An Urge to Hug Sycamores – Br. Eldridge Pendleton

Jeremiah 17: 5-10                                                                  1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Psalm 1                                                                                               Luke 6:17-26

One of the things I like most about my monastic cell is the view from its window.  This week I spent a lot of time staring out the window meditating on scripture and I was struck by the beauty of the landscape, even in this austere, barren season of the year. Morning, noon and night, seven days a week, month after month the beauty of the Charles River never fails to charm, although in its unfrozen state I admit the allure is greater.  When the weather is warm and the stadium lights burn all night their dazzle on the water is enchanting.  There is always movement, always glitter no matter the time of day.  I also love the sycamores that line the river bank along Memorial Drive.  They are majestic whether in leaf or bare.  Their massive trunks and branches reaching to the sky never fail to lift my spirits.

This is not my first experience of sycamores.  I grew up well aware of them in Texas.  In 1899, in a burst of uncommon civic enthusiasm, my town decided to create a garden cemetery in the spirit of Mount Auburn and other great 19th century landscape cemeteries in this country.  And to show their seriousness they hired an English landscape designer to lay it out with scenic drives, vistas and picturesque views on a hilltop north of town.  Mr. Stephenson, who drew the plan, lined its lanes with sycamores despite warnings that unlike in England sycamores have a tough time with Texas weather.  Tree experts tell us that sycamores have a life expectancy of a hundred years.  Most of those that survived this past century’s long periods of drought at the cemetery are now in their dotage, but even so the effect is lovely and grand.  But it is nothing like the trees outside our door.

These are trees I want to hug and listen for their heartbeat.  They are like the smooth bark beeches in the woods at Emery House in that respect.  The sycamores along Memorial Drive, though planted at about the same time as the ones I knew in Texas, are twice their size.  Because they are planted along the river their trunks are much larger than typical sycamores their age.  And in addition to the beauty of their presence and the comforting shade they provide, they serve a utilitarian purpose of which most are not aware.  Were it not for these trees most of the buildings along the road out front would have water in their basements.

The prophet Jeremiah likened those who trust in the Lord to a tree planted by the water sending out its roots by the stream.  It will never fear when the heat comes and its leaves shall stay green.  In the year of the drought it is not anxious and it does not cease to bear fruit.  To be a Christian is to be in a relationship with God.  For the relationship to be vibrant and healthy we put God at the center of our lives.  God is our river, our living water, the source that sustains us and helps us to grow.  We are not the center of our universe, God is, and it is in God that we trust, look to for help, rely on.  God is the one who guides our life.  God in God’s love for us blesses us and showers us with grace.  It is God who makes our lives far greater than they would be otherwise.  In times of tragedy and hardship it is God who suffers with us, helps us through, who strengthens us, comforts us and keeps us on course.  The collect for this day reminds us that “in our weakness we can do nothing good” without God.

In the Gospel of Luke we hear Jesus trying to shock his listeners out of their self-absorption, their self centered lives.  Many of them who heard him were prosperous and lived in comfort.  They certainly had enough to eat and some had grown rich.  These were the ones Jesus wanted to reach, the rugged individualists who had made it on their own and had no place for God in their lives, even though they might go through the motions of faith and religion.  He warned them that what they had was not enough.  In times of drought, of crisis and upheaval they would need more.  And only God could help them.

But why am I telling you this?  You already know it.  I doubt there is anyone here this morning who does not recognize the critical importance of one’s relationship with God or know that to keep the friendship honest, healthy and fruitful we have to maintain contact, we need honest prayer lives.  But it is one thing to know this intellectually and quite another to put it in practice each day.  Robert Wicks, a leading psychotherapist and spiritual director, who has worked with literally thousands of priests, ministers, monks, religious sisters and others in Christian ministry to teach them ways to avoid stress and emotional burnout reports that a majority of those he has interviewed do not have honest prayer lives even though they are supposed to be women and men of prayer whose work is grounded in prayer.  This is startling news, but is it really surprising?  Look at your own life.  You may desire a life grounded in prayer and a close relationship with God.  You may even dedicate a space in your home for silence and solitude where you can go and pray undisturbed by domestic hubbub.  And yet, in any given week how often do you go there to pray, to sit in silence, to offer up your concerns or ask God for help?  When the pace and demand of daily life increases often the first casualty is one’s prayer life.  Wicks discovered that even in situations where major life decisions had to be made those in ministry did not often pray for discernment and direction.  Ask yourself, when you are facing those big questions and have critical decisions to make do you seek God’s help or do you forge forward as though it all depended on you?  Be honest with yourself.  What is you standard practice?

For those whose lives are overstressed and who want to avoid spiritual and emotional burnout, Wicks offers a six step program.  The most important is developing an honest prayer life.  He suggests at the beginning of the day to dedicate a minimum of two minutes to God in silence and solitude.  That can be time without words, just recognizing God’s place in your life.  Or you might say “Lord, this is your day, not my day.” Or add, “Align me with your will.”  A pilgrim at Lourdes once told me he started each day by thinking of God and saying, Good morning, Father.

Now notice that Robert Wicks is not requiring a minimum of twenty minutes or an hour.  He says two minutes will do.  Everyone, no matter how late you sleep or how busy your day, has time for that.  He also recommends that at intervals during the day you stop for a moment to recognize God’s presence in what you are doing.  The third part of his formula for honest prayer is scripture study.  Again the demand is not great.  Once a week take time to pray with scripture.  He recommends lectio divina, the method of reading over a passage of scripture a few times until a word or phrase seems to lift up, then “chewing on it” until a door opens for conversation with God.  And remember prayer is a dialogue, not a monologue.  Speak what is on your heart and listen to God’s response.  Wicks guarantees that by following these easy steps we can become God centered.  After a while the division between prayer and daily living disappears and God is simply with you.  I am sure this is what is meant by “prayer without ceasing.”

If you feel like your current life is more like a desiccated shrub in the desert than a majestic tree on the verdant riverbank, and if you want a life that has God at its center and don’t have it now , I suggest you experiment with Robert Wicks’ easy steps for an honest prayer life.
And then may the sycamores of Memorial Drive always remind you of your friendship with God.

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  1. Constance on July 22, 2019 at 00:08

    Br. Eldridge, thank you for this sermon and stories about the sycamores. We have a sycamore across the street from our house, and it is a tree which I love. I love to stand in front of the house and look into that tree and feel myself a part of it, a friend, –it is grand, majestic and beautiful. It shades us and seems to protect us, while at the same time revealing its power to us. I sense God there.

  2. Jeanne DeFazio on February 15, 2019 at 11:29

    Wow! I was just reflecting on the fig tree in front of the house that I lived in as a child. A fig tree over 30 years old now that bears fruit. My mother sold the house but the owners leave the figs to rot. I have in the past asked if I could pick the figs and have made fig jam for the owners in return for the figs. I looked at that tree yesterday and thanks God for it’s fruitfulness. It gave us so much in our lives. Thanks for the imagery of the sycamores on Memorial Drive outside of the monastery. I stayed there this past January and looked at those trees in silence outside of my windows.and thanked God for the beauty of the landscape to remind me if Him. Those treasured moments returned this am reading this devotional. God bless you!

  3. Elizabeth Hardy on February 15, 2019 at 11:01

    Everyone who has ever stayed at the guesthouse knows that river view and those sycamores. That is a place I go back to frequently in my mind, after many annual retreats. It is a quiet place to start from. Thank you for giving me that mental vacation this morning. Elizabeth Hardy+

  4. Faith Turner on July 18, 2014 at 20:27

    When I was born my parents planted a walnut tree. It grew tall and I climbed it. We left when I was ten and I hugged it goodby! I loved that tree.

  5. Susan Gaumer on July 10, 2014 at 09:43

    Br. Eldridge, thank you for this wonderful sermon. Before leaving New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached, I hugged the 85 foot pecan tree in our backyard for the last time. In the storm she fell with grace, landing in the driveway between our house and the next, harming neither. Trees and prayer remain linked in my life as I give thanks to God for the majestic evergreens that surround my prayer today in a new place.

  6. Irene Dygas on July 10, 2014 at 06:02

    Brother Eldridge,
    I was not at 980 on the day you gave this sermon, but I knew about it. I cannot even guess how many times I have seen children hugging one of the sycamores–sometimes needing the help of their parents to make the circumference. They need their parents for help and we all need God. God bless you.

  7. Ruth West on March 16, 2013 at 12:48

    Br. Eldridge, this is such a good sermon. I especially like the paragraph
    based on Jeremiah. “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord…They shall
    be like a tree planted by the water, sending out its roots by the stream…”
    God truly is our river, our living water who sustains us in times of plenty
    and in times of drought. How often the psalmists have used trees to illustrate our growth and sustenance. May He lead me to grow and to bear fruit for His glory. Thank you for this homily which continues to remind us
    of what it means to be green in the best sense of the word.

  8. Sandra Klingeman on March 3, 2013 at 19:11

    Brother Eldridge,
    The recommendation for the use of lectio divina as a way
    of communicating with God reminds me of my first retreat
    at the monastery. You asked us to reflect on Rev. 3:19
    where Jesus is saying if I knock on the door and you open it
    I will come in to eat with you. The bottom line is that
    after “chewing on it” I wouldn’t open the door. For the next
    three years that scripture was the focus of my spiritual life.
    Slowly my heart opened until I was able to welcome God
    to enter.
    Thank you for introducing me to lectio divina and the
    life-changing experience it can produce.
    Sandra Klingeman

  9. Charles Groves III on March 2, 2013 at 12:25

    Thank you for this beautiful and helpful homily. It resonated with me so fully as I read it this morning some 6 years after you gave it.

    The view you enjoy from your cell window is almost the same as the one which entranced me from my guest room during my first retreat at the monastery more than a dozen years ago. Likewise, I as a boy Texas boy some 60+ years ago learned many lessons about God, creation, and life as I stared in fascination at a huge sycamore tree that bordered our yard in Dallas

    May God continue for many years to work so powerfully through you to the benefit of so many of us who are your fellow followers of Jesus the Christ. .

  10. Maureen Doyle on January 19, 2013 at 20:07

    Our street on LI, NY was lined with sycamores. Their seeds are covered with burrs. We were told that if one touched your skin, you would itch for seven years. So of course my brothers and the other boys on our street threw them at one another. They also pelted each other with crab apples from the tree in each yard. (The neighborhood was built in an old orchard.)
    I guess to increase your metaphor, God can be hard and itchy as the seeds of God’s fruits are sown? I’m sure those seeds were strewn far and wide with these peltings.
    Thank you for this challenge to recenter.
    May God’s living waters and my roots always stay with one another.

  11. DLa Rue on January 19, 2013 at 10:26

    So good to return to a sermon and its comments and discover ones’ own from a different place and time there.

    The move last summer (and a couple of microbursts) have taken away the large open space and the old willows just outside the window in my former home.

    In the new place, where I now sleep faces on a rather noisy (even at 3 AM) street and there is no squirrel hopping from tree to tree in his choreographed pattern each morning to delight in.

    But God remains present and active, and my memory of the squirrel’s cheerful hops still informs my reading, my thinking and my prayers.

    I, too, often pray that God will be present in my picture of the day; that I will be in my proper place in God’s picture; and that the two pictures will be made one.

    Pax in terra.

  12. mary seager on January 30, 2012 at 10:04

    Thank you for the chance to remember the Charles in another way. I lived for a number of years near the river and still think of the crews and the sailboats on sunny days. My heart always lifts when I remember but your sermon provided me with more. Now those wonderful old trees will take their rightful place in the memories. Prayer gives us the roots which prevent circumstances from flooding our souls and washing us away.
    Thank you for reminding me of the primacy and efficacy of prayer in our lives.

  13. DLa Rue on January 30, 2012 at 05:38

    My day has for a long time now started with a smiling look at a large, sundrenched willow out my back window, and a “Good Morning, Lord!,” followed by Ps. 121 and a couple of chapters of Scripture (I’ve just rounded the bend on Exodus and started Joshua for the 4th time). It was pleasant to know that I was already in agreement with you and with Mr. Wicks.

    Like Tevye, I too have intermittent conversations, even arguments, with God throughout the day.

    And I agree: like you, I find the sycamores along Mem Drive an encouraging sign and was very glad to hear that they survived the determined campaign of a rather surprising opponent a few decades ago to have them removed.

    In the establishment of a singular faith, it is also essential to be in prayer with others as well. I ask your prayers in discerning directions in my work and life, and offer mine in return.

  14. Jeff Spahr on February 26, 2009 at 11:32

    For a year now, this sermon has stuck out in my memory, and I’m glad that I have found it again in the archives. “Prayer without ceasing,” and Robert Wicks’ formula remind me of Tevye, the main character in Fiddler On The Roof, and probably my all-time favorite fictional character.

    Tevye is like the sycamore by the river with a strong faith. Every moment he was alone, he was in honest conversation with God. So much so, that I find it to be a great model for my own personal relationship with God.

    Br. Eldridge, thank you for this sermon and the wonderful imagery it provides.

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