As I approach the tree, I lay my palm against the gnarled trunk, lower my head, and, crossing myself, I begin an improvised prayer: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit….”
This practice is, I admit, not standard procedure. Ordinarily, one must make one’s confession to an ordained priest of the Church. Or rather, one confesses to Christ, but the absolution must be administered by the priest. In confession—ideally, anyway—one begins the path of healing from one’s sins by repenting, a return of the self to the way of the Lord, a path taken by opening oneself towards the other in love, necessitating the exposure of wrongdoing. The precise role of the priest in relation to this “other” is not universally agreed upon—that he (and in the Orthodox Church, it would be “he”) merely “witnesses” (or “hears”) your confession to Christ, or that he stands in the place of Christ, to whom you confess, are both compatible with the broad outlines of a theology of the priesthood. Ordinarily, such distinctions don’t make much of a difference, but one can appreciate their significance when considering such practices as, for example, believers with very little English confessing to uncomprehending Anglophone priests in their native language. Or, for example, confessing to a tree.
Confessors are usually expected to be human, or at the very least animate. But I am told that when Romanian shepherds take their flocks out into the mountains for the grazing season, where there are no churches and no priests, they have been known to choose a tree, and as long as they are in that place, that tree is their confessor. Normally, I heard, they receive absolution from their (human) priest when they return home.
I am not a Romanian shepherd, and my appropriation of this custom was perhaps unusual. Studying in Prague for the year, I had been (mostly) faithful to my weekly attendance at the Divine Liturgy, standing through hours of chanting in Czech, or perhaps Slavonic (my knowledge of the two isn’t good enough to distinguish one from the other). Later, I took to reading along with the liturgy in English on my phone, which meant subjecting myself to the disapproving glances of my co-religionists, and perhaps some quiet remarks about youth and technology. I had similar trouble finding a priest I could confess to. Once I made my confession to a Romanian priest at a small wooden chapel on the Petřin Hill, but then no one answered when I called the number he gave me, so I was at a lose end yet again. Shortly after this, a visiting professor told us about the Romanian shepherd custom.
We are mostly accustomed to thinking of trees as inanimate beings, and Christianity has on the whole done very little to discourage this simple impression. Strictly, for the Greek Fathers, plants do have a soul—ψυχή, a term indicating, as Father Andrew Louth puts it, “the principle of life that any living being has.” At the same time, however, human beings are distinguished by having a rational or intellectual soul. Exactly what “rational” or “intellectual” means for the Fathers can be debated (the association with Λογος, indicating both the order by which all things exist and also the Second Person of the Trinity, lends an important nuance here), but whatever else can be said, the superiority and authority of human beings over the rest of creation has been a standard historic teaching for most of Christianity’s history in most places.
On this question, it would be difficult for a Christian who was troubled by such teaching to seek refuge, as might be expected, in the life of Jesus. Indeed, if anything, the Christian savior is more severe on the apparently inanimate, as perhaps best highlighted by the Jain Christian theologian, Manilal Parekh. Coming to Christianity from a tradition with a strong emphasis on the sacredness of all living things, the teachings of his Lord presented him with a difficulty. On the one hand, they are rich with natural imagery, from his reflections on the lilies of the field and the birds of the air in the Sermon on the Mount to his frequent comparisons between seeds or trees and the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, he curses a fig tree and causes it to wither and die without hesitation, in an act that could be interpreted at best as a willingness to sacrifice a living thing to prove a point, and at worst an act of petty anger. Parekh pointed out that such an attitude towards the natural world—alongside the miraculous catch of fish and his habit of eating meat—made the Christian savior distinctly unappealing to Jains, long accustomed to their principle of “ahimsa,” not causing harm to any living thing. The Jain founder Mahavira once said, “You are that which you wish to harm.” Jesus’ attitude to the natural world, by contrast, seemed to be one of indifference for the most part, scarcely appropriate for one supposed to be a moral exemplar, let alone divine.
A tree, a living being, a ψυχή—some are young, young enough for us to remember them being planted, their quiet growth, their springing up towards the sky and sun. Some are old enough to remember our, our parents’, our grandparents’ births, each winter and summer preserved in the physical memory of their trunk. They remember things we cannot, or cannot in the same way; temperature, humidity, the gas in the air—inconsequential things, from our perspective, but the very life of these beings, a life largely inaccessible to us. What would it be like to be a tree? Solitary or in the slow community of a forest, rooted (literally) beyond any human measure, incommunicative in any language that has yet passed human lips, but speaking softly beneath their wooden breath, in voices lower than human ears can hear.
Occasionally, Christian thinkers have recognized the animacy of trees, these souls that are not human souls, although they are usually loath to attribute its neglect to Christianity itself. The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, for example, considers the understanding of the natural world as a “mere mechanism” as Cartesian,
and for this reason I have never been able to feel very fond of Descartes. But […] I go further. The death of a tree which I have loved and in which I have found delight may be a tragic thing for me, and my spiritual strength may be exerted for its resurrection.
Berdyaev perhaps does not realize how securing the dignity of a tree in his love for it as an unreciprocated relation does not really undermine the mechanistic metaphysics he criticizes. Or perhaps he doesn’t really care—a key component of Berdyaev’s overall philosophy is “anthropodicy,” a justification of the ontological centrality of humanity, whereas today, in the midst of a near-apocalyptic climate crisis, this centrality might be seen more as a mortal sin than a philosophical first principle. Is there a contradiction between his ontology of love, an insistence on the centrality of the dynamism of relationship, and his one-sided approach to his supposed love for trees? At the very least, he seems strikingly well-adjusted to his unrequited crush, a “tragic thing” that ushers him into the role of hero.
But is it really so unrequited? If St. Paul is to be believed, it is not only Berdyaev who is striving for the resurrection, but the whole creation, which is groaning, even, as in birth pains for redemption (Romans 8:18-23). The Psalmist speaks of the trees “singing for joy” (96:12), and Isaiah tells us they will “clap their hands” (55:12) for the coming of the Lord. Can inanimate things groan? Can a rock sing or clap? If, as Habbakuk (2:11) and Jesus (Luke 19:40) both claim, they may cry out, then maybe so. The human is not alone in the universe: we are forever surrounded by a great throng of voices, each singing and crying and groaning in strange tongues that we are so slow to learn. Perhaps we would be quicker if we were more willing, if we were interested in these beings beyond just being part of a landscape that we have forcefully made our own. Rarely do we attain fluency in their languages, but it is not a unique experience to sit or stand in the presence of a pet or a house plant, or a favorite tree, and to feel that one is not entirely alone.
There, with my head lowered, my palm against the bark, I did not feel like I was talking to myself (though it wouldn’t be the first time religious devotion were taken for madness). There they stood, quietly listening, as I began: “I confess to you, the Lord my God, and before you as witness….”
Jonathan Murden writes a monthly column of cultural theology. Murden is an Orthodox Christian and undergrad currently based in the north of England.