(This piece originally appeared in Daily Episcopalian, October 16, 2011)
"I believe in the sun even if it isn't shining. I believe in love even when I am alone. I believe in God even when He is silent."
--Author unknown, allegedly found on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany which was a hiding place during the Holocaust.
Just north of my driveway, in a little rectangular tongue of my pasture, is an incredibly large and stately cottonwood tree--about 70-80 feet tall. Once upon a time there must have been other trees near it--it is not entirely straight but cants about 20 degrees to the east--but it presently stands alone in its magnificently imperfect beauty. One of the greatest joys in my remote country "home in the hayfield" is hearing the distinct flapping of my granddaddy cottonwood tree. I have a couple of smaller ones in other parts of my pasture, but they are not particularly close to the house. In the years I have lived here, it's served occasionally as both a home to Baltimore Orioles, and a singles bar for un-mated male mockingbirds who carried on well past midnight. But its primary function in life has been simply to make the wonderful heavenly applause that only a cottonwood tree can make.
The waning days of fall always bring an auditory sadness to my day-to-day life. Each spring begins a cycle of sound to my world. The first cottony dusting of the seeds on my truck reminds me the leaves will be sprouting soon, and I start to train my ears to hear them. The first day the leaves have developed enough to be heard is always a joyful day in my life, no matter what tasks I have before me. Summer brings the constant companionship of its leafy song--so constant (the wind ALWAYS blows in Northeast Missouri) that I almost forget it's there. But it's fall--as the leaves begin to thin out and drop--that reminds me the most of the sound it makes.
Cottonwoods don't drop their leaves all at once. My tree undergoes a roughly five week process of leafy alopecia, getting thinner and thinner, green first mixed with yellow and then brown, my driveway turning browner and browner from the leaves. As it wanes, it seems the remaining leaves get louder and louder as they vigorously flap more openly without their neighbors--or is it my hearing that has become more and more keen?--until the day comes I step outside and hear nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Every year, that silence grips my heart. What if for some reason it dies over the winter? What if we have one of those late season tornadoes we are known for and it crashes to the ground, or into my garage, or even my house? I simply cannot do without the noise of my cottonwood tree.
I have come to changing the conversation of this silence in the last couple of years to take away my fear. When that fearful moment begins to tighten around my rib cage, I have started to loosen that grip with a single thought: Advent is coming.
One of the things I appreciate about the wisdom of our liturgical calendar is that it contains two seasons of planned silence--Advent and Lent. Both seasons remind me of a very important piece of the Biblical cycle of Creation-->Sin-->Repentance-->Restoration/Resurrection--that for things to be reborn, they must often die to themselves. That we don't get to choose the nature of the restoration. That we will be given enough to make it through this time of silence. That what springs forth in the new season will most likely be better than we could have imagined or chosen for ourselves. That it is precisely when things seem the deadest is when the most diligent work of restoration is taking place. My cottonwood tree is not uncomfortable with its silence. I am.
The waning of Time after Pentecost is the perfect time for us to, like the slow five week thinning process of my cottonwood tree, ease into the silence of Advent with anticipation despite the dread. If we only focus on the dread, we deafen ourselves to the tiny stirrings of life inside the womb of Advent. I remind myself that when my cottonwood tree is silent, much is taking place in its outermost limbs, beneath the scaly plates of the little brown buds at their tips, and before long, those buds will swell to bursting and re-open. Even when I imagine my worst case scenario--what if my tree meets its demise?--I hear a voice asking me, "When you can no longer hear the rustle of the cottonwood leaves, what tree will you hear, that you've never heard before?"
What might God tell each of us in the silence, that we've never heard before, because the noise of the familiar was too comforting?