Henri Nouwen and the Sugar Maple Tree
by maggi dawn
Tomorrow morning, a beautiful old tree that stands right outside the window of Marquand Chapel is going to be felled. It is a sugar maple tree, and has delighted generations of people at Yale Divinity School. It survived when we lost other trees in recent storms – Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Sandy, and Nemo, the winter storm of 2012. But it is an old tree with a number of problems, and despite propping it up with various supports, we’ve known for some time that it couldn’t last forever. Some time ago a new tree was planted close by to grow up in its place. Nevertheless, the tree is such a beloved feature of our landscape that it feels a bit like like losing an old friend.
When I first came to Yale, nearly four years ago, I was stunned by the beautiful view of the tree from inside Marquand Chapel. “Just wait until the Fall,” someone said to me, “we don’t need stained glass windows here, the tree does it all for us.” Sure enough, watching the sugar maple tree go through the colors of the seasons has been an inspiration as we have set up for worship every day.
There’s a great story about Henri Nouwen and the sugar maple tree. Nouwen is, of course, known the world over for his marvellous books, and his theology that is as deep as it is beautifully written. But at Yale Divinity School, where he taught from 1971-1981, he was loved for the way he built personal friendships throughout the community, breaking down the customary barriers between faculty and students on the basis that he did not believe it was possible to teach students anything valuable about theology without allowing them to get to know their teachers as human beings. I’m told he used to hold an “open house” at his apartment every Friday night, the rule of the house being that people not talk about work, but actually get to know each other. But apparently he also spent many hours out in the gardens, chatting with students about their lives, their futures, and their burgeoning ministries – and his favorite place to sit was in the great roots of the sugar maple tree.
It’s sad to see the old tree go, but it’s a reminder that life is a constant round of reinventions, of beginnings and endings. As Pete Seeger put it (paraphrasing Qoheleth):
“To every thing, turn, turn, turn
there is a season, turn, turn, turn,
and a time to every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, a time to reap…”
(Happily, as well as a new, young tree already growing, there are several other spots in Yale Divinity School that commemorate Henri Nouwen’s legacy, including the Nouwen Chapel which is accessible on the lower floor of the library.)
Photo credits (from top): Campbell (Brock) Harmon, Maggi Dawn, Unknown, Michael Morand, Campbell (Brock) Harmon.