Most of the time I am absolutely convinced spirituality is about learning the simple lessons the complexity of life has to teach us. I am also persuaded that our level of education has an indirect correlation to our capacity as students to learn these spiritual lessons. Since by worldly standards, I am pretty highly educated, I probably am the worst kind of student of life and spirituality. I am a slow learner, but I am trying. For the most part, I still find being in the school of life interesting and thought-provoking.
Since I have advanced degrees and am a professor, I usually don’t think about finding teachers to teach me things. That is my job! And that’s how my problems begin. I see myself as a teacher and in many ways I don’t know anything. Perhaps the first step in growing is to realize and accept truth as it is revealed to you. I had a little lesson recently. My little granddaughter became my teacher. Fortunately, I began to recognize I was her student, although I don’t recall enrolling in her class!
We were on a little walk. Well, at least I thought it was just a walk. In retrospect I realize she was on a journey and she was exploring. My walk was rather aimless---just spending some time is how I would have put it. Her journey was fueled by curiosity. Compared to her, I was walking like a blind man. She had eyes wide open. We walked hand in hand. No doubt, I was under the illusion I was watching out for her---making her safe---when in truth she was guiding me on to a path of attentiveness.
Although I did not know it in the moment, my lesson began when she stopped, bent down and picked up a leaf. It could have been any season, but it was autumn when the splendor of the leaves is at their best. But it is also the time when the leaves give up life and begin the transformational process to become fertilizer for the earth. To me it was just a leaf. To her it was a revelation of the mystical. She and I represented the two extremes of human life---the mystic and the moron. Our roles seem clear! So I began to pay attention to my teacher.
She was fascinated by the leaf. She held it as if it were a crystal ball ready to reveal its secrets. I began to cultivate my own fascination. I followed her lead and started to open my eyes and my heart. I am not sure what her reflective capacities are, but I know mine are pretty good when I apply myself. I was ready to reflect on the leaf for what it would teach me.
The first thing to hit me was the phrase, “icon of life,” as a description of the leaf. I can imagine some folks don’t really know or appreciate the idea of an icon. I only came to appreciate it when I took Greek and learned that “icon” was the Greek word for “image.” So an icon is an image---a picture or snapshot. That does not mean it is the same thing as a mirror. A mirror reflects back the very same image. If I look into a mirror, my exact image stares back at me. On the other hand, an icon draws us into it and reflects something deeper inside it. That’s what the leaf did to me.
To understand the leaf as an icon of life meant that I began to see how the leaf experienced stages of life just like I have. Leaves are born in the springtime. Spring is the time of renewal, vitality and exuberance. The leaf begins as a bud, just as we all began as babies. We come with so much potential and so much power. In many ways my granddaughter is still in that early stage.
Spring gives way to summer. The leaf is fully-grown and green is the color. I could be cynical and say green symbolizes money, but that is too superficial. I see green as the color of life, vibrant, meaningful life. Summer can last a long time. Leaves are crucial to the tree---work to do. But they also are bearers of beauty. I see you and me having the same dual opportunity. There is work to do---meaningful, creative work---and there is beauty to bear. Do both well.
And then comes autumn. The leaf begins its odyssey into brilliant colors. Leaves go out in a blaze of glory. I hope to do the same thing. At first, the leaf changes colors and gives the tree a radiance that is incomparable. All you can do is look at the leaf as the handiwork of a Divine Artist. I hope some day people could look at me and see traces of that same Divine Artistic work.
Inevitably, a strong wind will dislodge the leaf from the tree and it will twirl or be hurled to the earth. Perhaps it will be picked up by the small hand of a little girl. Or it might simply begin the transformational process of enriching the earth to produce the next generation of beauties. Perhaps it is not true to say the leaf’s life is finished. Perhaps it is more accurate to say the leaf’s work has changed. And maybe that is my fate and your fate some day when the Spirit’s strong wind dislodges us from this life. Our lives will not be spent so much as re-quipped for the next phase. That’s what I learned, thanks to my little teacher and her leaf.