Those of you who have peered through the blue fence that surrounds our rectory recently know that there is virtually nothing left of the garden area that once offered so many downtown workers and neighbors a few moments of respite. Most of the ground has been covered with concrete, so that construction trucks can come in and out and work can proceed on the renovation and expansion of the rectory. The garden will be back, of course, in 2017; but it will have a very different look. Meanwhile, a tiny portion of garden remains in the corner next to the church. Our garden club folks are doing what they can to keep it beautiful through all the noise and flying dust that make a construction site a construction site. This little corner of nature remains a reminder of what was and the promise of what is to come.
Plants and trees, like people, are sometimes hardier than we think. Like people, they sometimes really blossom during times of difficulty and stress. Suddenly finding ourselves in situations we never expected, we turn out to be stronger and more enterprising than we ever imagined. This past Sunday for Father’s Day, Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote a very touching columncalled “What’s Left When Your Father Dies.” One of the things she says is, “When your father dies you will worry about your mother, who, you are likely to learn, is more resilient that you gave her credit for.” That was certainly true of my mother, who had lived most of her life with a bad heart and who many people did not expect to last very long after my father died. Instead she lived another thirteen years, much of it in relatively good health, until she passed away at the age of 93.
There is one plant in particular that ought to inspire us to persevere during difficult times. It is called the bristlecone pine. This is a small tree that grows only in a few remote places out west, mostly at very high elevations. Bristlecone pines can survive in rocky soil, high winds, and a very short growing season. Their root system is very strong and their wood very dense, making it resistant to insect infestation. I had the privilege of walking through a grove of bristlecone pine once at Great Basin National Park in Nevada. Most of the trees in that grove are over 4,000 years old! They are not very beautiful trees by any conventional definition. Their branches are reminiscent of an old bottle brush and their trunks are twisted and bent in all kinds of awkward ways by the high mountain winds. But they have their own particular beauty. It is a beauty of quiet strength and survival. The trees are silent, of course, except when rustled by the winds; but it would be wonderful if they could speak. They could tell us about a time when all of America was wild and lush. In 4,000 years they have survived the rise and fall of whole civilizations and an infinite number of wars and rumors of wars. They were already old when Christ was born and still older when Europeans first arrived in our land.
The irony is that these trees do not grow well except in harsh conditions. They reproduce very slowly and do not compete well for water and nutrients when they have to share space with other plants and trees. Their roots rot in places where there is an abundance of moisture. But they are survivors in places where no other growing thing could survive for even a short time—much less for 4,000 years. Some people who have survived many trials and much sickness in life also have a particular kind of beauty. It is not the conventional beauty that Hollywood embraces and then tosses aside. Their beauty flows from the delight they still take in life and their refusal to let adversity extinguish their spirits or drive them to become self-obsessed.
I sometimes think of Mary in this context. Almost all artistic depictions of Mary show her as an attractive young woman. Rarely do we see her looking old and worn and pummeled by life. Yet when we last meet her in Scripture in the Upper Room prior to Pentecost, she must have been in late middle age, having survived the death of her husband and her son and all the anxieties and tensions that were part and parcel of being the mother of a son who was also God. Yet what an inspiration she must have been to those fellow believers: “Don’t worry! The Spirit is coming! I’ve been through this before, and God does fulfill his promises.” Her focus was on seeing her son and his mission and his message live on in and through the church. And that should be our focus, too, wherever we are on our life journey.