On Being Useless

Henri Nouwen provided this parable from Chuang Tzu. It's called, “The Useless Tree”:

A carpenter and his apprentice were walking together though a large forest. And when they came across a tall, huge, gnarled, old beautiful tree, the carpenter asked his apprentice: “Do you know why this tree is so tall, so huge, so gnarled, so old and beautiful?” The apprentice looked at his master and said: “No...why?”

“Well,” the carpenter said, “because it is useless. If it had been useful it would have been cut down long ago and made into tables and chairs, but because it is useless it could grow so tall and so beautiful that you can sit in its shade and relax.”

Contemplating God, if you think about it, is a "useless" exercise. We are not "doing" anything. To an outside observer, we are merely sitting with our eyes closed. We are not checking emails, responding to texts, posting on Twitter and Facebook, or receiving updates. Nor are we making money, handling chores, or accomplishing our "to do list." I am sure the thought of being inactive and useless for a few minutes, let alone an hour, would make many people cringe, especially in this busy time of year. Advent is inimical to uselessness. We need to Christmas shop, send Christmas cards, put up decorations, bake and cook, plan vacations and travel, attend Christmas concerts, and on and on.

Being constantly busy and avoiding solitude can wear us down, making us tired and ugly, in more ways than one. Spiritual uselessness—that is, devoting time to pray—makes us beautiful, like the old tree in the parable. So do not worry about making the house or the tree beautiful this season. Pray and beautify yourself.

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