“But when you become silent like the lily and the bird, then you are at the beginning, which is first to seek God’s Kingdom” S. Kierkegaard
At the beginning of Advent, I picked up a very old copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales given to me by my mother at my baby shower and read the story of “The Fir Tree” to Audrey. In the story, a small fir tree is growing in a forest. He “had a good place; it could have sunlight, air there was in plenty, and all around grew many larger comrades—pines as well as firs.” But the fir tree wasn’t content because he wanted to be greater. “It did not care for the warm sun and the fresh air; it took no notice of the peasant children, who went about talking together, when they had come out to look for strawberries and raspberries.”
The fir tree grew, but he still wanted to be bigger and greater. “It took no pleasure in the sunshine, in the birds, and in the red clouds that went sailing over him morning and evening…’Oh! to grow, to grow, and become old; that’s the only fine thing in the world,” thought the Tree.”
As the fir tree grew taller, he noticed some of the trees in the forest being cut down, and asked the storks and swallows where they were taken. One stork tells him they were made into ship masts, and the fir tree wishes he could be big enough to go over the sea. “Rejoice in thy youth,” the sunbeams tell him. “And the wind kissed the Tree, and the dew wept tears upon it; but the Fir Tree did not understand that.” Later he sees some of the smaller trees being taken away and the sparrows tell him about how they’ve seen them in windows in the middle of warm rooms adorned with beautiful things. He hopes that this will be his destiny and longs to know what even greater thing must happen after the trees are adorned.
At this point in the story, one really starts to feel sorry for the little tree picturing sad, discarded Christmas trees with a few remaining pieces of tinsel tossed on curbs awaiting pick-up.
The tree gets its wish though, and after a surprisingly sad parting from its home in the woods, is chosen as a family’s grand tree. He’s decorated with small presents and lit candles and “quite bewildered with all the brilliance.” Later, the children enter the room and take off all of the presents, cracking the branches. Then a little fat man sits by the tree and tells the children a story. The tree thinks the next night he’ll be adorned again, but instead the servants come in and put him in a dark corner of an attic for many days and nights. The tree is lonely, but hopeful that the people are just waiting until spring to replant him. He makes friends with the mice who gather around him to hear tales of his youth in the wood “where the sun shines, and where the birds sing.” And he thinks to himself, “Those were quite merry days!” He even tells them the story the fat little man told. “I heard that on the happiest evening of my life; I did not think then how happy I was.” Eventually the mice leave and the tree reminisces about even that, “It was very nice when they sat round me, the merry little Mice, and listened when I spoke to them.”
Finally the little tree is taken outside, and just when he thinks life is about to begin again, he realizes how old and withered he is. The servants come and chop him up and make a fire where the children playing outside come to warm themselves. As he crackles, the tree thinks of his youth in the woods, the winter night when he was adorned, and the little mice listening to his stories. And the story ends, “Now that was past, and the Tree’s life was past, and the story is past too: past! past! —and that’s the way with all stories.”
In typical HC Andersen style, a story a child can understand illuminates and encapsulates some of the deepest and most inarticulable things about life and the human condition. While I hadn’t intended originally to start Advent with such a sobering story—such a contrast to the joy of this season—in retrospect, I think it sets the tone quite well for a season of intense longing and waiting and quieting. Before mindfulness was trendy, Andersen’s story reminds us to pay attention—to the sun and the wind and the simple things, to where we are right now, even if it’s a dark corner with only mice to keep us company; it’s possible that later that dark corner even, may appear merry.
A couple of weeks later, at breakfast, Audrey said “Sometimes I wish when I was young, like three, I wasn’t always saying, ‘I hate being little,’ because…now I’m old, and I’m getting grey hairs.” We laughed together about the tone she said it in, but I knew she’d internalized, at least a little, the message of the story and understood the dangers of being in a hurry to grow, of longing to be somewhere else, of trying to grasp things that we are not ready for yet.
I thought I’d learned this “lesson” when my husband died, but it’s less of a “lesson learned” and more of a process and practice, of returning to it when you go astray, of accepting that you will never do it perfectly. The human condition is very much one of moving forward and then looking back. The growing and missing are nowhere more palpable and bittersweet than in mothering a child. Some days and moments you will be fully present and savoring your child, able to tell those women who tell you to enjoy them while they’re young, “Thanks, I do.” Other days will go by in a blur of tantrums and weariness and you’ll find yourself looking back at a video from just a year ago, amazed at how she says that word correctly now and her cheeks have lost all their chubbiness and you somehow missed it. Most of our life is spent somewhere in between those two scenarios…and that…is OK.
But I think what is so sorrowful about the Little Fir Tree, and what feel so fruitless about simply trying to “be more mindful” as a solution to it, is that both are really attempts at the same thing- control. The fir tree is the prodigal son, running out to spend his inheritance. The mindful practitioner is the elder brother, staying home and doing what he’s “supposed to do”—also to gain control of his inheritance. Neither finds contentment.
A few days after we read “The Little Fir Tree,” we read another Advent story- the story of Mary and Elizabeth. I love the image of this young girl and this old woman, both pregnant, and Elizabeth’s baby leaping with joy in her womb at Mary’s entrance. I also kind of love how Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah must endure a kind of pregnancy of his own when he is made mute for nine months after asking how his wife could become pregnant in her old age. But as I read the story with Audrey, I was thinking about how Zechariah’s response to the announcement that his wife would become pregnant wasn’t really that different from Mary’s. He had asked the angel, “How will I know this is so?” while Mary asks about her own pregnancy, “How can this be?” Mary’s response is viewed throughout history as such a beautiful response of surrender and she follows it with the more quoted,”I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” Zechariah’s question, in contrast, leads to the reprimand of imposed silence.
A day or so later my own Advent reading was a lovely piece on just this passage by the writer Kathleen Norris, who I had the privilege of meeting last June at the Buechner Writing Conference at Princeton Seminary. She directly answered my question. She declared in fact, that the two responses were radically different. “While Zechariah is seeking knowledge and information, Mary contents herself with wisdom, with pondering a state of being.” Her response is “a simpler response than Zechariah’s, and also more profound.” “How will I know this?” versus “How can this be?”
Wisdom. Pondering a state of being. What if the little fir tree had pondered his state of being? What if he had received the simple wisdom from the sun and the weeping dew rather than trying to ascertain knowledge: “Where had those tall trees gone? What is the sea? Where were the smaller trees going? What even greater thing happened next after the adornment?”
What if, instead of trying to mindfully enjoy every moment of our lives before it slips away—which it will—we received the wisdom that each experience and moment in time brought? What if, instead of wanting to know everything now, Google at our fingertips, we lived and accepted mystery? What if we surrendered to the passage of time and our place in it?
We need not rush our moments or squander our gifts like the fir tree. We need not work so hard to enjoy each moment before it is passes, as all stories do. There is a third way. The third way ties our story to a much larger one. The third way is the way of surrender, wisdom, and mystery that relinquishes control and lets the longing of Advent stay, despite discomfort, despite the waiting, and despite limited understanding.
I’m not sure how we get there, but I think Zechariah’s nine months of silence gives us an idea of how to birth this kind of wisdom and mystery into our lives. When I am knowledge-weary and mystery-hungry, I find myself staying away from Facebook and turning off NPR in the car. Turning away from every article telling me what to do and what not to do(which seems to change on a daily basis anyway!), I turn inwardly, to make space for silence and listening. Turning off the cacophony of voices can be a scary space to enter, but when we finally do, we start to notice things again—the birds, the fresh air, and the warm sun.