The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life

 Its roots sink deep, deep into the great source, grounding all of life, and anchoring our personal lives. Its trunk is the center, the axis of our personal world, orienting and centering our lives.  The branches, their leaves, and fruit are the particular forms that nourish and sustain and heal and make whole our very being.

The concept of the Tree of Life probably comes from the concept of the World Tree, older than written language.  The World Tree is the axis mundi, the world axis, the tree that is at the center of all that is and supports the universe: the roots extend into the world below and the branches extend into and uphold the world above.  It is also understood not only as supporting all that is, but also representing all that is.

The World Tree is also related to the concept of the world mountain.  Hey, if something is large enough to support the universe, seen and unseen, material and immaterial (mental/spiritual), it hardly matters whether it’s a mountain or a tree, right?  The idea is that it is something stable that centers our existence.

In ancient Egypt, India, and perhaps Sumeria, the gods sit in the branches of the tree and partake of the fruit, from which they maintain their immortality.

In Norse lore, the World Tree is given a name: Yggdrasill.  It was on this tree that the god Odin hung for nine days and nights in order to obtain the Runes, a source of poetry and wisdom. 

In Shamanic practices worldwide, the world tree is a key symbol to the Shaman.  The Shaman’s drum is believed to be made from the wood of the World Tree.  It is this tree that the Shaman climbs when making a mystical journey to the world above.

The Tree of Life in the Bible probably reflects these traditions.  In Genesis, its fruit seems to be a magical means of becoming immortal.  Humans are put out of the Garden before they can subvert the purpose of the Tree of Life by eating of its fruit while not in proper relationship to God.

In fact, the story of the Tree of Life in Genesis may actually be a polemic against the notion that one could gain immortality by simply eating the fruit of the Tree without regard to right relationship with the significance and meaning of the Tree, i.e., immortality goes hand in hand with right relationship to God.

In the book of Revelation, the Tree of Life spans the river of the water of life.  It has twelve kinds of fruit, one for each month of the year, producing one each month.  The cycle of the year is often referred to as a circle, which is a symbol of completeness.  The twelve fruits represent this completeness of the Tree’s fruit.  The leaves of this Tree are for the healing of the nations.

A later expression of the Tree of Life is found in the school of Jewish mysticism: Kabbalah.  The central symbol of Kabbalah is referred to as the Tree of Life.  It is a diagram that describes how God created existence, and thus the nature of existence.  It is also a description of our existence and how we can rise to the life of God and union with God.

From the various lore surrounding the Tree of Life, we see that the Tree represents the Divine Life that holds existence, i.e., the world, together.  It is that Presence and Life that is present in the very warp and woof of the fabric of existence.  It is beyond our perception or comprehension, being even more fundamental than the scientists’ fundamental particles.  (There is now a theory for such a field.) 

At the same time, the Tree is within us, holding our existence, our being, our world together.  It sustains and nourishes and heals us. It is a symbol of the life of the Divine in our lives, though on a level of which we are almost entirely unaware, constant and ever present.

(C) 2000 Ron L. Clayton

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1 Comment

  1. Wesley said,

    February 7, 2014 at 11:44 am

    I really like the Tree of Life image, just as I like natural religious imagery in general. So many of the churches I’ve attended and what they taught were devoid of trees, arid and barren. Everything was very propositional, I guess you could say — a list of abstract things to believe (whatever it means to believe in such things). I guess it’s not as easy to put a tree in a proselytizing pamphlet, but it’s much more fun.


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