The Tree in my Backyard

dscf0048I have given this posting a very prosaic title in order to help readers focus on precisely what I am saying. In my previous post on icons – I noted that even the world functions as an icon – but, undoubtedly, having put that in a very theological context, most readers think simply about the traditional icons found in Orthodox Churches.

Instead I want to talk about the tree in my backyard. I currently only have one tree there (within the fence). There is nothing particularly noteworthy about it other than it’s a mature oak and leans slightly towards my house (it adds excitement to our daily lives). How does the tree in my backyard function as an icon? And it’s not just this tree but every tree.

For one, every tree points both towards the tree of life, in the Garden of Eden, which itself was a type of the true Tree of Life, the Cross on which Christ died. This tree points towards that tree, because in submitting Himself to death on the Cross, Christ has raised all trees to the level of icon.

Of course, you don’t have to look at a tree like that. You can be literal and see wood and bark, limbs and leaves. It’s beautiful, but it lacks the fullness of meaning that Christ has given to His creation. Everything and everyone points to Pascha, is an icon of our redemption. Creation preaches the gospel of Christ for those who have eyes to see.

rublevtrinityA traditional example of this use of a tree is found in the famous icon by Rublev, the so-called “Old Testament Trinity,” in which the three angels who appeared to him beneath the oak of Mamre are depicted. There in the center of the icon stands a tree. The tree is more than background (this is an icon and not a renaissance portrait – everything has meaning). The tree foreshadows the cross. Some say that the angel over whose head the tree appears represents the Second Person of the Trinity. But like the tree in my back yard – it’s an oak.

St. Seraphim of Sarov had a spiritual practice that transformed the space around his hermitage. Various places in that small area were renamed by him. One would be Jerusalem, another Bethlehem, and so forth. Thus he not only walked outside his hermitage – he made spiritual pilgrimage to all of these sites of our salvation in the “icon” of his small forest.

I could substitute “the man next door” for the “tree in my backyard” and see more than the eye usually reveals. I could in fact see that my neighbor is none other than an icon of Christ – and that whatever I do for him or do not do for him – has been done or not done for Christ.

If it is true that “heaven and earth of full of Thy glory,” then there is a need for our eyes to be trained to see glory, particularly when it is given to us in iconic form. Such vision not only changes how we see the world, it also reveals the truth of things far more clearly than is apparent to an unredeemed eye. Should an unbeliever and a believer look at a tree and see the same thing? When they see Christ on the Cross, do they see the same thing?

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





28 responses to “The Tree in my Backyard”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The first photo is of my son, and the trailer in which my parents lived before they moved to an assisted living situation. It’s just part of home.

  2. Robert Avatar

    Father Bless.

    While reading I kept thinking your son in the photo is that oak tree!

    “Should an unbeliever and a believer look at a tree and see the same thing? When they see Christ on the Cross, do they see the same thing?”

    These questions hightlight the problem with science, so it appears to me. I am not referring to true science as it is quite helpful and necessary in declaring God’s presence. But the science as it interprets with the unbelieving eye, ever distorting and reaching conclusions unsupported by scientific observation (observations such as looking at a tree). Your thoughts, Father?

  3. Athanasia Avatar

    Though I have been told this before, I have never really grasped it. This entry helps Father. I think I shall be practicing this during the rest of Nativity Lent.

  4. Patrick Avatar

    Father bless.

    You may already know this, but a Russian friend of mine pointed out something quite amazing with the Rublev icon. If you look at the shape “outlined” by the two Angels on the outer edges of the icon, you will note that it is in the shape of the chalice on the table. Within that chalice, then, is the “second” Angel, or Christ. This, of course, would be consistent with the location of the tree.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    I know many believing scientist here in Oak Ridge (physicists and the like). To see a tree as an icon is still to see it as a tree. When I have painted an icon, I have to be very aware of the wood, the paint, the lines, everything – all that goes in it – and praying all the while. So there is a double awareness of sorts.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    I have to add that my son is indeed an oak tree – a young man of good Christian character who is a good husband and the very best son I could imagine. He’s also my only son 🙂

  7. Collator Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    I have only in the past day found your blog, and enjoyed reading some of the recent posts. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.
    An excellent study of this perception of nature as icon is found in _The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian_ by noted Syriac scholar Sebastian Brock. It is a wonderful introduction to the theology of this saint, so greatly venerated but so little known in our Church.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    I will buy and read. Thanks for the tip!

  9. Mark in Baton Rouge Avatar
    Mark in Baton Rouge

    Father, bless!

    Reading this post, I was reminded of a passage from Fr. Anthony Ugolnik, where he describes the power of the gospel to evoke awe and yearning. We are awestruck by the God who has entered creation; we yearn for his coming. Our sins and failures do not deny the truth of the gospel; rather, they indicate the waning of our awe and the weakness of our yearning.

    In Fr. Anthony’s words, “Sin is as much a failure of the imagination as of the will.”

    I must confess the many times I’ve looked at the tree, or my children, or the stranger on the street and failed “to see” the fullness and wonder of it all…

    Lord have mercy.

  10. eleftheria Avatar

    Thank you for this post, and for all your equally wonderful posts.

    Regarding trees, aside from the scientific facts (They grow upward, with their buds facing upward.), the reality is that they point heavenward. Just imagine that every bud glorifies God as it comes into being, becoming at the same time, a sacrifice, as it grows to offer shade to those below or even raindrops to birds and insects, and eventually, as it dies in a blaze of glorious color, after it falls to the ground, it becomes fertilizer.
    Truly, Glory to God!

  11. Michael Avatar

    Father, may even your oaks live forever. Axios!

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    My oaks thank you.

    Some 12 or so years ago a large oak in my yard, with a forked trunk, became weak and in a windstorm one side fell, striking a neighbor’s tree and landing in her yard. All of us rushed out of our houses to see what the big noise was. As we stood there gawking, the second trunk began to fall, moving slowing towards my house! I made the sign of the cross over it with a short prayer for God’s mercy. There was another oak, on which I had affixed a small shrine with an icon of the Mother of God. In mid fall, the trunk change direction about 90 degrees, went away from the house, fell and was caught in the branches of the tree with the icon of the mother of God. We gave great thanks for God’s mercy and the intercession of His mother. The neighbors were also joyful. My oaks have blessed me.

  13. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Dear Father, bless! What joy, indeed! I have a sister who is mentally ill. She was off her meds a few years ago and took off from home in her car (she lives with our parents). She got many miles downstate and out into the country. My parents were beside themselves with worry, not knowing where she was, and of course as is their custom called on the Lord in prayer and asked others to do so as well. When my sister was driving past a lonely house with a very large tree in the front yard, a large limb of the tree suddenly fell into the road and landed on the hood of her car, bringing it to an abrupt stop! My sister miraculously was uninjured and the folks at the house were able to get her to safety with local police/hospital, etc., who then contacted my parents. We have a lot of stories like that about God’s intervention on my sister’s behalf through the years.

  14. Michael Avatar

    What a wonderful story Father. I am reminded of the angel of the Lord, who appeared to Gideon also under an oak, while he Gideon, was threshing wheat to hide from the Midianites. Glory to God indeed, for all oaks!

  15. Robert Avatar

    I still think that oak tree is your son, Fr. Stephen! 😀

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Oaks are great. So are all the others. Don’t want to sound too Druid here 🙂

  17. Michael Avatar

    Glory to God for all trees Father!

  18. cvow Avatar

    I am a happily practicing Roman Catholic — converted many years ago from a fundamentalist Lutheran church. I just recently found your site and am thoroughly enjoying reading your posts and the posts of others here. It’s giving me a lot of insight to the Orthodox faith, and I am learning a lot.

    Your explanation here of the tree and the previous posting about icons has really helped clear this issue in my mind, and your analogies are so helpful.

    May the Lord keep and bless you — you are doing a great service here with this ministry! Please remember me as well in your prayers to the Lord, our God.

  19. anon Avatar

    From another perspective. I’ve just recently returned from Japan where I spent a week in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan and its spiritual center.
    Kyoto is full of temples and shrines. The shrines are roadside or pavement side structures, quite small. Every shrine I saw, and they were numerous, had flowers placed in the appropiate place.
    The temples were, in a great number, placed within gardens where ancient trees were kept flourishing, taken care of meticulously by temple attendants.

    When one enters a temple precinct, one is immediately struck by the gardens. Great care has been taken to maintain these gardens. Some have been maintained for over a thousand years.

    It’s quite clear, to me, that the gardens are iconic, representative of the Original Garden. Unlike Western gardens, the trees and plants are allowed to express their nature. They are not forced into something artificial.

    Perhaps this should be examined more deeply.

    Also, I was there because my wife teaches Ikebono, the art of Japanese flower arangement. The floral arrangements I saw in Kyoto at the Ikebono Headquarters were simply magnificent. It’s fascinating how someone can take a few flowers and greens and make them into a representative of Eternal Beauty.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar


    There’s much to learn in Japan. I have a Japanese member, and my Archbishop lived for a time in Japan. I have appreciated conversations with them – I agree about the iconicity of gardens. There is a very good book by Vigen Guroian (Armenian Orthodox) on gardens and the spiritual life. Nice present for a wife …

  21. Steven M. Calascione Avatar
    Steven M. Calascione


    Tucker N. Callaway has written an excellent book on the Christian roots of Zen Buddhism, and it includes a rare interview with D.T. Suzuki, the respected teacher of Zen.

    The Amazon synopsis says this, about that:

    This was rendered fruitful by the fact that it embraced elements of Jodo (Pure Land) of ‘faith-based’ Buddhism, in which Amida-Buddha occupies a rather Jesus-like role, insofar as his followers call upon him, much as Christians call upon Christ. In fact, in the course of this dialogue, Suzuki pointed out that ‘Pure-land’ and Zen Buddhism are more akin than is often supposed, the distinction between Zen as ‘ji-riki’ (self-power) and Pure Land as ‘tariki’ (other-power) – by no means absolute.

    Of course, our knowledge of Pure-land, might well have remained conceptual and offshore, had not the Incarnation taken place!

    Christe eleison!

  22. Steven M. Calascione Avatar
    Steven M. Calascione

    Oops, the book’s called Zen Way Jesus Way.

  23. Barbara Avatar


    The books by Vigen Guroian are wonderful. I think the one Fr. Stephen is referring to is called Inherting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening. He also wrote a more recent one called the Fragrance of God. I loved them both and have given them to serveral gardeners and lovers of creation.


  24. Barnabas Avatar

    The tree may also represent the tree under which Elijah rested when visited by the angel of the Lord (there is a mountain in the background, and Christ is transfigured in the Blood on the table). The angels represent the Church in full communion.

  25. handmaidleah Avatar

    One sees trees in icons quite often, the one I have never been able to figure out is the icon of Holy Theophany. In the foreground of the icon is a tree with an ax in it. Does anyone know the significance of this?

  26. Barnabas Avatar

    The tree and axe represent the eschaton Leah.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar


    The image you refer to is from the preaching of St. John the Baptist who said, “The axe is laid to the root,” meaning, God is making a complete renewal in His people – indeed, finally found in the fullness of Christ in the Eschaton.

  28. Barnabas Avatar

    How very true Father. It also accurately depicts the Hypostatic Union, and Christ’s descent into hades.

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