Monastery of the Holy Spirit
CONYERS, Ga. -- Christmas trees are like people in that each one is different. Some, like the tree that sits at Rockefeller Center are grand and impressive. Others, like the one that collapsed under the weight of a few lousy ornaments in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, are not so special.
Beautiful or pitiful, they remain the quintessential symbol of Christmas because nothing signals the season of believing like a decked out yuletime tree.
A trip 35 miles east of Atlanta may have you rethinking Christmas trees, or at least the sorts of trees that truly tell the story of Christmas.
As he walks across the property of The Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, on his way to the green house, Brother Gerard, one of the monks at the monastery says, "Advent is about waiting for new life isn't it? For the newness of life."
The other tree that tells that story of the wait for new life is the bonsai tree, miniature trees trained to look old and in some cases, wizened.
"Bonsai is an artform of a tree and a pot. That's what it means, literally." Brother Gerard is one of several monks skilled at bonsai, an artform that fits the contemplative, prayerful life of a monk.
"It takes a listening heart and a listening eye, if we can say a listening eye," he chuckles, "That's listening to the tree, listening to God speak through the tree and to see God's beauty in that tree. You need to discover the beauty of the tree hidden beneath the exterior and unfold that beauty. Bonsai requires me to be still inside so that I can see more deeply. Going beyond my eyes, seeing what this tree has to say to me. It forces me to pray, to be present to God, because I can't do it without being present to God."
The process is painstaking, delicate. A lifetime can be spent on a single tree, which is why the cost of these bonsai range from 35 dollars to thousands.
"It takes time to make great art."
Time to train a tree, to reveal possibility.
Turning a tree on a work table, Brother Gerard says, "So we take a tree and we rotate it around, looking at all aspects of it, discovering what's there and clipping off things we know we won't want later."
Each tree has its own story. Pointing to one that seems to be leaning, he sweeps his hand over it. "This one is windswept like it's going this way." He points to another. "It shows the struggle of the tree in nature to get light, to get its place in the world, and so it has to bend and move."
The crooked gnarled trunks, the twisted straining limbs -- there is no such thing as a perfect bonsai.
"The beauty comes very often in the fact that it isn't perfect."
The struggle, the search for its place in the world, the flaws laid bare - bonsai speaks to the human condition -- to what we fail to see in the world and within ourselves.
"It helps us to see beauty in our own deformities. Augustin calls God beauty so there's something of God when that beauty unfolds. It speaks to our hearts."
A tiny tree with an old soul -- awaiting new life -- unadorned. A tree about Christmas. A tree about us.
"We have our struggles and if we struggle well like a tree, we do find the light, we find God's light, and there is beauty.