, too, was once led into the desert, but by the United States Navy. As a young pilot, about to join a squadron destined for service in the Vietnam conflict, I was required to complete a course in survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) to prepare me for the possibility of capture by our nation's enemies. Conducted in Southern California's high desert it taught me many excellent survival skills. It also reaffirmed my determination to avoid capture and my dislike of deserts. But deserts are not the only desolate, treeless places. Consider, for example, the island nation of Iceland.

I've been to Iceland only twice, both just brief stopovers. On my first visit, in the summer of 1965, our U.S. Navy transport plane landed at what was then Keflavik Naval Air Station to refuel. We had only a few hours on the ground, but that was long enough to convince me that Iceland was a barren, forbidding looking place. I wasn't sure why until we took off and could view the landscape from above. That's when it hit me: I saw no trees. Indeed, most of the surface was hardened lava and rock, all craggy and stark and seemingly lifeless. As a 21-year-old, I had never met an Icelander so I wondered what kind of people would call this desolate island home. I assumed these descendants of the Vikings were hardy, practical folks who probably considered themselves slightly superior to the rest of humanity. Today, 55 years later, I've still never met an Icelander, at least not up close and personal, so my prejudice remains.

In September of 2012, I visited Iceland once again, this time in the company of Diane. This visit, too, was brief; all of it spent in the terminal. The first leg of our Iceland Air flight took us from Orlando to Keflavik, now a major civilian airport. After a 90-minute wait, we changed planes for the flight to our ultimate destination, London's Gatwick Airport. As we took off, only moments after sunrise, Diane, who had been looking out the window, turned to me and said, "You know what?" I simply replied, "Yes, there are no trees." She laughed, "That's exactly what I was going to say."
Icelandic Landscape
Actually, Iceland is not completely devoid of trees. But, according to friends who have spent more than a few hours there, you have to look for them. One repeated an old Icelandic saying, which has become a common line fed to tourists: "In Iceland if you see three trees together, you're in a forest." In truth, there are a couple of actual forests, although the trees tend to be rather stunted; for example, birch trees that rarely exceed 15 feet in height. For me it's all very sad, and I could never live in such a place, a place where trees are rare.

I suppose I've always enjoyed the presence of trees, these most magnificent of God's rooted creatures. When I was a boy I climbed many trees, especially one of the Japanese maples in our suburban New York front yard.  I often stretched out comfortably on its branches for an hour or so, to avoid life's distractions, or to read a book, or just to observe the goings on in our quiet neighborhood. 

Our front yard was also home to a large weeping willow, another target of opportunity for my climbing skills. Sadly, my parents were forced to remove that tree because its thirsty roots broke into our home's water pipes. 

And what can be more inviting to a 10-year-old boy than a trail leading into a forest? My friends and I would occasionally bicycle several miles to a local woodland called Saxon Woods and spend the day playing imaginative games amidst the trees.

When we lived on Cape Cod, I often took our children to visit a tree we called, "the greatest tree in the world." A European Weeping Beech, it's branches form a magnificent canopy, stretching  haphazardly in all directions. It is a very special tree and, were it permitted, would be a marvelous climbing tree. But aware of its age and fragility, we simply enjoy its shade, surrounded by its presence.

Weeping Beech - Yarmouth Port, Cape Cod


Under the Canopy

Let me assure you, though, I am not a tree-hugger and never experienced the urge to embrace any of those perfectly formed climbing trees. Even as a child, I realized that trees, while certainly living creature, lacked awareness of their existence and of mine. People are free to hug trees if they like, even talk to them, but to expect a response...well, that's nothing but a cry for help. As a wise Baptist farmer once said to me, "Don't talk to the garden; talk with the Gardener." Trees, created by God, the cosmic Gardener, deserve our attention, if not our hugs, both for their beauty and their utility.

That utility can be intentional, like the sawed boards I often turned into bookcases, or accidental, like the dead beech recalled by the poet, Wendell Barry:

the great hollow-trunked beech,

a landmark I love to return to,
its leaves gold-lit on the silver
branches in the fall: blown down
after a hundred years of standing,
a footbridge over the stream;

Its beauty destroyed by death, the beech continued to serve other creatures. In Sacred Scripture, too, we find trees blessed for their utility. Indeed, a tree becomes a key element of hospitality during a divine visit to the patriarch Abraham and his wife, Sarah:

"The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oak of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them, and bowing to the round, he said, 'Sir, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest under the tree'" [Gen 18:1-4].
Abraham and God Under the Oak
In Isaiah we encounter the tree's utility, both for good and for evil purpose. Of the idolatrous woodcutter, Isaiah writes:
"He goes out to cut down cedars, takes a holm tree or an oak. He picks out for himself trees of the forest, plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. It is used for fuel: with some of the wood he warms himself; makes a fire and bakes bread...Half of it he burns in the fire, on its embers he roasts meat; he eats the roast and is full. He warms himself and says, 'Ah! I am warm! I see the flames!' The rest of it he makes into a god, an image to worship and adore. He prays to it and says, 'Help me! You are my god!' They do not know, do not understand; their eyes are too clouded to see, their minds, to perceive" [Is 44:14-18].
Scripture also offers us symbolic trees as metaphors of something greater. One of the briefest of psalms uses the olive tree to describe the family of the righteous man:
"Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your home, your children like young olive plants around your table. Just so will the man be blessed who fears the Lord" [Ps 128:3-4].
There are dozens, probably hundreds, of other Old Testament references to trees, far too many to include here. But let me refer you to chapter four of the Book of Jonah, in which God uses a tree to teach His reluctant prophet a lesson in humility and the love of God. It's worth a read.

Jesus frequently referred to trees in His teaching; for example, when He described the Kingdom:
"The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches" [Mt 13:31-32].
Jesus called on the tree, too, when teaching the apostles of their role in the Church:
"I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower...I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing" [Jn 15:1,5].

And perhaps most fittingly and most gloriously, Jesus was nailed to the dead remnant of a tree. He died on that tree, raised up for all to see, making it the universal symbol of our Christian faith. We celebrate that tree, that Holy Cross, every time we bless ourselves and others with its sign. We honor the tiniest pieces of that tree, protecting them in reliquaries spread throughout the world. The Cross is, in a very real sense, the Tree of Life, the Tree of Eternal Life.

As Christians, indeed and human beings, we should praise and thank God for the goodness of all His creation. Take a moment to turn to the Book of the Prophet Daniel and read the beautiful prayer of blessing by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as they stood in the fiery furnace in the Presence of God. It is a prayer echoed by all of creation. [See Dan 3:51-90]

This is a good lesson for us today, as we huddle in our homes, separated from others, wondering when it will end. But even now we can walk through our neighborhoods and see Gods creative goodness spread out all around us. Savor it. Breathe it in. Thank God for it.