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An Espalier of Saints

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s The Sign of Jonas lately, while I watch my daughter take gymnastics. The room is a cavernous space, ceilinged by giant fans that only somewhat dissipate the odor of sweat. The floor is an evolving phantasm of trampolines and colorful foam sculptures, all designed to make falling a more pleasant experience. In between are various ropes, beams, rings, and bars more fit for an orangutan’s strength than a person’s.

My daughter and her classmates do their exercises beneath these, venturing onto various apparatus at the direction of their coaches. The smaller athletes are not allowed to attempt just any old movement, yet they test the limits of their own boldness. It’s obvious they want to go further, to climb higher. The twelve-year-olds wish to be fifteen, the nine-year-olds to be twelve, the four-year-olds to be nine.

In the same gym as these tiny sprites are 18-year-olds appearing to contend as world champion tumblers. Muscled like Delacroix paintings, these new adults launch upward as though leaving a trebuchet. It inspires some alarm to have Olympic aerials translated from television into real life. The parent in me cringes. Not to say the coaches and athletes aren’t careful. In point of fact, all the somersaults, handsprings, L-sits, dismounts, and flight elements follow meticulously constructed body patterns many seasons in the making. Each astounding turn of a gymnast is a lightning bolt tracing down an unseen trail of ions, a pathway of yearslong discipline. That invisible part is what my daughter is currently enduring.

The younger children work on small drills, inscribing their bodily memories with rote stretches and minuscule swings, slowly teaching each muscle from week to week to leverage a little more weight over thin air. From the gallery, it appears to run the risk of boredom. While the advanced students wheel through the air around them, the newest amateurs merely hold their hands up and pogo down a long trampoline. Or they roll. Or they walk on a line.

If we are compared to plants in Scripture, to vines and lilies and oaks, it stands to reason that the obedience of these creatures should be iconic to us. Obedience should stand apart from understanding. Adam Whipple

Reading Thomas Merton provides a good metaphor for watching them. Any hagiography toward which we might be tempted in regards to Merton gets summarily swatted away in The Sign of Jonas. It’s a journal in which he struggles openly with his frustrations. Merton wants mostly to be left alone to seek after the Lord, but his superiors continue to give him work. In addition to the normal physical life of the abbey, there is so much writing. Plus, the abbey must contend with the fact that Merton is famous. Then there are all the vagaries of small church life: bad singing, mediocre teaching, irritating make-work. Through the sovereignty of the Holy Ghost, Merton is changed even by these frustrations. Yet like a child doing her gym exercises, this grown man often does not see the point while in the moment.

We wrestle with what is formative. How long is it before these stretches, prancings, and small round-offs in the gym become ballistic feats? The children must ask themselves. Our initial sense of wonder drains like a leaky bowl when we’re surrounded by derring-dos we aren’t allowed to try. All gymnastics dads owe a debt of gratitude to the Suni Lees and Simone Biles of the world for their inspiration. No cajoling of mine could instill half so much dedication in a group of nine-year-olds. In gymnastics, obedience comes before understanding. Children do not learn centripetal force and the physical mechanics of the vastus medialis; they learn to lift their legs when the teacher says so.

I watch them, relegated to my spectatorial seat. They remind me of fruit trees, limbs commanded into unexplained contortions over time.

Long ago, perhaps millennia, plant husbandry began to take on various forms of espalier, a practice in which woody stems are forced to grow along a prescribed pattern. If you’ve never seen it, grape vines are an obvious example, though a wily one. More geometric horticulture exists: apple trees and quince trees trained up into candelabra along stuccoed courtyards, boxwoods quietly trimmed into the pride of an English household, hornbeams pleached into living fencework. The gardening even escapes the bounds of the individual gardener, becoming a grandiose labor of generations. In India, the fey ropings of the banyan tree are woven into bridges wide and strong enough to hold stepping stones. Building these is communal in the high sense of the word. Not only does it require the efforts of sometimes an entire village, but the bridge itself is a living connection, an architecture of agreement transcending the differences of people on either side. In this, one of the rainiest corners of the world, such structures withstand floodwaters even as poor concrete spans wash away. Some banyan bridges date back more than five centuries.

The trees, as far as we can tell, never know. They live, striving for an ongoing cocktail of light, water, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, never asking more than simply to obey the rules written into their bodies. If we are compared to plants in Scripture, to vines and lilies and oaks, it stands to reason that the obedience of these creatures should be iconic to us. Obedience should stand apart from understanding.

Who among us is actually good at this, at obeying? Who is good at applying instructions like, If you love me, keep my commandments? It is an age of deconstruction, of asking skeptical questions, though I personally tend to doubt the applicable worth of vogue terms, of which deconstruction has become one. If such things are alarming to us, as perhaps they should be at times, we might still take comfort. Firstly, skepticism is nothing new, and while the line between healthy skepticism and the sin of unbelief may be a thin one, it is not a particular function of modernity (see Thomas, called Didymus). Secondly, questions in themselves are not evil (see Book of Job). Our children ask questions, and we don’t fault them, even though we may not always give them the answers they want. We as followers of Jesus are the children of God. Why should we avoid questions? Why should we expect that the Lord would give us our preferred answer, or any answer at all?

We see Sayers and Teresas, Kings and Kellers, Lewises and Tolkiens, all leaping into the glorified air, and our movements seem mundane by comparison. Adam Whipple

The trees have more to say about obedience than mere notions of utility or food. They were there in the very beginning, many groves of provision, along with the one tree in the center of Eden. It’s tempting to look at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as an accident waiting to happen. Why place it there at all, a locus of entrapment in an otherwise perfect garden? Trained as we are by the unrealities of modern cinema, we are also inclined to look at this tree as a magic plant, its fruit glistening neon and pulsating with a nearly audible siren song. I wasn’t there, but I don’t suspect this was the case.

What was at the center of Eden? It was obedience, a matter of choice. There are other words for this: love, worship. Without the opportunity to obey the Lord, we are not really souls. Without the choice to worship Him in our thoughts, words, and deeds, love is not love. The tree itself, I believe, was not powerful. The command was powerful. The choice to obey was powerful.

It’s a slow process for us, this training up in the path we should follow. When you bend a tree to your will as a gardener, there is no fast way. In fact, there are often cross purposes. The tree buds in prolific fashion, venturing ever outward. Every spring, these buds must be rubbed off, effectively gainsaid. If the plant is left untended, limbs will sprout, constructing their own fractal trails through the air. These must be cut off in multiple acts of small violence. Then, for fruit trees, there is pruning. In the end, it makes for better apples and pears, but pruning is not the inborn will of the tree.

Obedience is inherently, from our perspective, misunderstood. And irritating. Place this leg there, then down. Repeat. Repeat it again. Tie your musculature to this restrictive framework. When will it grow into something worthwhile? It is the gardener’s business to know the answer.

As I watch the kids on the gym floor and pause for little breaths of Thomas Merton, I can’t ignore the parallels of my participation in the Body of Christ. There are so many irritating things I am commanded to do. Show up. Sing along. Listen. Allow houseroom for others. Don’t major in the minors.

Repent. Obey. We see Sayers and Teresas, Kings and Kellers, Lewises and Tolkiens, all leaping into the glorified air, and our movements seem mundane by comparison. Yet it is in this slowness of exercise that we are made into what we already are. It is the way in which saints are made saints.

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