By Kathy Berken
A few weeks ago, I did something for the very first time. I picked and ate a mulberry. I was walking through the park with my 3-year-old granddaughter, Isabelle, who pointed out the tree and began eating berries. “Whoa! Wait, Isabelle! I don’t know if those berries are safe! Let me check.” She said, “It’s a mulberry. Margaret (her daycare provider) has one in her backyard.”
I got out my phone and quickly looked up “mulberry tree.” Yes, indeed, she was right. The 30-foot tree had always been on that corner in the park behind her house, but I had never seen any berries on it in all the years my daughter Erica and her husband Aaron have lived there. I can be so unobservant. Isabelle and I picked the ripe fruit that reminded me of small blackberries, stained our hands, faces and clothes purple, and ate as many berries as we could reach.
This week, I was looking out the window in my second-floor apartment and noticed for the first time in the 10 years I’ve lived here (of course) that a gorgeous 50-foot tree has little black berries hanging from all the branches. No kidding. It’s a mulberry tree with thousands of ripe berries. I went outside and in a half hour filled a quart bag, picking what I could reach, wanting desperately to get a very tall ladder for the rest. In the next hour, I made three cups of the best jam ever!
As I write this column, I am looking at a robin sitting on a branch of that tree while picking at a berry. I guess the birds and squirrels will have their fill this summer if I can’t get any more.
What does all this have to do with spirituality? Everything.
I was tempted to make an analogy with the mustard bush/tree because mulberries can also grow on tall scrawny-looking bushes that produce something rather amazing. However, I decided to take a different route. As I was picking the berries, I had to stand under the tree and behind the branches to see them better as the berries tended to hide behind the leaves. Since the ripe ones are black, they aren’t as easy to see from a distance.
I usually find spiritual connections to everyday experiences upon later reflection but this time, I had a eureka moment as I walked closer to the tree’s trunk and into the shade and saw hundreds of berries that were not visible before. The tree is not just one tree, but a dozen or so thin trees clustered together. Well, that’s an analogy ripe for the picking (sorry for the pun).
It’s worth remembering that there is strength in numbers and 12 (a number not lost on me) scrawny trees on their own might not be able to survive the storms and snow here in Minnesota. Also, isn’t it clear that if you want to find the treasure in a person, you might have to get closer and see behind their protective coverings?
There are profound but simple lessons here. We’re in this together, as we have seen repeatedly in the last 15 months. We are truly stronger and can produce more fruit together. And when we aren’t wearing masks, we can see deeper into a person’s spirit and discover the beauty and the gifts that might otherwise be hidden.
The kingdom of heaven may be like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a large tree, but I venture to add that the kingdom of heaven is also like a mulberry — a treasure truly worth searching for.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton from 1999-2009.)