The Tree of Life
The tree of life is a universal symbol - appearing in ‘ancient wisdom’. We find it
across cultures, religions and mythology as the Yggdrasil (the world tree) of Norse
religion, as part of the Jewish Kabbalah and as an Armenian religious symbol, to
mention just a few examples. But what meaning and significance does the tree of life
have for us now?
From my Christian background, I find the tree of life appearing in the first book of the
Bible, Genesis, and also the last - the book of Revelation. At the beginning and the
end - it is almost as if it is the framework into which the rest of the Bible fits. We find
it at the beginning at the centre of a garden and at the end at the centre of a holy city
that descends from heaven. For me, this relates to my changing relationship with the
divine; it is different at the beginning from what it becomes or grows into at the end.
The bits in-between depict my spiritual wanderings and challenges in reaching a
spiritual maturity, a deeper connection with what is spiritual and a living relationship
with the ‘Divine Creator’.
The beginning! Where do we each begin our individual life and what is that like? God
has no beginning, but we, as his finite creations, definitely do begin at a point in time,
and this, I believe, is a beginning in the oneness of the divine. Our beginnings start
with an experience of unity and connection, but it is necessary for us to develop into
conscious independent individuals in order to choose to return to the forgotten and
lost unity and connection with the one life that creates, loves and sustains us. I see this
wonderful unity and connection with all that is living, in the beautiful Garden of Eden
- as this quotation from Emanuel Swedenborg describes:
In the highest sense ‘the garden planted by Jehovah God in Eden, from the East’ is the
Lord himself; in the inmost sense, which is also the universal sense, it is the Lord’s
kingdom and heaven, where a person is placed on becoming celestial.
[ Heavenly Secrets, 99 ]
This idyllic and innocent picture relates to what we experience in the infancy of our
spiritual life. It is in the centre of the garden where we discover or experience the tree
Trees are powerful symbols of enduring and substantial mental and spiritual attitudes.
Swedenborg uses the term ‘perception’; hence different types of trees spoken of in the
Bible symbolise differing perceptions. So, what perception does the tree of life give to
those who have it growing at the centre of their existence? To have this at the centre
of one’s life is to view life and other people from the perception that we are all united
and connected by the creative love that gives life to all. the one life can be
experienced in its many facets in other people and in the world of nature - the one in
But another tree appears in the garden - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
and this is very attractive to us. What sort of perception do we gain from eating its
fruit? Its presence gives us a choice: do we decide what is good and true for ourselves,
or depend entirely on it being revealed to us by God? We have minds of our own;
surely we can decide for ourselves what we should do. It is almost inevitable that we
turn away from this dependence on the divine, to choose and develop our own sense
of identity, our ego. Life is then attributed to the separate individual, myself, because
that is what my senses tell me. Therefore I no longer wish to be a part of the Garden
of Eden experience which is about being receptive of divine revelation and being
dependent on it. So I embark on a long spiritual journey, passing through many trials
and challenges in order to learn about myself and be self-sufficient. A part of this
quest for enlightenment is expressed in the following quotation from Odyssey, an
article by David Garrett.
The loneliness of ‘coming to oneself’ is acutely painful. At some point, in a
mysterious way, the seeker dares to consider the possibility that the loneliness and the
failure are because the quest was attempted entirely by his own efforts . . For the first
time, the seeker becomes experientially aware of an inner source that is deeper and
more resourceful than the ego. As he/she turns to it, the feeling of being stuck recedes.
The cold and barren world tingles and warms. The inner earth sprouts green shoots.
Each time she/he consciously relates to the inner wise one, life quickens. When he/she
ignores it, vitality ceases.
[ Chrysalis, Winter 1985 ]
But there is the possibility, in one’s spiritual maturity, of discovering afresh the ‘tree
of life’ perception - but not in a garden: now it is at the centre of a city - a city that is
descending from heaven. Therefore I am once again open to divine revelation coming
from a God-given rationality, structured yet full of vitality. Swedenborg writes:
With them (those who understand and live according to the doctrine of the Holy City)
the Word shines, as it were, when it is read: it shines from the Lord by means of the
spiritual sense . . . the Word is translucent. . . to those who are in genuine truths from
[ Apocalypse Revealed 897 ]
At the end of the journey one can re-discover what had been lost, and make one’s way
back to the beginning to the tree of life - it is different, yet paradoxically the same.
Perhaps what is to be discovered is always the same, eternal and enduring, but the
change has taken place in oneself. This reminds me of T.S.Eliot’s poem:
We shall not cease from exploration
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of the earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always -
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well. . .
[ Four Quartets, Little Gidding ]