THE LILAC TREE: Connection and Communication
In the back garden of my home in Mervue there’s a lilac tree that was planted by my Mother and it was once tall and beautiful when in full bloom. The winter after she died a storm uprooted and knocked the tree flat on the ground and we were all very sorry for it because it represented her.
The tree lay there through the winter and into the spring. I left it like that because I felt it had something to say to me about what is fallen in life, even though people were urging me to get rid of it and then to my great surprise, the following May new lilac blossoms emerged from the fallen tree and when I went to look at the roots I noticed that one single slim root was still connected to the earth and by it the tree lives on.
So, it rests there as a parable for me of the hope that abides in the fallen states of life, in times when things fall apart and out of place. A reminder of the line from the Book of Job, "there is hope for a tree: If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail." (Job 14:7)
With us, it speaks of staying connected to Jesus, having our lives rooted in Him and even if that connection is a very slim one it will keep our souls alive.
The tree reminds me of Resurrection in the sense that what has died comes back to life. And it also reminds me of Ascension, the Ascension of Jesus that calls us to lift our gaze upwards. We spend so much of our time looking down but when we look up we get a completely different perspective on life. For almost fifteen years now the tree blossoms again and again, each year growing higher and higher so that now I have to look up at the new blossoms. The tree is making me look upwards with t he sky as a background to this new life.In the same way the Ascension of Jesus draws our gaze upwards spiritually toward that place in heaven where all things find meaning and resolution. The old definition of prayer as “the raising up of the mind and heart to God” is echoed at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer in the Preface when we hear the invitation, “lift up your hearts!” We lift them up to the Lord.
I was saying this in a video reflection to St. Richard’s Catholic College and urging the students to practise looking up at the beauty of God’s creation to experience the beauty of it and the beauty that is an inherent part of the Christian spiritual experience. The video was relayed to the various classrooms as part of an Ascension liturgy and at the moment I suggested that they look up at the beauty of a seagull flying in the sky, at that moment a seagull came and tapped on the window of the classroom, causing the students to turn and look at it. I was told they were “freaked” by the co-incidence but for me it is like a sign from God to pay attention. Hopefully when they see a seagull high in the sky it will be a reminder of something Godly.
Connection and communication! We prayed recently on World Communication Sunday for journalists and those who work in media, and we pray for all who use social media that they be protected from the more sinister forces hidden there so much of the time.
Each one of us has to take responsibility for the ways in which we communicate with others and again I suggest that our communication needs to be rooted in prayer and connected to Jesus so that what we say will do good and not harm.
After the Ascension the disciples, including Mary the Mother of Jesus spent their time in prayer in the Upper Room. In prayer, in waiting. Not really knowing what they were waiting for. But that period of prayer, those ten days prepared them for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The result was that those who did not know how to communicate emerged communicating perfectly. By the coming of the Holy Spirit, they discovered what had to be said and how to say it in ways that were intelligible to everyone.
For the Christian every moment is a communication of the person of Jesus and His message. It is part of our very identity and if it is to be true and authentic then it needs to be rooted in prayer in order to be relevant and appropriate.
When I went to Tanzania as a young priest I was sent to language school where we learned Swahili day in and day out for six months in a Catholic language centre that catered for all faiths and none. Our learning of the language and culture was infused with prayer and music. We celebrated Mass every day, singing hymns and living a close-knit community life.
At the end of it I came away with near perfect Swahili and, quite pleased with myself I took on the task of preaching at Mass. Then a few weeks later someone came to me and said, “could you please speak more simply, your Kiswahili is too complicated, and we can’t understand you!”
So, I had to relearn the language all over again. This time by listening to the people themselves, learning from children the simplest ways of communicating in their language. Not just listening with my ears but with my heart, learning to feel a way of communicating. It was an important lesson that communicating is not firstly about speaking a language perfectly. It is much deeper than that and at its best when it emerges from our own inner sanctified depths.
Another lesson in communication was learned again in Tanzania and I’m not going to say that the good old days were better, but it goes back more than forty years.
There were no phones. Very few landlines. No mobiles. So, in the course of my five years living there I phoned home only once and had to travel thirty miles to get to the phone.
We communicated by letter, something I rarely do now. There was something very deliberate about it. You thought about what you needed to say and if you said it wrong you either scribbled over it or you tore it up and started again. It would take the letter two weeks to get home where they would read it over and over, sharing it with others before writing a response which would take another two weeks to get back to Tanzania. So, the whole process would take about five weeks, not the five seconds or minutes that we expect now in an era when much of our communication demands instant answers and responses, responses that have no time for reflection or wisdom. This rapid communication happens often in personal relationships and most of the time in the news media.
How often do we hear about the damaging text message that is written in haste or even hate and once sent there is no taking it back. We need to step back, pause, reflect, and leave room for silence in the ways we connect with each other.
Silence too is a very powerful way of communicating. Jesus used it in the passage about the woman taken in adultery; Pope Francis uses it much to the frustration of many; it is one of the blessings of a couple who have lived long lives together and no longer need to speak much; Job learned the wisdom of it when after all his ranting he placed his finger on his lips, returning to silence, retracting all that he had said.
One last thing! From time to time, strangers to our Star of the Sea church comment on the numbers they see attending here and the look of joy on people's faces as they pour out onto the street on Sunday. One woman said to me lately, "I hear such great things about your church. You must be very liberal." I said, "I'm probably quite conservative but I don't really like either of those labels."
And after the Ascension I found myself making a prayer of consecration to the Holy Spirit, found myself praying:
That we may be
Neither liberal nor conservative
True to You
And the gifts
That You have given
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