A Plum Lesson

There is a large, stately plum tree right in front of my office building. It flowers in a profusive offering of beauty every year, usually in February, and a group of us practice a Japanese tradition called hanami, or flower viewing, by eating lunch under the tree.

As beautiful as the tree is to look at, sitting under it provides an entirely different experience. It’s like going through a secret door into a peaceful oasis in the middle of campus.

At the beginning of this month, I looked at the plum’s bare branches and thought hanami would be late this year, sometime in March. Then it got hot—in the eighties—and almost overnight the tree filled with buds and this week is almost at the height of its bloom.

In his book The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton says that the desert fathers and mothers went into the desert not to get something but to give themselves away. This plum tree is doing just that, giving itself away.

The tree’s gift brings it life, attracts insects to pollinate it, produces the fruit that contains the seeds that will become new trees. For the tree, the prayer of St. Francis is literally true: “It is in giving of ourselves that we receive.” (For the record, St. Francis didn’t actually write this, but I think he could have.)

It is literally true for us as well, though it’s often more difficult to see. I am not talking about those times when we feel that too much is being demanded of us or that others are siphoning off our vitality. I’m talking about the kind of giving during which we blossom and in which we are both fed and become food for others. This is a giving as inherent to each of us as flowers are to a plum tree—we just don’t have as clear a grasp on our true nature as trees do.

It might help to remember that the plum tree doesn’t blossom all year long and that it takes a nice long rest in winter to gather energy for the next show.

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