The Tree of Awe

F E B R U A R Y

Above the altar in the chapel at Nada Hermitage — a small Carmelite place of retreat in the Colorado desert — hangs a crucifix unlike any I have ever seen. It almost speaks. Jesus is clearly alive there, nailed to his cross of wood. His chest swells forth, almost grotesque, as if his heart is thorn treeabout to burst out of its confines. His face is turned, looking slightly away and up, with an expression of such surprise and awe that you imagine the sky has broken open with a supernal light that only he can see.

The symbology of this icon may be extreme, but for me it speaks exactly of our condition, each of us, here on earth. For who among us can escape tragedy, agony, loss, and heartbreak? Even those with seemingly delightful, easy lives must experience the death of loved ones, the poignancy of things passing, and witness the unhealable anguish suffered by our brothers and sisters throughout the world. It breaks our hearts. All of us live with broken hearts, whether from the great disappointment we feel for our species’ repeated descents into violence and meanness, or from smaller, but no less intense, disappointments we feel for not being loved the way we want, or for not being the person we hoped to be, or for not being understood, or for any of our countless dreams deferred. When we do experience sweet moments of love and intimacy, it doesn’t take long before things change and we get irritable or feel pressured and the sweetness is gone. That’s heartbreak too. We can’t avoid it, just like Jesus can’t avoid his cross.

Sufis speak of a timeless time when “we were what we were before we were,” a time of pure unity when there was no division between us and the Absolute. But then a line was drawn that allowed there to be lover and beloved. Loverness and belovedness searched for each other, seeking their unity, but even when they succeeded, the union could not last. “If there is pain,” wrote the 17th century Indian Sufi Kwaja Khurd, “it is this: This state [of unity] cannot be permanent, since it has been established that the self-disclosure of the Essence passes like a flash of lightning and does not remain. O the infinite pain, the endless agony!”

That, too, is our heartbreak, at least for those of us mystically inclined. Jesus’ body on that cross seems to want to fly free toward the light, but is nailed there, caught.

And yet there is something else alive for us in this polarity of heartbreak and joy, separation and unity — the vertical and horizontal axes of the cross. In a couplet written by Jelaluddin Rumi, the secret within the meeting of these two opposites is expressed:

You must have shadow and light source both.
Listen, and lay your head under the tree of awe.

The first line states the irrevocable nature of the cross we bear: we must have shadow and light both. There is no way out of it here on earth. And then the second line begins with two instructions: “listen” and “lay your head under.” We might think Rumi would use the word “see” rather than “listen,” since shadow and light are visual images, but the event of listening asks a greater surrender, an emptying out, a receiving. We lay our head under and stop trying to think our way through this. What is happening is so far beyond what we can know.

Lay your head under the tree of awe. Supernovas explode, lovers hold hands on garden paths, babies are born, bullets kill, Christ is crucified, birds glide in the light of dawn, our hearts break for all that is lost — there is no other response possible to the irreconcilable enormity of it all, but awe. The tree of awe isn’t something that is finished. Its branches grow infinitely into the farthest heavens and into the most loving and agonizing moments of our lives. Lying here, looking up at it, there is nothing more we can say, but at least we know we are in good company.