Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I put my hands to the hard, fine-grained bark of the bristlecone pine tree and closed my eyes. The tree had been growing on the side of this oasis of a mountain in the Nevada desert for over three millennia. I was trying to feel the age of it, to imagine it growing in this very spot for one thousand years before Jesus walked the earth, the 33 years of His lifetime, and the following two thousand years until now.
A human person, when he or she is receptive to God’s grace, is very much like a bristlecone that thrives for years in the harsh environment.
Bristlecone trees prefer a dry, rocky environment, growing just below the tree line. They are worn down by harsh winds, and when they die, they do not decay, but rather erode slowly down over thousands of years.
Like the parable of the sower, a tree that begins to grow in an inferior spot will not survive as long. When the rains fall and the winds blow it cannot withstand the elements. Its needles fall off and never grow back, and all that is left is an empty monument to the life that was once there.
But a bristlecone that is rooted firmly in the rocky ground lives a longer and fuller life. The tree grows very slowly in the short growing season of its high altitude — the changes are almost imperceptible year to year. Twisted, dead, useless, yet achingly striking branches stretch out among the needle covered living branches. The tree bears a grotesque beauty of a creature that has endured much hardship and survived.
The Lenten season at the end of a long winter makes me feel a little like a bristlecone. In the time of penance and prayer I try to abandon the parts of my life that lead me only toward death, and put my focus on supporting the living, thriving branches. I root myself deeper into my faith, in the rock that is the Church, and drink in deeply the graces of this short liturgical season.
I wonder if all of our lives resemble that of the grotesque bristlecone. We will not walk on the earth for as long as they stretch their branches toward heaven, but we, too, have dead parts sticking out among our living parts. Our existence has the same kind of beauty of the dead twisted amid the healthy and beautiful. We would not be the same people we are if we had not born the hardships given to us with a strong faith or turned from the evil of our own doing to face the Son. The evil we bear changes us, and God always brings good out of it when we offer it to Him.
When we die, we will still bear the scars of the life we are now living, just as Jesus bears the marks of His Passion. For while he heals our wounds and forgives our sins, all will be made known (Matthew 10:26-28). Lent reminds us to have more solicitude for our souls than for our bodies. And like the bristlecone which is refined by the wind and the rain after it dies, our souls will undergo a purification. Unlike, the ancient tree which stands on the mountain for only a portion of eternity, we will live forever. There is a greater sense of urgency for us, whose immortal souls are at stake, than for these enduring, but still mortal, trees.
Back in last summer I pulled in closer to the tree and drank in its rich piney smell. It had been worth it to hike up this mountain with our four children in tow. They scrambled through the grove, over the rocky ground, touching the trees, picking up sticks, taking in the view of the desert below. Looking over toward my husband, I could see him thinking the same thoughts. These trees through their persevering existence connected us to something, to someone, greater than ourselves. They taught us something important about ourselves.