Beneath the Apple Tree: Liturgy and Healing
Beneath the apple tree:
there I took you for my own,
there I offered you my hand,
and restored you,
where your mother was corrupted.
—St John of the Cross: The Spiritual Canticle, stanza 23.
A reflection on love for the sacred liturgy must begin beneath an old tree.
It was in the shadow of this ancient tree, and within arm’s length of its fruit, that our first parents fell. It was there that lies were first taken for truth; where shame was first felt; where death and sorrow lurched into the world.
If we are ever to be delivered from this place of corruption and despair, a light stronger than darkness must shine into it, an arm stronger than the one that reached for the fruit must extend gently into it. Only the radiance of this light and the touch of this compassionate hand can heal and lift us from wreckage to restoration. This is the mystical meaning of St John of the Cross and this is what the sacred liturgy does.
Commenting on his own stanza, the great Carmelite doctor explains:
The Bridegroom explains to the soul in this stanza his admirable plan in redeeming and espousing her to himself through the very means by which human nature was corrupted and ruined, telling her that as human nature was ruined through Adam and corrupted by means of the forbidden tree in the Garden of Paradise, so on the tree of the cross it was redeemed and restored when he gave it there, through his passion and death, the hand of his favor and mercy, and broke down the barriers between God and humans that were built up through original sin.1
Using the very means by which we fell, Jesus brings us healing through His cross, whose graces flow most powerfully through the sacred liturgy. It is most especially at Mass where we touch Calvary and Calvary touches us. And this is more than something to think about at Mass, more than a poetic way of looking at liturgy. The body is invited into this healing by participating in divine worship with each sense fully engaged.
What St John says in general about our redeemed and restored human nature finds concrete expression in the use of our bodily members, a point St Paul makes with equal clarity and force: “For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification” (Rm 6:19). It might be that we in the Latin or Roman rite do not see as clearly how the body involves itself in divine worship, since our postures in church tend to limit themselves to standing, sitting, and occasionally kneeling. And indeed the Roman rite is often characterized by a “sobriety” in ritual movement, a restraint in both expression and gesture.
For this reason, it is helpful to look to our Christian brethren of the east to learn from them how bodily our worship can be. St John Paul II encouraged us to do just this in his 1995 Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen: “The members of the Catholic Church of the Latin tradition must also be fully acquainted with this treasure,” i.e., the traditions of the Eastern Churches.2
He describes very beautifully how the divine liturgies of the East tend to involve more of the whole person when compared to the Latin rite. The body is compelled by its senses to enter more deeply into the mysteries celebrated. With greater use of musical dialogues between priest and choir, more frequent use of incense and bells, and bodily gestures that require more than the simple postures of Latin rite worship, the human person is inspired to offer his or her body as a sacrifice of praise.
[L]iturgical prayer in the East shows a great aptitude for involving the human person in his or her totality: the mystery is sung in the loftiness of its content, but also in the warmth of the sentiments it awakens in the heart of redeemed humanity. In the sacred act, even bodiliness is summoned to praise, and beauty, which in the East is one of the best loved names expressing the divine harmony and the model of humanity transfigured, appears everywhere: in the shape of the church, in the sounds, in the colors, in the lights, in the scents. The lengthy duration of the celebrations, the repeated invocations, everything expresses gradual identification with the mystery celebrated with one’s whole person. Thus the prayer of the Church already becomes participation in the heavenly liturgy, an anticipation of the final beatitude.
The importance of this is not hard to grasp. We sin not only with mind and heart, but also with our bodies, our senses. It is, in fact, the misuse of our bodies that is the most evident sign of sin and normally the most shaming part of the whole experience. If we have used our bodies in ways we’re ashamed of, how comforting and joyful it is to know that God welcomes the right use of my hands, feet, voice, in the divine service. It is such a beautiful thing to recognize that I can use my body in ways that restore my soul, that my senses are inroads for divine healing.
Highlighting how Christians of the east touch God and how God touches them powerfully illustrates how Christ reaches us. He offers us His hand when we feel too corrupted to touch the sacred. When we feel stained and beyond repair, a hand reaches down from the cross to caress. The temple of our body that He once consecrated for glory in baptism, we may have repurposed, rented out, or abandoned. He comes into that place, freely and joyfully, to cleanse it anew and make it habitable again. Jesus bypasses the ambivalent love/hate relationship we have with our bodies (the extremes: I can’t stand myself or I love myself too much). Bypassing all of that, He goes there to love us.
If beneath the apple tree, beneath the cross, is an apt metaphor for the sacred liturgy, if where we feel most broken is where He offers us His hand, then we should pause over the Lord’s gesture for a moment.
What were you doing there beneath the apple tree? You had fallen. You had been corrupted. And do you see how human His gesture is, how kind it is? Can you feel his sacred flesh against your skin as he grasps your hand? How strong He is, how encouraging? And whom is he touching? It’s you. It’s you. Not an imaginary you, not an idealized you, but the corrupted you. The broken you. We are the corrupted ones, the divided ones, the ones who have contributed to our inherited corruption by misusing our own flesh. We are the ones who have gotten into the habit of misusing the gifts of nature and grace He freely bestows upon us.
Pope Francis mentioned once in a homily how our eyes might be sick from gazing on sick things. And so on for our other senses. We have grown sick and we have grown old and the eternally young second Adam, the fairest of the sons of men, reaches his hand to us. Knowing everything about what our hands have touched and our eyes have seen; knowing everything about what we have heard, what our lips have uttered—everything—in that place Christ makes us his own. And that place is at every Mass, beneath the new apple tree, the tree of life. It is there He seeks us, there He blesses our renewed use of our old body.
St John of Cross elsewhere describes the soul (the “bride”) when totally given to God, totally surrendered to Him, as now occupying “her soul and body, her faculties and all her ability, in nothing other than the service of her Bridegroom.”3 And the Bridegroom accepts it as true worship, and is delighted to receive it. When we see how much the Lord loves us through the liturgy, and how much is accomplished by giving ourselves over to its rituals and signs, we cannot help but love in return the Lord whom we meet in our worship.
…We can apply to ourselves the question asked by the Apostle: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” And we can understand it as an invitation to deal with God in a more personal and direct manner.
We have to deal with him simply and trustingly, as we are taught by the Church in its liturgy. Then we will come to know our Lord better, and at the same time, we will realize more fully the great favour that has been granted us when we became Christians. We will see all the greatness and truth of the divinization….4
1 The Spiritual Canticle, stanza 23, no. 2.
2 APOSTOLIC LETTER ORIENTALE LUMEN OF THE SUPREME PONTIFF JOHN PAUL II TO THE BISHOPS, CLERGY AND FAITHFUL TO MARK THE CENTENARY OF ORIENTALIUM DIGNITAS OF POPE LEO XIII https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1995/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19950502_orientale-lumen.html
3 The Spiritual Canticle, stanza 28, no. 2.
4 St Josemaria Escriva: Christ is Passing By, no. 134.
Image: Detail from Virgin and Child Under an Apple Tree, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530, Germany, WikiArt.