The Old and the New

Sometimes resurrection happens right under your nose. Maybe that’s especially possible when the land is watered by soft rains, most of which fall upon less than appreciative heads, and smiled upon by sunny spring days, a rare treat that can all too easily be missed if you blink. Such a land is Ireland, and deep in her southeastern corner, I bumped into resurrection as I climbed a steeply rising forest path and stepped over a tiny bluebell shoot that had managed to enter this life through a small aperture in one of last fall’s withered leaves.

Returning daily to this little scene, I watched the bluebell grow, utterly determined to be alive, despite its unexpected shroud. By the end of a week, the plant stood proud and strong, and last year’s leaf hung from one of its fronds like a discarded grave cloth.

Thus the new emerges through the old, I reflected. Yet the old is not lost. It becomes the nourishment for next year’s growth, already happening secretly in the dark earth beneath my feet. God obviously loves the old wineskins, even as he savors the new wine.

I walk these boundaries too: a new voice venturing into the pages of a long-established journal, but also a voice from the old world tentatively speaking in the new. Maybe that’s why I can empathize with both the bluebell shoot and the faded leaf. At the very least I can begin to understand that it is never really about either/or, but always both/and.

During my days in County Waterford a conversation came my way. The speaker was bewailing the fact that, as she put it, I’m so prickly, so defended, and God wants me to be open and vulnerable. I don’t have any confidence, but God wants me to blossom. I feel so small, yet God wants me to do great things... And yet, she added, on further reflection, I guess there is a vulnerable side to my defensiveness, and a part of me that does believe in myself, and, just very occasionally, I do feel like I have something to give.

I listened quietly to these little epiphanies along her journey of discovery and knew they were my own as well as hers. Perhaps they are everybody’s?

It was then that I met the chestnut tree. Such things happen under Gaelic skies, and it isn’t just the poteen!

The chestnut tree was eager for conversation too. Look at me, it murmured. Remember last summer when I was a prickly green fruit looking more like a little land mine than the beginning (or the end) of a mighty tree. Sure, I do prickly. And then I shed my skin, and revealed such a beautiful, highly polished chestnut, the kids couldn’t get enough of me. Then I rotted. I wasn’t proud of it. It seemed as if it was all over with me. And the rotting time went on and on, giving way only to the freezing time and the starving time. I discovered that I do vulnerable too, better than I ever intended.

And vulnerable would describe me now. Take a look at these tiny leaves, just spreading their fingers out like a bewildered and bemused newborn. But watch this space. Faster than you can think, this little leaf, no bigger than your thumbnail, will stretch and grow into a verdant roof over your head, quietly turning carbon dioxide into oxygen to give you life. (Well, O.K., not just for your benefit!) And hey, what have we here? Has that rotting husk really turned into this magnificent towering candle of a blossom?

Well, what does one say to such a talkative tree?

Perhaps the answer might reveal something of what God was saying to my companion. Something about inclusivenessabout God seeing the whole and ourselves fixing only upon the parts. What I perceive in myself as a prickly and defended land mine, God knows is a temporary armor to protect a very vulnerable kernel. What I see as the shimmer of success God knows is sandwiched between the seasons of disintegration. The fragile me that cannot begin to think of how to survive in this great big indifferent world is also the me that, given time, will help to contribute to the breath of life itself. And the buried nut I know I am is also the beautiful blossom that reaches for the sun to activate the miracle of pollination. It is never about either/or. It’s always both/and. In God’s eternal eye every aspect of who we are is known and loved, and nothing is rejected. Everything belongs and expresses something of God’s dream for creation in its own unique way.

If this is true for us as individuals, it is true for us as nations too, as peoples, as cultures, as faith traditions and as different generations. The Old World and the New are not mutually exclusive. The frightened and the fragile, the bold and the beautiful, the whining baby and the wizened crone live cheek by jowl within us all. The we we are and the we we were and the we we shall become are all one in God. What we experience as stretched out along the straight arrow of time is, in truth, a circle of completeness. Maybe that’s what a miracle isthe completion in a moment out of time of a process that still lies beyond the scope of human vision.

My companion need not have worried. Her conversation with God, which she permitted me to overhear, helps me to remember that when I feel like an unexploded bomb, I am also a fragile new shoot; when I feel like a million dollars, I am also a dusty dime; and when I figure I’m going nowhere, I may, just possibly, be going everywhere.

10 years 9 months ago
What an excellent addition to America magazine. I look forward to more, much more. Margaret Silf's style seems to fit right in with my contemplative spirit.

10 years 9 months ago
What an excellent addition to America magazine. I look forward to more, much more. Margaret Silf's style seems to fit right in with my contemplative spirit.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Celebrating Mass was wonderful the first time I did it 63 years ago. It is, if possible, even more wonderful today.
John Jay HughesApril 27, 2017
House Republicans are making a last-ditch effort to “reform and repeal” the Affordable Care Act before the clock runs out on the Trump administration’s first 100 days on Saturday, April 29.
Kevin ClarkeApril 27, 2017
Death-row inmate Ledell Lee. A ruling from the state Supreme Court allowing officials to use a lethal injection drug that a supplier says was misleadingly obtained cleared the way for Arkansas to execute Ledell Lee on Thursday, April 20, 2017, although he still had pending requests for reprieve. (Arkansas Department of Correction via AP)
To take Holy Communion in the face of death is to say that it is fellowship, and not food, that matters most.
Terrance KleinApril 26, 2017
A man rides a bicycle past a billboard with an image of Pope Francis April 26 ahead of the pontiff's April 28-29 visit to Cairo. (CNS photo/Amr Abdallah Dalsh, Reuters)
“Peace be with you” was the message of the Risen Jesus to his disciples on the first Easter, and it is the message Francis will bring to the Muslim and Christian communities in this land.
Gerard O'ConnellApril 26, 2017