The Colors of a Birch Tree

by Catherine Doherty

The other day I was reading a French magazine published in Paris by the Teilhard de Chardin Circle*. As I was reading the brilliant analysis of this priest there suddenly came to mind the picture of an old Russian woman pilgrim.

She had come to our house when I was a child and had talked to me while I served her food in the warm kitchen of our big country house.

She told me about the joy of being a pilgrim, of walking on green grass and stopping to rest at a tree trunk.

She said an old tree trunk had so many colors. Did I think a birch was white? No, she said, it wasn’t white. It had black spots all over it. The white of the bark had many shades. One has only to look at it closely to know. And the same with pines and oaks. Tree barks were a symphony of color.

And the green of the forest, she said, is of a thousand hues. As she was speaking, I could see all that she said actually taking shape before my eyes, for I love nature, too.

But, she went on to explain, this quality of wonderment, of joy and of appreciation had to be a prayer, because of God. It was God who had created all this beauty.

He, the humble carpenter of Nazareth, was, as she put it, the king of the trees and the stars and the earth and the moon, king of the tiniest blade of grass, of every insect that ever lived, of all the animals, and especially, of course, of people. All these creatures were in God and he was in us.

I put down the Teilhard de Chardin magazine and picked up a book I had just recently received, Russian Piety by Nicholas Arseniev. He was quoting a Russian peasant woman also. There I read once more the same words that the pilgrim of my childhood had spoken to me. And here they are:

***

When we left our village and looked about us—Lord, it seemed to us that God’s world had no end or limit. What divine grace shines on high in the heavenly places!

And down underfoot, here is the green grass, and the golden corn; and over there is the forest, almost too thick you’d think, to pass through.

When you walk in silence, or rest on the ground, you think you are hearing a constant chanting, full of gentleness. Everything is humming and gurgling, dripping and murmuring around you, as if the Lord himself were speaking to you through the mouth of all creation.

***

Teilhard de Chardin, the genius, and these two old Russian peasant women, met on my island today, and once more I understood that both were truly childlike. It is to such childlike ones that the Lord reveals the mysteries of his kingdom.

*Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a philosopher, paleontologist, and geologist.

Excerpted from Welcome Pilgrim, (1991), MH Publications, pp. 53-54, out of print