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Monks and Trees

Purifying the Christmas Air

The author's family Christmas trees, 40 years later
The author's family Christmas trees, 40 years later

Very few of us want to be remembered for the worst moments of our lives. Even if those worst moments are numerous, there have to be some times when we were our better, more authentic and loving selves.

As the days shorten and darkness covers our late afternoons and evenings, we naturally have some extra time to ponder significant moments of our lives. At holiday times, we remember Christmas and New Year celebrations of decades past. For those of us who grew up in households crossed by the affliction of addiction, holiday celebrations were often marred by unpleasantness, if not outright violence.

My Dad had numerous “worst moments” in his life, but it’s the holiday snafus that stand out in memory, when alcohol too often fueled his smoldering rage. One Thanksgiving was ruined when, after a liquid feast of Schmidt’s beer and Canadian Club instead of turkey, he lost his temper and started wailing on us kids. There was a Christmas when I was home from college, and Dad — who hadn’t lived with us for years — showed up drunk. Long and short of it, I had him arrested that Christmas Eve. The image of him, handcuffed, being led to the cop car past the trees he had planted in our front yard years earlier remains burned in my memory.

How can we crawl out from under the blankets of sorrow and sadness with which such memories threaten to smother us? Those same trees my father planted in my family’s front yard offer me some perspective.

Like a tree purifying the air

“Monks must be as trees which exist silently in the dark and by their vital presence purify the air.” Thomas Merton wrote a monk is like a tree, standing silent, removing from the atmosphere all that makes breathing difficult. Prayerful persons like monks remind us there is a power sanctifying and saving all.

If monks are like trees, then, maybe, trees are like monks. If the silent, prayerful existence of monks helps purify our world, perhaps the presence of trees — especially Christmas trees — can help us purify our own internal atmosphere of any sadness and sorrow that can slip into our hearts at this time of year. In such prayer, “worst moments” lose power.

I strive to remember the good moments — the Christmases we had when I was very young — and all that my father did to make those times magic. What made them truly amazing were the live Christmas trees my Dad would get. These came with a large ball of burlap at the bottom of the tree, enwrapping dirt and roots and smelling of musty earth and moisture. Soon the fresh scent of evergreen permeated the whole house. We had to water it through the days of Christmas (and, in those times, trees were brought in and put up Christmas Eve and taken down no earlier than January 2.)

One can focus on the bad moments in remembering fathers like mine, but that does not bring solace, perspective or peace. I find it much better to practice the finding of trees in the forest of bad moments.

It was all so wonderful and full of wonder: late 1950s small living room, lit by the soft glow of plum-sized fat red, green and yellow bulbs coiled around the tree; the pile of presents in their brightly wrapped boxes; the sheer sense of mystery and meaning filling the air along with the smell of Toll House cookies baked earlier that evening and left for Santa. I’d sneak downstairs, barefoot at 4:30 a.m., while the whole house was silent and still. I’d just sit on the steps, looking at and loving the whole of it all, my little heart beating a drum of excitement and joy. It was as if everything I knew as normal had been transformed in one night.

After Christmas, with my “help,” my father would lug the tree out, still with some tinsel clinging to evergreen branches. He’d lay down the tree and take up the two long wooden handles of a pole cutter, chopping into the cold ground. Soon his muscle and sweat would open a hole, the burlap wrap would be cut, and the tree planted in its new home, warmed with peat moss and watered so roots could grasp a hold in earth.

The house with the Christmas trees planted in front

For years, kids with whom we went to grade school remembered ours as the house “with the Christmas trees planted in front.” Even now people ask if they are still there. Four trees for four kids, planted in the late fifties and early sixties, witness to Christmas care year round.

Today, two of the trees are gone. One’s expanding roots were threatening the stability of the house, its branches growing onto the roof. Another didn’t have enough space to share with the one planted too close to it. But two others remain, well over forty feet tall, evergreen and beautiful, silent sentinels, breathing in and out, watching a world again awaiting the celebration of Christ’s birth.

I don’t remember when my father stopped getting live trees. There was certainly no room for more plantings. Maybe the live trees stopped coming at Christmas when the life went out of the marriage. But those evergreen trees remain as testimony to what once was, for at least a while, a home filled with the generosity of loving parents who did all they could for their four little children at Christmas.

One can focus on the bad moments in remembering fathers like mine, but that does not bring solace, perspective or peace. I find it much better to practice the finding of trees in the forest of bad moments. I go back to that home where I was a little boy, where my mother still lives (and whose identity I protect by writing anonymously.) I gaze on those trees and remember the mystery and lights of those nights, when those trees and I were small, four footers in a world we could barely imagine beyond the warmth and happiness of home.

Now the trees stand strong and alive and call me to do the same. Those trees remind me of the love, albeit fleeting and fault-filled, my father once had for us. “True love is the disciplined generosity we require of ourselves for the sake of another when we would rather be selfish,” writes Yale law professor and novelist Stephen Carter (The Emperor of Ocean Park, 2002, p. 215).

Those Christmas moments, my Dad somehow stumbled past the bottle to grasp that generosity and give of himself to us. Let us remember those better, loving moments. Merry Christmas, Dad.

[This piece was originally published on December 17, 2009.]

Fr. Anonymous gave us “No Hollywood Ending” in Dec 2007.