Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees.
— Revelation 7:3
The saints embrace the whole world with their love.
— St. Silouan the Athonite
On the Holy Mountain of Athos, the monks sometimes put up beside the forest paths special signposts, offering encouragement or warning to the pilgrim as he passes. One such notice used to give me particular pleasure. Its message was brief and clear: “Love the trees.”
Fr. Amphilochios, the geronta or “elder” on the island of Patmos when I first stayed there, would have been in full agreement. “Do you know,” he said, “that God gave us one more commandment, which is not recorded in Scripture? It is the commandment “love the trees.” Whoever does not love trees, so he believed, does not love God. “When you plant a tree,” he insisted, “you plant hope, you plant peace, you plant love, and you will receive God’s blessing.” An ecologist long before ecology had become fashionable, when hearing confessions of the local farmers he used to assign to them a penance, the task of planting a tree. During the long summer drought, he himself went round the island watering the young trees. …
Fr. Amphilochios was by no means the first spiritual teacher in the modern Greek tradition to recognize the importance of trees. Two centuries earlier, the Athonite monk St. Kosmas the Aetolian, martyred in 1779, used to plant trees as he traveled around Greece on his missionary journeys, and in one of his “prophecies” he stated, “People will remain poor, because they have no love for trees.” We can see that prophecy fulfilled today in all too many parts of the world. …
“Love the trees.” Why should we do so? Is there indeed a connection between love of trees and love of God? How far is it true that a failure to reverence and honor our natural environment — animals, trees, earth, fire, air, and water — is also, in an immediate and soul-destroying way, a failure to reverence and honor the living God?
Let us begin with two visions of a tree. Edward Carpenter, in Pagan and Christian Creeds [records] a partial vision of a tree. “It was a beech, standing somewhat isolated, and still leafless in quite early Spring. Suddenly, I was aware of its skyward-reaching arms and up-turned finger-tips, as if some vivid life (or electricity) was streaming through them far into the spaces of heaven, and of its roots plunged in the earth and drawing the same energies from below. The day was quite still and there was no movement in the branches, but in that moment the tree was no longer a separate or separable organism, but a vast being ramifying far into space, sharing and uniting the life of Earth and Sky, and full of amazement.”
… Two things above all are noteworthy in Edward Carpenter’s “partial vision.” First, the tree is alive, vibrant with what he calls “energies” or “electricity”; it is “full of most amazing activity.” Second, the tree is cosmic in its dimensions: it is not “a separate or separable organism” but is “vast” and all-embracing in its scope, “ramifying far into space … uniting the life of Earth and Sky.” Here is a vision of joyful wonder, inspired by an underlying sense of mystery. The tree has become a symbol pointing beyond itself, a sacrament that embodies some deep secret at the heart of the universe. The same sense of wonder and mystery — of the symbolic and sacramental character of the world — is strikingly manifest in Peaks and Llamas , the master-work of that spiritual mountaineer, Marco Pallis.
Yet there are at the same time certain limitations in Carpenter’s tree-vision. The mystery to which the tree points is not spelt out by him in specifically personal terms. He makes no attempt to ascend through the creation to the Creator. …
Let us turn to a second tree-vision, which is by contrast explicitly personal and theophanic: “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Ex 3:1-6)
Comparing the experience of Moses with that of Carpenter, we observe three things: in the first place, the vision described in Exodus reaches out beyond the realm of the impersonal. The burning bush at Horeb acts as the locus of an interpersonal encounter, of a meeting face-to-face, of a dialogue between two subjects. God calls out to Moses by name, “Moses, Moses!” and Moses responds, “Here I am.” “Through the creation to the Creator”: in and through the tree he beholds, Moses enters into communion with the living God.
In the second place, God does not only appear to Moses but also issues a practical command to him: “Remove the sandals from your feet.” According to Greek Fathers such as St. Gregory of Nyssa, sandals or shoes — being made from the skins of dead animals — are something lifeless, inert, dead and earthly, and so they symbolize the heaviness, weariness, and mortality that assail our human nature as a result of the Fall.
“Remove your sandals,” then, may be understood to signify: Strip off from yourself the deadness of familiarity and boredom; free yourself from the lifelessness of the trivial, the mechanical, the repetitive; wake up, open your eyes, cleanse the doors of your perception, look and see! And what, in the third place, happens to us when in this manner we strip off the dead skins of boredom and triviality? At once we realize the truth of God’s next words to Moses: “The place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Set free from spiritual deadness, awakening from sleep, opening our eyes both outwardly and inwardly, we look upon the world around us in a different way.
So we enter the dimensions of sacred space and sacred time. We discern the great within the small, the extraordinary within the ordinary, “a world in a grain of sand … and eternity in an hour,” to quote Blake once more. This place where I am, this tree, this animal, this person to whom I am speaking, this moment of time through which I am living: each is holy, each is unique and unrepeatable, and each is therefore infinite in value.
Combining Edward Carpenter’s living tree, uniting earth and heaven and the burning bush of Moses, we can see emerging a precise and distinctive conception of the universe. Nature is sacred. The world is a sacrament of the divine presence, a means of communion with God. The environment consists not in dead matter but in living relationship. The entire cosmos is one vast burning bush, permeated by the fire of divine power and glory. …
For more Orthodox ecology of Transfiguration, theophanic transparency, pellucid double vision and Zen ‘haeccitas’, read the full article THROUGH CREATION TO THE CREATOR by Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia