We feel it in our bones.
We feel it deeper in us than our own cells as the place where we were made to be yet cannot get back to. We feel it as the place we are trying to travel to though we do not know the way. We live as exiles of Eden and pilgrims sojourning homeward toward a Home we have never been to and yet somehow ‘remember’. Our lives are defined by longing.
The Welsh have a word that comes close to naming this, a word for which there is no true translation in English. Hiraeth. Longing. Nostalgia. Yearning. Homesickness for a home you have never had nor can return to. One attempt to describe hiraeth in English says that it is “a longing to be where your spirit lives.”’
It is not nostalgia of our remembered past that breaks our heart however. The longing that breaks our hearts and defines us is a collective one, a longing for a place of being beyond all our combined recollections, a past extending all the way back to our first making. It is a memory buried so deep in each of us that we cannot truly name it though we try, but beneath our unformed or awkward words we sense it and bear its mark, day in and day out.
C.S. Lewis calls this longing “the inconsolable secret”. *
“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Further on he says,
“At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so.”
Rustling with the rumour. Like the glint off a bright sword held aloft, gleaming in the shadows, there is a stern twinkle in them. The world we now live in – the world in which we are now exiled – is not all that it seems. In a thousand ways, we catch glimpses of a veil rustling with a breeze beyond the world, and when it moves out of the corner of our eye we see glimmers of a world beyond the world, a world beyond all our capacities to describe, or portray. A world worth spending our entire lives to reach. A world whole, gleaming, unbroken, full of glory, mantled in the fullness of Beauty and Welcome. A world all our longing aches for. A world mended, magnificent, and made new in every way.
That phrase that Lewis catches for us ~ “all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so” ~ carries an echo and a hint of something else along with its rumours of hope. On first reading (or the hundredth), we might read those words ‘all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling’ and envision pages. Perhaps we see parchment sheafs in our mind’s eye, perhaps we see the thin paper pages of a Bible printing, but we see paper stirred and rustling by an unseen breeze. The hint in this phrase rests in the word ‘leaves’. Paper is the product of trees and leaves are the outer most element of them.
Our long story is framed by trees from beginning to end. It is filled with them from edge to edge, border to boundary.
Before any of our collective memory has recall, we were created and were placed in a garden called Eden, and in that Garden were trees. We do not now know all the kinds of trees that grew there but we do know two of them. Two extraordinary trees. One tree bore fruit that gave the knowledge of good and evil. The other tree bore fruit that gave life without end. The Tree of Life.
We were given permission to eat from all the trees in that garden but for those two. The origins of our long exile from Eden are rooted in the choices we made in relation to those two trees. Those two trees were at the centre of our beginning and trees are waiting for us at the completion of our story on earth. In the centre of a place we have not yet seen, the New Jerusalem, the City of God, stands The Tree of Life, the very tree that God barred us from Eden. The Tree of Life stands on both sides of the river of life running in the centre of this City. It gives twelve crops or kinds of fruit in season and its leaves are for the healing of the nations. This City is our Home and all our longing is leading us there.
For now we live and long, strive and seek, wandering as pilgrims and exiles between the Garden of Eden and the City of God. We live between the first paradise and the final one, between vast sentinels of trees. Yet, in the long landscape of our story is another set of trees. One of these trees is the centre point of history. Marking the place of dying, though it was a constructed edifice made of dead wood, it became the symbol of the death of Death. For those who believe by faith in the resurrection of the dead, we wear the emblem of that dead tree to this day, because it became a Tree of Life. The Cross – the tree at Golgotha.
Before this tree of life however, we are told of another set of trees. These trees are different from all the other trees in the landscape of our story. These trees walk.
The book written by the prophet Isaiah gives the account of the Year of Favour of the Lord. It is a passage so central to God’s intentions for His people that Jesus read from it in the synagogue. He read aloud only the first two verses. Those two verses tell that those who mourn in Zion will be healed and liberated. Isaiah then goes on to record in verses 3-4 that those grieve in Zion (God’s appointed city and symbol of His own people and His presence with them), are granted consolation, given a new name and new purpose. Jesus did not read this passage aloud that day because it was yet to be fulfilled.
“and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
Isaiah 61.3-4 (NIVUK)
Oaks of righteousness. Who but our Maker could see a broken people stained with sin and marked by sorrow as anything other than ruined? Who but this King could plant any real hope of restoration from the devastation of our exile? Those who grieve in Zion are given beauty for ashes, the oil of gladness for sorrow, a mantle of praise for a heavy spirit. This is the holy alchemy of turning ashes to beauty and mending the brokenhearted. Then, YHWH Elohim, true to His nature, does something more. He not only redeems, He transforms. He grants healing consolation to those in Zion (the descendants of Abraham) who mourn and with that consolation, He changes their identity. He renames them. Instead of being called the people of sorrow and suffering, He calls them the oaks of righteousness. People bent over and crushed with grief are straightened tall. They are called Trees of Goodness or Justice. He plants them Himself.
To be called an oak of righteousness by God is to be named something new, something transformed.
All our life’s suffering matters. But ours is not a hopeless grief that rots and turns to bitterness or despair, and that causes the soul to shrivel. Rooted as we are in Christ, what we have suffered, lost, and grieve for is not discarded in this transformation. The sorrow is fulfilled, and the suffering brought to fullness. This grief entwined with trust, is a particular nourishment to the soil of our souls. One might even call it a kind of holy compost. Out of this grief grows something that could grow in us no other way. Tended by the Maker-King, the Cultivator of Oaks, what grows out of the soil of this grief is righteousness. Enduring, resilient, just, pure, and good.
The wonder that is then recorded in Isaiah 61.4, is this: that those grieving, broken hearted, depressed people are not only consoled and renamed, but those very ones are the ones given to rebuild, renew, and restore the devastations of generations. These ones are the ones granted the privilege to work alongside our Maker-King to mend the world we broke at the beginning of time. These ones are granted the role of making again the world as a place of cultivated beauty, goodness, and justice. These ones are craftsman of re-making.
These ones are us.
When we were first created and placed in Eden, we were made to walk there in God’s company and to cultivate the garden it was. The word cultivate meant to work the land. It meant to tend, defend, and preserve. It also meant to work as an act of worship, which in Hebrew is the beautiful word Avodah.
“And the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden
to tend and guard and keep it.” Genesis 2.15 (AMPC)
The core of what we understand today of cultivating is the labour to foster the conditions necessary for something to thrive, and to do that labour intentionally over extended cycles of seasons. In gardens and crop land it means to plan, prepare the soil, plant, protect, defend, nurture, harvest, and put to bed the plants and crops designed to thrive in that allotted land.
Applying the labour of cultivating in our lives as the garden we are tending, of course, has a wider and deeper application. But the meaning is just the same: to intentionally tend the conditions in our lives necessary for something to thrive, and to do that labour intentionally over extended cycles of seasons. In our case, we are people who are individually and collectively purposed and chosen to cultivate what is good, true, and beautiful. Our focus as living believers and holy gardeners is to select carefully what we choose to cultivate and pour our lives into. To cultivate is the long act of restoration. We are purposed for a focused and glorious harvest. Righteousness.
“For the time being no discipline brings joy, but seems grievous and painful;
but afterwards it yields a peaceable fruit of righteousness
to those who have been trained by it
[a harvest of fruit which consists in righteousness—
in conformity to God’s will in purpose, thought, and action,
resulting in right living and right standing with God].”
~ Hebrews 12:11
Like our inconsolable secret, and longing for Home, the call to cultivate is planted in our bones. It is as inherent to us as our sin, but indeed it is even deeper than that. It is bound so deeply into our bones and DNA, that even sin and death, cannot remove or alter it. Mankind was made to walk in the Garden keeping company with God and to cultivate the garden God planted.
As the redeemed craftsman and the comforted ones called oaks of righteousness, it is ours to labour with the Maker-King to rebuild the ruined cities and make beautiful again the cultivated earth. And those who make this work of restoration their life’s practice, we call Cultivators.
Oaks of Righteousness.
When Cultivating and The Cultivating Project were first formed, an English oak leaf was set as our logo and emblem. As Cultivators, we belong to an ever growing forest of oaks, wide in varieties but one in family, a fellowship of makers. The symbol of strength, endurance, wisdom, and goodness, in Hebrew the words for oak and for the name of God as Elohim, begin with the same root word – El. In our case, the oak leaf is the symbol of a promise and blessing by the Maker-King who created and cultivates oaks – a promise of enduring life, fruitfulness, strength, goodness, beauty, and usefulness.
It is the emblem and promise of righteousness restored.
*The phrase “the inconsolable secret” and passage quoted above is from C.S. Lewis’s seminal essay – The Weight of Glory, found in the collection of essays bearing the same title.
The featured image is courtesy of Sam Keyes and used here with his generous permission for Cultivating.
The Oaks of Righteousness video was made by David and Katie Moum of Final Draft Studios, narrated by Amy Lee and Matthew Clark. It was written and produced by Lancia E. Smith for Cultivating, The Cultivating Project, and for all those yet finding that their name is Cultivator, oak of righteousness.
This essay is dedicated to K.C. Ireton, who is a core presence in the founding of Cultivating and The Cultivating Project. Thank you, K.C., for first asking the question, “Why an oak leaf?”
This is my attempt to answer.
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and publisher. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, school boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 35 years. Now empty nesters, Lancia & her husband Peter make their home in the Black Forest of Colorado, keeping company with 200 Ponderosa Pine trees, a host of visiting wildlife, an ever growing library, and two beautiful cats named Meeka and Misha. Lancia loves land reclamation, website and print design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.
This was so rich! And absolutely worth reading then re-reading.
“Rooted as we are in Christ, what we have suffered, lost, and grieve for is not discarded in this transformation. The sorrow is fulfilled, and the suffering brought to fullness. This grief entwined with trust, is a particular nourishment to the soil of our souls. One might even call it a kind of holy compost. Out of this grief grows something that could grow in us no other way.”
As somebody who has had to uproot herself many times, then seek to re-establish in unfamiliar soil, this essay is particularly meaningful. Our most recent move across an ocean, in just the past few months, has been particularly difficult for me personally but the imagery of this paragraph is compelling, comforting and filled with hope.
‘Grief entwined with trust’ as nourishment, ‘holy compost’ – I love that. Nothing is wasted or falls to the ground useless but all can be used to grow in us the unexpected life of beauty, truth and goodness.
Thank you for this piece.
KC IRETON as inspired many good things with her questions. Such a lovely answer in this response.
Your words stir that secret, Lancia, and the hope that resides in happy companionship with it. Not wishful thinking, but the expectant joy of knowing that Time and Place to come. Thank you.
The Portuguese call that longing Saudade. It is a mournful and yet beautiful sentiment threaded deftly in both music and poetry. Beautiful essay Lancia.
A Field Guide to Cultivating ~ Essentials to Cultivating a Whole Life, Rooted in Christ, and Flourishing in Fellowship
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