You discern the face of the sky . . . can you not discern the sign of the times?
– Matt 16:3
The Tree of Life (“Tree”) is an ancient mythical symbol and universal archetype. In the Bible, we find the first reference to the Tree “in the middle of the garden” (Gen 2:9), suggesting the Tree is a core symbol of life. Later, the same symbol is used in Proverbs to promote wisdom, a just life, fulfilled hope, kind words, and doing God’s will on earth. In Revelation, the Tree grows along the banks of the river of life and yields seasonal crops in 12-month cycles (Rev 22:2).
Jesus referenced the Tree through images: “I am the vine, you are the branches; who abides in me and I in him, bears much fruit” (John 15:5) and “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit” (John 15:8). So how do we “discern the face of the sky, and . . . signs of the times” in the Tree, and recognize in both the patterns of “Thy Will . . . done on Earth as in Heaven” (Matt 6:10)? Fortunately, we have the cosmotheandric model as our guide, so that seasons on earth point us to reasons in heaven.
Jesuit scholar Raimon Panikkar refers to cosmic, divine, and human dimensions of an integrated “cosmotheandric” experience of the Mystery of Life. The Tree symbolizes manifestations and spatio-temporal sequences of this three-as-one Mystery in the heavenly (cosmic, sky) and earthly (human, life-form) dimensions, as well as eternal-infinite (theos, divine) aspects of an integrated cosmotheandric experience. We can map the visible manifestations of the Mystery to its divine aspects in Catholic teaching and identify parallels in other cultures and faith traditions.
Cosmic: Directions, Days, and Seasons
We orient ourselves to the “face of the sky” with the compass, the clock, and the weathervane. The compass provides directional guidance, and the clock (chronometer) helps us track time (chronos). The weathervane, along with other tools, is a way of discerning seasons (kairos). These space-time coordinates can be applied to the Tree. Through the days and seasons of the year, the cosmos provides the wind, sun, and rain that are necessary for the nourishing and flourishing of life-forms on earth. The Swedish botanist Linneaus even formulated a flower-clock to tell time based on diurnal changes in various floral species!
Human: Life Stages
The lifecycle of the Tree models the stages of life-forms, including plant, animal, and human life. A tree grows from a seed; sends out shoots, stems, and branches; produces leaves, flowers, and fruits in due time; and later sheds both fruit and leaves, which return to the ground to begin the perennial cycle once again. These changes are in accord with the nature of the plant encoded in the seed: “You know them by their fruits; grapes do not grow on thorns, nor figs on thistles” (Matt 7:16). The Tree thus expresses the harmony and interdependence of nature and nurture, genetic and epigenetic aspects that undergird life. While both aspects are visible to us, the Tree symbol also points to a third dimension that is immanent-transcendent. In Catholic teaching, this is referred to as the Paschal Mystery.
Divine: Paschal Mystery
In the Christian tradition, the Paschal Mystery is commemorated “through Him, with Him, and in Him” as the In-carnate (in-the-flesh) and Div-in-e (from div / dev, the Indo-European root word for “light”/“God,” within). Pascha, the root word for “Paschal,” refers to the Jewish Passover, indicating that while forms pass, life does not die but passes over into new life forms. (This is stated as “Life is not ended, but changed” in the Catholic funeral liturgy.)
This transition (Maundy Thursday and Good Friday) and transformation (Holy Saturday and Easter) culminates in Pentecost with an abundant outpouring of the life-giving and life-sustaining Holy Spirit. The Paschal Mystery is linked seasonally to the sky: Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere.
We can now position cosmotheandric expressions of the Tree symbol along the four cardinal directions of the compass. We begin in the west, the direction of the setting sun, which corresponds to evening and the season of autumn. The Tree releases ripe fruit and mature leaves that feed other life forms on and below the ground. In the Paschal Mystery, this is the Last Supper—“Take, this is my body” (Mark 14:22)—and Crucifixion, where Jesus hangs from a tree (Acts 5:30) like ripe fruit, and is later laid to repose in the tomb of the earth.
In the human dimension, this season of maturity maps well to the setting sun: after sharing the body of one’s work with the world, one then drops worldly attachments to release one’s Spirit to the Mystery. Not that this is easy: while on the cross, Jesus did not get a response to his heart-rending cry of anguish—“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22)—yet still trusted Adonai would receive his spirit: “Into your hands, I commend my spirit” (Ps 31:6).
This is the season of trust. Life ebbs only to flow into the great sea of life. It is the season of human compassion (karuna, in the Buddhist tradition), when pain and loss are evident as part of every transition. It is the season of sacrifice, or “making sacred,” by the passing away of self into the One (fanaa, in the Sufi tradition).
Next, we turn clockwise to face north, the direction of the North Star, which corresponds to midnight and the season of winter. The seed of the fruit “digs deep into the ground in order to continue as the life of the forest,” as Rabindranath Tagore writes. The Tree is also pruned in this season. In the Paschal Mystery, this is Holy Saturday, “a stone against the entrance to the tomb” (Mark 15:46); the Divine is hidden from sight (Isa 45:15). On the human journey, this is the period of separation from one’s kith and kin, where one can only wait and “watch where the body was laid” (Mark 15:47).
This is the season of hope: life is in the ground of being. This is also the season of seeking equanimity (upeksha, in the Buddhist tradition) between what is lost and what remains—the human equivalent of pruning. It is the season of solitude and silence, the “dark night” of grief and the “cloud” of unknowing. The sun, the forms, and the divine are all hidden, and yet the stars, “the light [that] shines in the darkness” (John 1:5), lead us to “believe, hoping against hope” (Rom 4:18), that life has reasons in heaven for all its seasons on earth.
Now it’s time to turn east, the direction of the rising sun, which corresponds to morning and the season of spring. The Tree rises from the seed after the hard, cold ground has been softened and warmed by the rain and sun. Leaves and flowers are signs of the renewal of life, which Hildegard of Bingen refers to as “the verdant greening.” How this happens remains a mystery (Mark 4:27-28). In the Paschal Mystery, this is Easter Sunday—“He is not here” (Matt 28:6)—and the tomb is empty. The Divine transforms tomb-to-womb, and empties both as risen life. In human terms, the seed sown nine months earlier is brought forth as “the fruit of the womb” and blossoms into new human beings who carry within the seed of divinity. In the words of Meister Eckhart, ‘The seed of God is in us; pear seeds grow into pear trees, nut seeds into nut trees and God-seeds into God.”
This is the season of joy: life is renewed as new forms. After the winter of longing and silence, this is the spring of belonging and joyous celebration (mudita, in the Buddhist tradition). In the Sufi tradition, this corresponds to baqa (renewal of life “through, with and in God”). A Hopi proverb, “the soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears,” helps us to realize that seasons of trust and hope are followed by seasons of joy.
With the next turn we face south, which corresponds to midday and the season of summer. The Tree is now in full bloom, and fruit begins to appear in plenty—one can count fruit in an orchard, but one cannot count the orchards in a single fruit! In the Paschal Mystery, this is Pentecost, when the Divine Spirit is poured out as gratuitous abundance to sustain life in all its forms. In the human journey, our participation in nurturing and sustaining life yields corporal and spiritual fruit through the work of our hands and hearts.
This is the season of love: life is to love and be loved. Love is the first of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and the core principle of life. To love well is to live well. This is the season of loving-kindness and friendship (maîtri, in the Buddhist tradition). This season reminds us that we are the Divine’s gifts to each other, and since divine love and life are inexhaustible, it is the nature of the God-seed within us to embody the divine commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:14).
On Earth as It Is in Heaven
Let us pause here and consider how seasons on earth relate to reasons in heaven. We return to the Garden and find two references to the cosmotheandric relationship. In Genesis 1:11, God willed “that the earth put forth grass, seed-bearing plants and fruit trees with fruit if its own kind, and containing the seed within itself.” In Genesis 2:3, we read that “God rested . . . in creation,” and the Complete Jewish Bible translation of the verse provides the reason: “so that it itself could produce.”
Genesis 1:11 is reflected in Mark 1:11 (note the three numbers) as the divine will or Seed that bears fruit as humankind, and is as pleased with us as with every other kind: “you are my beloved Son, in you I am pleased.” Thus, reasons in heaven are made manifest in the Tree symbol as seasons—on earth and of our lives—which serve as “assurance of things hoped for, conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).
Notice how the number 1, repeated three times in these three verses, can be multiplied infinitely and still be One! We realize the Divine is the anima mundi (world-soul) that animates the Body of Life in all its forms and makes us members one of another (Eph 4:25). The seed of the Incarnate Divine, “as Spirit and Truth” (John 4:24), bears and shares the fruits of the Spirit through, with, and in our lives. When we do “Thy Will, on earth as in heaven,” the kingdom of heaven is real-ized between us!
We now complete and continue the directional journey “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.” This perennial pattern is represented by the mandala in art, labyrinth for meditation, the Christian sign of the cross, the Jewish sign of Tav, the salah in Islam, and the four-directions prayer of indigenous traditions. Perhaps the simplest way to recognize the perennial pattern is in the universal act of breathing or re-spiration—renewal of life by the Spirit in the four phases of every breath cycle: in-spiration (east, inflow), pause (south, fullness), ex-piration (west, outflow), and pause (north, emptiness). One can also see this pattern in the beating of the heart, another vital (vita, Latin for “life”) sign.
Within Each Particle Shines the One
The Tree symbol is depicted in various forms and formats across cultures and faith traditions. In Hinduism, the Tree “with its roots in heaven, and branches on earth” as taught by Swami Vivekananda, symbolizes the non-dual (a-dvaita, in Sanskrit) nature of life. In his discourses, Jesus recognized non-duality—“The Father and I are One” (John 10:30)—and revealed it to us “so that they may all be one, as you, Father are in me and I in you, that they may also be one in us” (John 17:21). The Buddha held up a flower to illustrate pratitya-samutpada (interdependent co-manifestation), Jewish mysticism conveys the interconnectedness of all life in the Kabbalah symbolism of the Tree, and a Sufi quatrain echoes the mystical message:
Within each particle shines the One
Look within; the One is not far from you,
If you love the One, love everyone
This is the ritual of worship true
The languages of Celtic and Native American faith traditions, as well as poets and mystics, are rich in Tree symbolism that portrays the cosmotheandric nature of the Mystery of Life. Here is a poem by Rabindranath Tagore:
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.
It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth
and of death, in ebb and in flow.
I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.
May we “live, and live abundantly” (John 10:10) within the stream of life that waters the Tree of Life! ♦
O’Neill D’Cruz retired once from academic clinical practice as a pediatrician and neurologist, a second time from the neuro-therapeutics industry, and now spends his time caring, coaching, and consulting from his home in North Carolina, known locally as the “Southern Part of Heaven.” He is a wounded healer who works to heal the wounded, in order that All Shall Be Well.