In my 3rd motu proprio at the end of March I asked if anyone had a favourite tree – and received a great and varied response – with many reasons for the relationship.
If you thought that my question was strange then – try this one now: Do you have a Braveheart Tree ?!
I am lucky in that – like my favourite tree – my brave one is also close at hand – and it has a history much much older than my beloved favourite. It has stood in the field between the Castle and the Pleasure Grounds for over 200 years – since Napoleonic times! In 2017, it was one of the victims of hurricane Ophelia – which hit Ireland as the biggest superstorm in a generation. The roots held good – but its trunk snapped at a height of about 12 ft – and my Braveheart was suddenly and dramatically transformed – with its main branches broken and cut off from of life in its roots. It was now good only to be sawn up and taken away for fuel. For the past three winters it has stood like a forlorn wounded animal – a sort of blight on the landscape – and every year I wondered had it died. But it is still there – confounding us all – standing proud, if slightly scarred – among its tall and mighty neighbours – like a little [somewhat older!] Napoleon among his soldiers! My Braveheart Tree – planted in his day – refuses to die!
It is now nearly 10 weeks since Clongowes was suddenly and dramatically transformed by this year’s Ophelia – covid-19 – our invisible enemy . On March 12th Clongowes emptied at joyful speed – as everyone set off on what was thought to be a temporary suspension of class and bells – leaving some parts of the School looking like the tourist attraction which is the ancient city of Pompei – paralyzed after the eruption of Vesuvius – frozen in time!
But it quickly became clear that – just like for Pompei and for Braveheart – the break would be non-reversal. Online teaching would become the normal – Rhetoric 2020 would be deprived of the important living out the various comforting and confirming rituals to concluding their time in Clongowes …….. and, as I write – all other years are at home sitting exams and finalizing portfolios – as our 206th year comes to an unexpected end.
I am drawn to reflect on how we have been living out the experience of this pandemic – and what we have learnt from it all. During this Laudato Si’ week [when Pope Francis reminds us of the need to care for our planet earth] what strikes me immediately is how nature has continued its tranquil way towards the full bloom of summer. When lockdown started, my Braveheart Tree was, to all appearances, dead. But contact with its living roots has allowed it to come good – along with all its companions in the beautiful arboreal surroundings of Clongowes.
And I ask myself what has been the effect of the pandemic on us? We have been constricted by lockdown in so many ways – cocooned or confined to 2 kms from home – hospitalized or in the front-line of service to the sick – operating essential services – with shops and pubs and cinemas and churches closed – shut off from so much of what we were taking for granted [beginning with our loved ones – especially the elderly]. And what have we learned? Have we become – like Thomas Kinsella’s trees in his poem Mirror in February – “hacked clean for better bearing”?
Perhaps we have learned to adapt – to renew ourselves and make less mistakes – to be more considerate and responsible – to appreciate others [especially those in service to the sick and needy] – to take less for granted and to be more grateful for we have – to be more generous in caring and giving ….. and, hopefully – to trust in God.
And it is here that we rejoin my Braveheart – shaken and bruised perhaps – but, with contact maintained with its life-giving roots – still giving praise to its Creator by bursting out in leaf again this year. Perhaps, when our churches will fully reopen – drawing life from our roots with the Lord – we might be more inclined to “drop in” for a quiet moment or to join a community in prayer and worship – and, in our own way, give praise to our Creator.
So we live in hope – hope that covid-19 will be defeated – that we will resume normal life again with a new sense of normality – with greater consciousness of God’s creative hand in all of nature – conscious of the unique value to Him of each one of our brothers and sisters and of our own selves. This is healthy and human. But let us also live in Hope – that Hope, which, closely linked to Faith – enables us – held in the hollow of God’s Hands – to hold firm in these strange and challenging times – trusting that He will care for us in all our ways.
As St Augustine says: You have made us for Yourself, O Lord – and our hearts are restless until they rest in You!
Fr Michael Sheil SJ