Bend Like the Tomato Plant


Was just outside on the upstairs deck listening to some homilies by Fr. Richard Rohr.

I was watching our tomato plant, which is now big enough to have to cage (going out to get one in a few minutes), sway in the breeze.  I was thinking about some things: belief,unbelief, traditions, dogmas, etc. I then looked around at the trees in the alley (from the back, our house is about 3 stories, so it’s up in the tree tops, essentially) swaying in the blowing wind.

I started trying to internalize the image of the trees swaying.  I looked at my plant and started to fret:  “What if it breaks?  I should take it inside.”

But then I looked more closely.  Despite blowing leaves, and this goes for the trees too, the closer you got to the roots, the thick part of the main stem/trunk, there was little movement.  It didn’t signal impending breakage at all.  Perhaps I was being a bit too protective of it.

Then I looked more closely.  And thought more closely.

If the whole of the plant/tree was rigid, it would surely break in a stiff gust.  Especially with sustained gusts of wind.

The life of the tree depends upon flexibility. 

We often think of strength of belief as being rigid and immovable.  That, we often say, is the sign of true faith in something. “I shall not be moved,” and all that.  I’m not sure that’s true.  And I’ve learn from Lao Tzu that water, which is fluid and not rigid, is probably the strongest elemental force.  After all, it is water that carved out the Grand Canyon!

I believe that when we insist on the whole tree being stiff like the trunk — immovable, stubborn, hard — we are more susceptible to breaking when a truly strong wind comes. Like a house of cards, I’m mixing metaphors now, when one card is pulled, the whole of our faith falls apart. 

I’ve seen folks walk away from belief precisely because they were confronted with something that challenged one of their dearly held elements of faith or belief. Because their tree was inflexible, stiff, immovable…the gust burst their whole tree of faith apart.  They could not absorb the blow.  This is why so many lose belief in college. The exposure to cultural and religious difference, combined with an escalating study of science devoid of religious coddling, results in many broken trees.  These young trees had been taught from a young age to grow up sturdy, inflexible, and rigid.  The poor young ones never had a chance;they were practically destined to be snapped by gusts of wind that they were never prepared to absorb and adapt to.

(FYI, this goes not just for religious belief, but philosophy, politics, academia, etc.)

Sometimes, as with a tree, entire weaker branches and leaves, are blown entirely off, left to wither on the ground and die.  Perhaps, those dead leaves and branches will eventually be broken down and reabsorbed into the tree as nutrient, making the tree stronger anyway.  We should be thankful when useless branches are blown off of ourselves, not attempt to sew them back on.

Sometimes parts of the tree must be blown off by the wind.  Sometimes they don’t need tobe lost – they just need to be flexible and sway in the wind, absorbing the challenge of the gusts, adapting to circumstance.  This is not a lack of strength; it’s natural.  It’s necessary.  Once again, I think I’m calling on Lao Tzu here, and of course countless theologians.

Sometimes the entire plant/tree seems to be bending over in the wind.  It seems frightening,like all is in flux, all is in danger of being lost.  Take heart:  That’s where the trunk comes in; the core of the trunk, the part close to the earth.

So far, I suspect that readers with extremely liberal religious sensibilities (of which I can be one…in some ways) have enjoyed the image of a faith that has little rigidity, certainty, and with everything able to adapt to circumstance.

Well, here’s the thing: without the strong, thick,not-very-flexible, and virtually immovable trunk, nothing above makes any sense.  Without a trunk or main stem, a plant or tree might as well be a giant tumbleweed blowing rootless and aimless carried by whatever gust of wind happens to be blowing at the time.  Only the most dimwitted or shallow among us would find “faith as tumbleweed” to be desirable.

There must be some trunk to provide the stability by which the rest of the tree gets its ability to bend and sway. 

That trunk must be deeply held, immovable, and rooted so deep in your heart and mind that it’s inextricably connected.  To pull out of the root would be to pull yourself out of existence. The trunk cannot be something temporal or passing.  By definition, something temporal will be gone or changed in a few years or decades or centuries.  The trunk must be something that holds you down today, but also when you’re 98 years old.  Otherwise you’re as good as a tumbleweed.

The thing is this. A tree is not two-parted: trunk then flexible branches.  There are degrees of branches.  Thick branches that are like smaller trunks, but more flexible, but not very flexible.  Then there is every degree of trunk and branch that you can imagine, from strong and sturdy to as thin as a small twig.

Each bends and sways according to its placement near the trunk.

I am not going to get more specific than that, because you have ordered/are ordering your tree according to your belief. 

However, I think it’s important to look to the plants and trees as a means of living our beliefs, whatever they are.  I just looked back out at my tomato plant before finishing this little piece here.  It’s starting to bud. It’s still there alive and well and strong.  But it’s still blowing in the breeze, sometimes a little,sometimes at a strong angle.  Nonetheless, it’s no less a tomato plant when it’s blowing as it is when it’s still.  As long as it’s still rooted and has life in it and produces fruit, it’s a tomato plant.

May I continue to learn from it and continue to learn from the breeze that tests and prunes it.





Confucius — “The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.'”


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