A Parable: The Pilgrimmage


even, dense and old stand of beech trees (Fagu...
even, dense and old stand of beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) prepared to be regenerated (watch the young trees underneath the old ones) in the Brussels part of the Sonian Forest (Forêt de Soignes – Zoniënwoud) in Belgium (Photo credit: Wikipedia

This story was inspired by a poem by Howard McCord (“Ontology”) and by the expression “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”

Thomas lived in the desert lands as a child. There is much beauty in such barren places, but also many important things lacking. Thomas would ask his father, “When can I see a tree? I have heard of them, but I have never seen a tree.” His father would say, “I am sorry, Thomas. Here there are cacti. There are shrubs, but if you want to see a tree, you need to go to the great forest on the other side of those mountains you see to the East.

Thomas dreamed of a time when he could see a tree… no matter how little he knew about trees. He had some idea that they were alive, came up from the ground and had limbs or branches. Perhaps they were gigantic dwarfing the great rocks that were near his house. Perhaps they moved from place to place as they had the desire. His father’s explanations were not helpful. They were like a shrub but bigger. Some of the cacti were bigger, but apparently they were different from trees in some way.

One day as a young teenager he decided the wait was over. The mountains weren’t that far away. They looked like a short walk would get him there. Thomas could certainly go to the great forest and be back before dark if he hurried. Or so he thought. The mountains were much farther away than he suspected. As he walked towards them, it seemed as if they were drawing away from him as fast as he was walking. But as he arrived at a road in the desert, a truck came up. He had seen trucks before but never had been able to touch one, to say nothing of ride in one. But they stopped to see why this boy was walking so far away from everything. Thomas explained that he was seeking to go to the great forest on the other side of the mountains to the East. The two in the truck said they were driving that way and could give him a lift if he wanted.

What excitement! It was almost like flying. They were moving so fast it was hard to believe. Why didn’t his father have a truck. It is such an amazing thing. Even though the land was moving past them so fast, the mountains were moving much slower. It almost seemed like they were still trying to get away from them like when he was walking, but that they could not move as fast as the truck. Slowly, the mountains got nearer and they started to go up the mountains. The mountains were much bigger than they seemed back at home. It would have been no fun to walk, but it was amazing at how the truck could go up as easily as it went down. One day, Thomas reasoned, he must have a truck.

As they crested the highest point on the road, the driver pointed to a large area of green that seemed to go on as far as one could see. “There is the great forest you were talking about, I reckon. Where do you want to be left off.”

“I don’t know,” said Thomas. “Anywhere I guess. I wanted to see a tree, and my father said I could find one in the great forest.”

The other two laughed. “Yes. Yes,” said the other passenger. “If you go into the great forest and look around, I am quite confident you will see a tree.”

As the great green mass that was the great forest got closer, Thomas was amazed as the road went right into it and seemed to be swallowed up by it. “If this is a good place to see a tree, you can let me out here,” said Thomas.

Thomas left the road and went deeper into the great forest. It was hard for him to rap his mind and senses around it. It surrounded him and covered him. Even though it was noontime, the forest was shadowed. It was cool but also uncomfortable. It was still and yet constantly in movement. It looked the same in every direction and yet each individual part of the forest was unique. It was so very alive and yet was full of decay. The forest seemed so quiet at first, but when one took the time, it was full of strange rustlings from sources unknown.

Thomas stood and stared and listened, smelled and felt the forest. It was too big, too astounding to take in. It took him awhile to even remember why he came. But then it came to him. He was there to find a tree. He looked around and around. All he could see was forest. He could not even see the sun or clouds except if he stood in just the right places and looked up. He could not see the rocks except an occasional one covered with the cool moist green of the forest.

“There is nothing here but the forest,” lamented Thomas. “My father assured me that if I went to the great forest, I would see a tree. The guys in the truck also assured me of the same. They even seemed to think it funny that I thought it possible to be in the forest without seeing a tree. But the only thing here that is not the forest is… me.”

Thomas gasped as he remembered that a tree was bigger than a shrub, coming up from the ground like a cactus with branches. How foolish am I, thought Thomas, and how cruel of the others to play such a joke on me.

I am a tree.


Pilgrimages are part of Christianity. They are often done so as to “find God.” And Christianity is not alone in this. In fact, many religions take pilgrimage much more seriously than Christianity. With Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, for example, there is the implication, a least, that a pilgrimage can draw one to the divine. Christianity, unlike these two religions, is homeless. It has no set place that is sacrosanct. I have been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and to the Wailing Wall, and Gethsemene. These are nice, but God is no more there than in any other place. Some Protestants prefer to go to “The Garden Tomb,” not because of its historical connection to Christ’ burial and resurrection, but because it fits their own style of the Holy.

Christians have chosen other places to have pilgrimages as well. Whether it be Rome, Constantianople, Avignon, or others, pilgrimages seek an experience with the divine. Yet, God is not in those places more than in other places. As the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, asked after being challenged that he was sleeping with his feet pointed towards Mecca (a faux pas in traditional Arab culture), “In which direction is God not?” In Korean Christianity, there are Prayer Mountains in some parts of Asia, including the Philippines. I have never been to one, and struggle to see the appeal, but I did have a friend that went and stayed at one of these places for several weeks. It was never really clear to me whether she got what she was seeking. She is dead now, so she is on her last pilgrimage.

In the parable above, the boy went from a place where trees were not, to a place where he was engulfed by trees. The boy did not recognize this, because he did not really know what a tree was. His logic was a bit silly, yet understandable.

And I suppose that is the problem. If one doesn’t know what one is looking for, one doesn’t know where to find it. And if one knows where to find it, but doesn’t know how to recognize it, one simply will not find it. While we often like to quote the Bible that says that none seek after God, a large portion of humanity does seek connection with the divine. Yet, without help, they can easily create their own image of God– whether concrete or abstract– that ultimately falls short of their quest.

<Another nice “forest” parable in the Related Articles below.>

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