The wisdom tree

The wisdom tree

Sometimes the place where you used to find wisdom gets destroyed.
Meg Barnhouse


I dragged myself to the early morning Theme Talk, even though it was the last day of a week at church camp and I was tired from staying up late singing with friends and dancing my fool head off. A panel of old-timers was talking about the early days of SUUSI—Southeastern UU Summer Institute, but no one calls it that—which has now grown to nearly a thousand Unitarian Universalists coming together every July on the campus of Virginia Tech. Here is the story that stuck in my mind; Roger Comstock, the former district executive of our Thomas Jefferson District, is the one who told it.

There was a teacher who used to come to the camp every summer, a man who could transform himself into Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Theodore Parker in turn. He would bring his class to sit under a large oak tree out on the quad, and the conversation would range over history, philosophy, and theology. Summer after summer folks would look forward to that class, to sitting under what they came to call “the wisdom tree.” They would look forward to having the kind of conversations where you hear and even say things yourself that surprise and delight you.

One summer night, during the church camp, a storm came through. As the people slept, winds and rain whipped the campus. Lightning flashed and struck hard. It struck close. In the morning, daylight revealed the wisdom tree scattered in splinters on the ground.

As the grounds crew came to clear it away, church people came from every corner of the campus to circle round. One by one they asked to take a piece of the tree home with them.

This story struck me. It makes such a good picture of who we UUs are. There is a broad and spreading wisdom available to us, which shows up in history, theology, poetry, music, art, scripture, conversation, nature, and ritual. Individuals have a spark of the Divine inside, an inner wisdom that, related to sanely, responsibly, and in community, will lead to truth and peace.

Sometimes the place where you used to find wisdom gets destroyed. People fail you, a church disappoints you, new information strips away your feeling about a scripture. It’s as if your wisdom tree is lying in splinters.

In the aftermath of such a coming apart, we are tempted to take our piece of wisdom home with us and stick it in a place of honor, savoring and celebrating that one little piece of wisdom of which we can be sure, pulling it out whenever there is a new question, a new issue, acting as if that piece of wisdom is self-sustaining, and as if it is enough, on its own, to sustain us.

In acting like this, we are forgetting the crucial next step. What is needed is to bring our piece of the wisdom tree back together with the others, to stand together on the roots of what wisdom we have. We do have wisdom within us, but it is not enough to hold and savor just the wisdom we can grasp. Our piece needs to be added to the others.

It is difficult to walk a good spiritual path solo. It helps to be in relationship to a community where your wisdom can be made more whole, challenged, and where it can have fresh life breathed into it by touching it, again and again, to its roots, by bringing it together with the wisdom others carry with them. Then if lightning strikes, if all the places you used to go to learn are ruined, if all the things you used to know for sure are gone, just hold up your piece of wisdom. I’ll be holding mine, and we’ll find each other.