‘Only God Can Make a Tree’

Jesus was a carpenter; His sayings and parables show a predilection for trees

Sunday’s readings said a lot about trees and their growth. The First Reading spoke about God, who fosters some trees and withers others. The Gospel spoke of the tiny mustard seed that produces a large tree.

The Catholic poet Joyce Kilmer wrote a poem, “Trees,” that was once standard fare in most American literature anthologies. Although demonstrating poetical skill and lacking anything vulgar, his poem is now treated by many of the cognoscenti as an example of “bad” poetry. I’ll simply leave it at they’re wrong.

Kilmer’s poem (linked here) concludes not unlike Ezekiel (with a stab for the contemporary practitioners who style themselves “poets” or, worse, “literary critics”):

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

As the Polish writer Roman Brandstaetter curiously noted, though the son of a carpenter, Jesus clearly had a predilection for agriculture and farm workers. His parables talk about different outcomes from different seeds, not different kinds of wood. That predilection for trees shows in His sayings and parables, which are not limited to the mustard tree. One knows a tree by its fruits. The tree that yields no fruit should be cut down and put to something more useful, e.g., firewood, rather than clutter up the orchard. Jesus even finds one of His apostles, Bartholomew (a.k.a. Nathanael) under a fig tree.

A tree is an amazing thing. Many trees have been around a lot longer than those of us looking at them. The other day, I saw a cut tree stump on Capitol Hill and, from the number of rings visible on it, it was apparent that tree had witnessed a lot of history. There’s a reason behind the tradition to plant a tree when a child is born.

Avery Dulles, the future Jesuit, cardinal, and theologian, grew up in a proper Presbyterian family of the American WASP establishment. His conversion to Catholicism (and, arguably, his commitment to living rather than nominal faith) came from a Massachusetts tree. Walking along the Charles River around Harvard Yard, he encountered a tree from which had just emerged a bud as herald of the approaching spring. That image struck him. There was nothing about this tree that had to be. There was nothing about this renewed cycle of life that had to be. There was nothing about their encounter that had to be. Yet, in the midst of all that contingency, it was. And one could attribute that merely to random chance (as does the atheist still waiting for a Collected Works of Shakespeare to be tossed out from the typewriters in the Bronx Zoo’s monkey cage) or recognize something bigger, better, and wiser than the contingent beings that are seen and bear witness beyond themselves, though, as Ezekiel observes, “he knows not how.”

Except that “only God can make a tree.”

I am likewise seized by Ezekiel’s observations that man “knows not how” when I reflect on other examples of life-giving growth. Dulles was struck by his tree’s bud. The miracle of life occurs every day, in some sense brought about by “doin’ what comes naturally” but without losing any of its miraculous nature, its commonness notwithstanding. It’s the loss of that same sense of mystery in front of being that makes some jeer at the spiritual insight Dulles and Kilmer found in trees, and many parents still find in their coming child.

Our “scientific” insight has not deepened our appreciation of the mystery as much as blunted it to a purely “technical” explanation. Would that it were just “technical” and “scientific.” When one considers the feigned ignorance pro-abortionists insist upon with solemn seriousness that they “do not know” if this “clump of cells” is a human being, one wonders how they can pretend to be darker and more benighted than Ezekiel’s farmer. He, after all, may “know not how” the seed grows but is nevertheless unsurprised when the mustard seed he sowed yields mustard trees, not poison oak. He knows, if moderns don’t, that when tares appear along with wheat, there is “the hand of the Enemy in this” (Mt 13:28).


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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