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The Two Trees

“God spoke to me this morning.”

I looked up at Philip with a little grin. I always save my best thoughts for those mellow moments towards the end of the meal, when there’s a little wine left in the glasses and the dishes in the sink have yet to be thought of and Caspian, having abandoned all hope of receiving anything from the table, has laid his head down on Philip’s foot with a sigh that is not so much resignation as the slackening of a campaign.

“He did?” Philip’s face was all animated interest in the soft glow of candlelight and he laid down his fork. “In the Bible?”

“No—it was in a poem.” I paused and lifted my eyebrows significantly.

“Is that so?” He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms with a satisfied smile. “And do I get to hear it?”

That was all I was waiting for, and he knew it. I dashed into the kitchen where my journal sat waiting on the counter and dashed back again, as if afraid that the enchanted moment of communion would pass if the twilight deepened any more outside or the candles on the table burned a bit lower. I read it out loud to him there in the waning, flickering light and could feel the joy throbbing in my voice, unabated since that morning’s first perusal of Yeats’ The Two Trees.

When I was done Philip silently reached for my journal which I had laid on the table between us and read it slowly to himself. When he finally looked up at me his face bore a reflection of my own joy, and a sympathy with what I had seen buried like a horde of fairie gold within the exquisite lines.

THE TWO TREES by: William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

BELOVED, gaze in thine own heart, The holy tree is growing there; From joy the holy branches start And all the trembling flowers they bear. The changing colours of its fruit Have dowered the stars with merry light; The surety of its hidden root Has planted quiet in the night; The shaking of its leafy head Has given the waves their melody, And made my lips and music wed, Murmuring a wizard song for thee. There the Loves a circle go, The flaming circle of our days, Gyring, spiring to and fro In those great ignorant leafy ways; Remembering all that shaken hair And how the wingèd sandals dart, Thine eyes grow full of tender care: Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass The demons, with their subtle guile, Lift up before us when they pass, Or only gaze a little while; For there a fatal image grows That the stormy night receives, Roots half hidden under snows, Broken boughs and blackened leaves. For all things turn to barrenness In the dim glass the demons hold, The glass of outer weariness, Made when God slept in times of old. There, through the broken branches, go The ravens of unresting thought; Flying, crying, to and fro, Cruel claw and hungry throat, Or else they stand and sniff the wind, And shake their ragged wings; alas! Thy tender eyes grow all unkind: Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

While I make no pretense to literary criticism, or to the analysis of Yeats’ belief system, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the two trees in the poem stand for the trees found in the original Eden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And the reality which they image is one that has been with us in all its sorrow and bliss since the Fall: that of man’s choice. We chose that latter tree under the delusion of a lie and a warped perception of what assures freedom and joy and life and peace. And with it we got all the bitter barrenness of hell itself. The glass, or mirror, the demons hold is not so much a falsehood as it is a mockery. “Look what you got for all your pains: an agony of death-in-life and a cheap imitation of life-in-death!” One fatal choice and the whole beauty of the created order was shaken, shattered. And might it not be so that every time a similar choice is made, every time the fatal image is taken for the real and the lie is plucked and swallowed that the Fall happens all over again, essentially if not actually?

The affair in the Garden was not about keeping rules or breaking them so much as choosing the Desire of our souls or choosing His counterfeit. At the heart of this poem lies that ancient choice, as terrible today as it was when God first granted it in the Garden: heaven or hell? Life or death? Not only for all eternity but for this very moment snared in time. “Gaze on this,” the poet pleads, “not on that.” Love and long for—in other words, submit to and believe—the ecstasy of the Life offered you. Take faith to turn from the ruin of your own heart and fix your eyes on something that is truer than all the sorrow of the world put together.

It has been said that for every look at self we must take ten looks at Christ. I find that truth expressed with such magnificent beauty in this poem. For while the accepted interpretation—and for all I know, the original intent—of these lines may uphold an inward search for goodness apart from Christ, as a Christian I take great delight in the freedom I have to celebrate the gleaming flashes of truth that glitter and sparkle with such inexorable joy in the world around me. We’re miners, really, we servants of the true King, plunging through a darkened world in enemy territory to retrieve the scattered bits of Eden that were made to flame in the light of the sun. For though far-flung and often couched amid the hard crust of error and inaccuracy, they are there all the same. As C. S. Lewis recounted in Surprised by Joy, longings that disclose eternal realities may be mediated to us by ‘the water-colour world of Morris, the leafy recesses of Malory, the twilight of Yeats…’ That is just the wonder of poetry—or of anything beautiful, for that matter. It bears the opportunity of communicating spiritual truth, these remnants of a lost paradise with which our tired earth is endowed like veins of living gold, and give us courage to hope in a Redemptive Plan that is steadily, patiently, unrelentingly working to restore all things to their original purpose.

For what does the ‘holy tree’ represent if not Holy Desire: indeed, the Life from which all living springs? As a believer I have the blessed opportunity to gaze into my own heart and see Jesus Christ. To find the mad paradox of His beauty and light and goodness and truth breaking irresistibly through the many chinks and cracks of this very flawed human vessel. To call myself a saint, of all things, and to laugh at the gorgeous joke of it and to know that it’s the realest thing about me. That unspeakable realness jars me time and again from morbid introspection and self-centered cynicism. It reminds me that while ‘those who fain would serve Him best are conscious most of wrong within,’ the consciousness of our very weakness is what ultimately propels us towards Him with a force that all the ‘natural virtues’ in the world together could never muster. And it silences those ‘ravens of unresting thought,’ those ceaseless doubts and questions and inward deliberations, as if by some potent charm. When the home of our thoughts shifts from ‘who am I?’ to ‘Who is He?’ I believe we begin to fathom the miracle of ‘Christ in us, the hope of glory’.

When my sister was in art school, one of her assignments was to paint a self portrait that would be subjected to a peer review. With characteristic unconventionality, and in one of the bravest moves she could make as an artist, she produced a work that was different than anyone else’s in the class. Dividing her face down the middle, she painted one half as her normal self: short red hair, a mouth curving in what could be mischief or pensiveness, a wide-eyed intentness to the gaze. The mirror image had many of the same distinguishing features, but the hair was long and soft like something you’d see in Rossetti, and the face was even more beautiful than my beautiful sister can’t help being. But the most striking thing about it was the nimbus of gold radiating from that half of the head, recalling the treatment of Orthodox iconography.

“So, you think you’re a saint?” jeered her classmates.

But my sister had made her quiet statement. And though she has gone on to produce works of stunning technical mastery and classical realism, that painting remains one of my favorites to this day. It’s the majestic sweep of the gospel, the essence of Romans 6, 7 and 8 encapsulated in one visual experience.

The truth is that anyone in Christ is a brand new creation: ‘the old has gone; the new has come’. Throughout the Bible, God’s people are likened to thriving trees and fruitful gardens, springing with a Life that is bigger than they are. He calls us ‘trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord’; He promises that if we abide in Him we’ll bear fruit that remains. I just love that image of His life in me: an indefatigably green growing thing that even my obtuseness, my failures and sins, cannot destroy. Flowers and their fruit borne of no effort but that of yielding and birds of joy singing and darting among the branches.

And the flaming circle of immortality resting like a nimbus over my head.


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