Some where during my French literature studies (either in high school or university), I was introduced to the short story L’homme qui plantait des arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees) by Jean Giono. For whatever reason, this story has stuck with me over the years, while so many others seem to have come and gone through my memory.
The story is of a young man who finds himself in the company of an old shepherd in an isolated corner of the southern French Alps. Suffering from years of drought, the local industry has dried up and the village has been deserted save for this one lonely figure and his flock. As he tends his sheep each day on the barren hillside, the shepherd plants a few acorns – only so many as he can carry in his pocket. Over the decades the acorns grow into saplings, and the saplings into a forest that brings life back to this hidden valley. As creation reclaims the barren wilderness, so too people return to the village, bringing life and laughter back to where there was once only the mournful whistling of the wind through the ruins.
This beautiful tale of life reclaiming death has followed me throughout the years. Recently, however, I have found my perspective of the story changing. Where I once identified with the young man hiking in the mountains; more and more I see myself as the old shepherd and this tale as an allegory for evangelization.
It’s no secret that those of us living in North America seem to be living in a desolate landscape when it comes to love of God. St. John Paul the Great even went so far as to describe western culture as a Culture of Death. Many who decry the world we live in would like to change it overnight – instantaneously creating a Culture of Life out of this Culture of Death by waving some magic wand. What we need, however, is the wisdom of the man who planted trees.
To bring life back to his hidden valley, the old shepherd did not bring in a a forest of mature trees to be planted. Nor did he pay the moving expenses for the 10,000 people to be relocated back to the village. Instead he planted a pocketful of acorns, day in and day out. The old shepherd knew he could not bring life back tot eh valley tomorrow, but he did have the foresight to know that if he slowly changed the landscape back from its barrenness, life would return on its own.
I am finding more often that I need to take this approach with my evangelization efforts. There is no way that on my own I can re-orient the world towards God overnight, but I can plant the seeds that will bring the Culture of Life back to this barren wilderness. Each day I search to plant one acorn in the soul of one person that I come into contact with. Over time, I pray, I hope this acorn of hope will grow over the decades into a mighty tree of faith. If even half of the acorns planted grow to maturity, a great forest of faith will begin to cover the landscape.
As this forest of faith grows and offers shady protection, life will eventually come back to the barren world we live in now.