The Mother of Trees
I’m still full of joy from a gathering of my congregation, The Mattatuck Unitarian Universalist Society, on October 23rd to bless the land that will house our new meetinghouse. It was a future forward looking event, projecting expectantly into the future of MUUS. And at the same time, we were attuned to the reality that what we did that day would one day be a very important chapter in the history of MUUS - an important event in MUUS’s past! Our ceremony and socializing on that October day looked both forward and backward, we cultivated our relationship with our Ghosts of MUUS past as well as Ghosts of MUUS yet to come. We realize that in the buying of land and building of the meeting house and developing the grounds, we are practicing being good Ancestors! We are not just the present stewards of our congregation, we are the ancestors of the MUUS members who continue the journey of Living the Tradition of Unitarian Universalism after all of us, even the youngest of us today, are long gone. It was absolutely thrilling to be aware of living out an episode of the congregation’s story in real time. We were and are part of an epic tale, living a real adventure in a saga that stretches behind us and before us.
This Halloween I come to church this morning in my Renaissance Faire costume of Barliman Butterbur, the Innkeeper of the Prancing Pony Inn in Bree on the border of the Shire where Frodo Baggins, traveling as Mr. Underhill and his three friends meet the Ranger named Strider, later revealed as Aragorn, on their way to Rivendell and the council that will produce the Fellowship of the Ring. At the Prancing Pony the group is attacked by the Ring Wraiths. I offer this so you know who I am supposed to be in this costume and not so smooth segue way into my LOTR example!
One of my favorite characters in TLOTR is Treebeard and by extension The Ents. The Ents are the ancient shepherds of the trees! They themselves resemble anthropomorphic trees, being tall, trunk like legs and branch like arms and fingers, lichen like beards and so on. Over the long ages, some have become tree-like and no longer move or talk. They blend right in with the trees. Ents, like trees, have extremely long lifespans if not killed or cut down. Thus, they seem to move and talk in what seems like agonizing slow motion to the other sentient characters in the story with whom they interact.
Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli in his recent book The Order of Time – maybe even the stones are alive -yet they change so slowly that to us they seem inanimate. Reminds of me a Star Trek episode in the original series where the crew of the enterprise encounter what seems to them to be an empty planet. They hear strange buzzing sounds, but see no creatures, no aliens, no living things. Only later when they hear the strange buzzing in their ship the Enterprise do they discover that the sounds are coming from the aliens, humanoids that live and move at such an accelerated speed, the crew of the Enterprise can’t see them or hear them. They only experience them, their speech, and movement as a high-pitched whirring buzzing noise.
Physics teaches us that time dilates the faster we move and the further we move away from a gravitational center. The crew of a starship may age 40 years during a journey but back on their home planet decades or even centuries or more have gone by. The life of a Hobbit goes by in an instant compared to the life an Ent which travels a much longer, much slower path through the timeline of Middle Earth.
Human beings have quick little life spans compared to the Ents and the older Mother trees. The first time I stood at the base of a Redwood in California I was rapt in awe. It was ancient. A 1500+ years old sentinel of the forest. It had been alive from the fall of Rome to the day I stood there. This past June I visited the rainforests in Oregon where again I encountered those ancient Mother trees. Again, as among the Redwoods in CA, I felt like I was in a Time Warp, a Time dilation. The very air and space around me felt alive, aware, and had a power I could feel through my body, an energy that went back millennia. I, my entire life, a passing instant in the stretch of eons that the sentinels of the forest have watched go by. Standing under the sentinels in Oregon this past spring, I felt as if I were in a scene from the recent novel The Overstory, about the amazing complexity of the forest, the spirituality of ecology and eco system, and climate crisis. The novel’s heroine is based on the life and work of Suzanne Simard whose work gave us proof trees talk to each other, that trees and fungus form an interconnected web of existence on the forest floor. The relationship between trees and other trees and mushrooms and other plants and the soil is a woven intricacy of symbiotic existence. The relationships of individual to the whole intrinsic and elemental, essential to the very survival of ALL.
The Living Tradition of human spirituality that we call Unitarian Universalism is a Mother Tree, an Ent, something alive made up of interconnecting pieces that moves along slowly, seeming to be unchanging to us because we only see a brief glimpse of its life during our own comparatively short lives. Congregations are notoriously slow to change. Congregations are incarnations of a spiritual tradition with a very ancient history or histories in the case of Unitarian Universalism, and this living spiritual tradition, like any living thing, does grow, adapt, and change. We human beings only see, at best, a few decades of that long history, and so to us, changes in its overall trajectory, even huge shifts in its basic concept of itself as a spiritual tradition, are very hard to conceptualize and understand. Yet accepting and understanding that we are a part of something ancient that will go on long, long after we are gone, helps us to be better stewards of the tradition while we are here. And helps us strive to be better ancestors.
As human beings we are pretty good at being descendants. We look backward and see what’s gone before resulting in us and what we experience in the here and now. But we are not as good at looking forward. The climate crisis is but one example. We still haven’t reached a critical mass of humanity agreeing that this is an immediate existential crisis. We conceptualize that we play a part in history and do worry about what we will leave our children and grandchildren, but we don’t tend to think of ourselves as Ancestors. We are ancient ancestors of a far flung tomorrow.
Right now, we at the MUUS are steering the congregation through a major turning point in its history that is part of a much larger arc of the ongoing evolution of our faith tradition. We have bought land and will build a meetinghouse. This meeting house will be built with an understanding of the climate crisis and our deep connection to the trees, the soil, the water, and the air. This meeting house will be built to navigate a world immersed in technology and be outfitted from day one with computers and projectors and internet connections. Our MUUS descendants will take it as a matter of course that their congregational life plays out both inside and outside, in person and online, and their meeting house, although in Woodbury, CT has members and friends all over the country and all over the world. Those future members of MUUS will practice a Unitarian Universalism that wrestles with the big existential questions of being human in ways we can only conjecture and imagine.
Suzanne Simard says that the story isn’t about how we will save the trees, but about how the trees might save us. As we cultivate relationships not only with each other but with our descendants, we become aware of how intertwined all life is. Our own tradition made a course correction in the history of religion. When western religion had forgotten that the individual has value, worth, and dignity and individuals should not be controlled, abused, used, and homogenized, our liberal religious tradition fought back. And yet we over compensated and we are now course correcting again. The individual is important, but our culture, even our own Unitarian Universalism for many years, turned the individual into an idol. The trees teach us, we can only truly thrive when we work together as an entire community of living things. Not above creation but part of it. Not isolated individuals, but individual parts of a cohesive whole.
Our relationship with our descendants must connect to our relationship to our ancestors. The current generation is always a bridge. The stronger and more structurally sound the bridge the stronger the connection of past to future. We have a great responsibility. As the bridge between the past of the Living Tradition and the future, one of the best ways for us to be both good descendants and good ancestors is keep wonder alive, embody our values and makes decisions based on what’s good for everyone, not just what’s good for us.
Perhaps the most majestic of all terms for holiness or divinity is The Great Mystery. We still know so little about ourselves and our existence…so we should cultivate wonder, that place where we hold paradox tenderly. That place where we are brave enough to unlearn and unknow things if new information or clarification of past inaccuracies arise. This great mystery attitude is the power of our way of being spiritual and religious – because we realize we are always learning, we can’t set wisdom in stone, unchanging forever. What has come before is always in relationship with now and what is now is always cultivating relationship with what comes next.
Living through Covid has put us now in a liminal space, an in-between space – in the middle of the journey from who we were before Covid and who we will be after it. And during this time, we are living into being an in-between place between the MUUS that was before, wandering vagabonds, forging a new way to be a religious community in this area, and the MUUS that will come next – a faith community with a meetinghouse and land, and a true place at the table in a town that will need our leadership and guidance. We will be a Mother Tree in the forest of our community.