Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The telling oak

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published April 30, 2015

Spring is a beautiful season. Here at the monastery, so much is coming back to life – the blooming trees and smaller plants, the fields that are seeming to actually rise as the grasses grow higher. The animals will soon give birth to their young. And we have a generous variety of animals: squirrels, rabbits, deer, ducks, geese, raccoons and more.

The ways of nature fascinate me. Each species of plant and animal has its own way of generating and nurturing new life. A plant may not seem, with a cursory glance, to be possessed of what one normally thinks of as nurturing behavior. But on closer examination, you can see how a grand designer—a higher power—has endowed them with the necessary nurturing abilities to guarantee that their seeds are kept safe, healthy and ready, when the time comes, to rise from the earth to begin a new life. Spring is the time for the regeneration of all of life. From the tiniest of creatures to the tallest trees, life is passed on, even as the originating source dies. But then—does it really die, or does it live on in the life it gives to its offspring—be that a colony of ants or a mulberry bush?

The above is, of course, of no interest to any kind of life other than our own human life. Trees and squirrels do not ponder or worry as to what will eventually befall them. They do not “know” death as we know it. But then, I wonder. Do we really know it? As a word, “death” frames a very specific event in the cycle of life. One way of life ceases, and there is a corpse, or a dead tree, or a dead bird on the road. At least these things are what we think we see and call “death.”

When I was a kid we had a dog. He was a golden retriever and his name was Rusty. He was a wonderful dog, and as long ago as it was, I still think about him. He had a personality, never hurt anyone and was a smart and friendly dog. I still have his dog tag, with his name and our then-home address.

When I really think about life, and think about Rusty, it is hard for me to believe that he is no more. He was not created just for “us.” And I am led to believe that creation is not just about us and for us. We are not the center of it all. It all does not revolve around our lives and our whims.

Something much more vast is at play, and I would like to think that it includes all living things, great and small, past, present and yet to come. We are all seeds for something far more wondrous and beautiful than this immediate world reveals. But a transformation is in the works. And it includes all our beloved departed, Rusty included.

A friend of mine wrote in a recent letter that she likes to gaze out her window during the winter months. In her backyard is a tall oak tree, and she wrote that in the winter it looks dead. There are no signs of life at all. But come the spring, it comes to life again, stronger and a bit fuller than the year before. That tree speaks to her of eternal life.

And even though there will come a time when, like all living things, it will cease its present growth and fall to the ground, new life will grow from it—but only if it dies. It must die to come to life again.

I do not know where Rusty is. But I know that he “is.” Nor do I know where glide and fly the spirits of birds long gone from our trees and skies. I know that Jesus told us to learn from the birds of the sky, and the lilies of the field. He saw much in them. He made them. He loved them.

And I believe that in some wondrous way, he will always have a place for them, a place where they can grow forever anew and never undergo death. A place called Paradise is forever green and beautiful, where we will never grow old, and dogs will never die, and oak trees never again know the bitterness of winter.

Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at