“It’s a book about two trees,” my student piped up in response to my query to my Classic Literature class about their first impressions of Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, that fabled fourth-century creation described as the first autobiography of the Western world.
“It’s a book about two trees,” she repeated. At first, I was taken aback by her unusual response. But in fact she had nailed it—two trees: The pear tree from which boy Augustine recklessly stole fruit simply because he could and the tree under which he heard a command to pick up the scriptures and resolved his agonized tension over embracing the Christian faith. We can use the terms superbia (pride) and humilitas (humility) to describe the two poles of Augustine’s soul-life as he achingly narrated the turning, the reorientation of his entire life from self- to God-directedness. This hard-won moment of turning under the second tree may have seemed sudden for Augustine, but it ushered in a lifetime of deep probing into the mysteries of life and the ultimate mystery that is God. A life of turning again and again.
On the cusp of our Lenten journey, we find ourselves in a garden with the first man and woman, beneath a tree of knowledge of good and evil with tempting forbidden fruit. We might question some of the conclusions past Christians have drawn from this passage about ideal gender relations. Yet, taken as an insight into our shared human propensity for self-referential superbia, this tale of garden and tree rings true.
Further, at the end of our forty-day Lenten journey, we will find ourselves under a second tree. A cross-shaped tree on Calvary, a tree of life. In between will be our time of turning once again with growing humilitas in this season for reorientating our lives toward the source of life.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24). Amen.
In this first week of Lent, we prepare our hearts for a period of reflection. We think about areas of our lives in which we might be falling short of God’s desires. The problem of sin enters the human story at the very beginning, for Adam and Eve choose to follow their own wisdom rather than guidance from God. The psalmist highlights the importance of recognizing our sin and asking for forgiveness, which God is quick to give. In Romans, Paul argues that we all partake in the broken human condition because we all have sinned as Adam did. The story of Jesus in the desert admonishes us to be on guard against the deception of our fleshly desires and our pride.
Read Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7. How might this story help you turn from superbia to humilitas throughout your Lenten journey?
Read Psalm 32. What seeming dichotomies comprise the full picture of your life of faith?
Read Romans 5:12-19. How do you sense the differences Paul draws between Adam and Christ prompting you to turn toward God?
Read Matthew 4:1-11. What are your own temptations? How does Jesus’ response to his temptations guide you in responding to yours?
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