The trees of the Lord drink their fill (Psalm 103)

The significance of trees

You could see the Bible as a narrative arc starting with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (N.B. two separate trees) in Genesis chapter 2, moving onward to the Tree of the Cross at the (nearly) end of the Gospels, and looking towards the trees of life in Revelation chapter 22, which are many, bear fruit twelve times a year and have healing leaves. Adam and Eve are ejected from paradise in Genesis 2 ff. because they have eaten of the knowledge tree and shown that they can’t be trusted to be obedient, and God is worried that they will next eat from the tree of life and live for ever (Genesis 3:22).  So trees are an integral part of the story right from the beginning.

Christ on cross superimposed on tree in Paradise
Crucifix, tree of knowledge, blond snake,  Adam and Eve. This image is mid-fifteenth century

We feel that trees are important, significant, mysterious; and we are only at the beginning of understanding how they work, and maybe even have systems of communication.   They can be enormous and mysterious, like the great Canadian redwoods and the African podocarpus, or smaller and familiar, like the fruit tree in our garden, but there is always something special about trees.  I feel that slogan about some watch or other is much truer of any tree; you don’t own it, you’re just looking after it for the next generation…..or several.

Trees in the Holy Land

There are only a few species of tree in the psalms, though there are more in the Bible as a whole (think of Noah and the ark made of gopher wood, which I imagine as having attractive stripes like some African woods, though I have no evidence for that at all, I think it’s probably based on Disney chipmunks).  When we think of the bible landscape, it’s not usually forested, though Lebanon is famous for, and identified with, its cedars.  It’s more sort of desert-like, dry and dusty, with lots of stunted bushes and not much shade.  One great thing about the old blockbuster bible films is that the makers were so reverent that they filmed on the spot or as near as they could manage, so our mental pictures are probably fairly accurate.  All the making the desert bloom and orange groves are of much later date.

Singing about trees in the psalms

But there are some trees in the psalms : olive, oak, fig, the mighty cedars, poplars (or maybe willows or aspens), date palms and other fruit trees.  I am sad to say that there are no terebinths mentioned in the psalms.  I’m not sure what sort of tree a terebinth is, but it is a lovely word.  There are references to forests and green valleys, trees near to water.  The psalmists wrote about their real world,  and they refer to trees both literally and metaphorically.  The very first psalm describes the just man as ‘a tree planted beside the flowing waters, that yields its fruit in due season’, but the leaves are described as never fading, so it’s a fantasy as well as metaphorical tree rather than a real one.  The real ones occur in the Creation psalms, and they are often invoked to demonstrate God’s power (and sometimes the strength of his wrath).

The just man…..and the wicked

The just man is like a tree, but so are the unjust, though the point of comparison there is that God will uproot them and burn them up. The wicked are triumphant and tower like cedars of Lebanon in Psalm 36, but then vanish totally and no trace of them is left when the just man next passes by.   I think there are two things going on here.  Trees are the biggest thing that grows, so we are impressed by their size and strength; they live longer than a man.  But when God chooses, he can uproot these mighty things by no more than his voice (the Lord’s voice shattering the cedar, rending the oak tree and stripping the forest bare, Ps 28).  God’s power is always mysterious and seen only in its effects.  This is one of the few things we can grasp about the Holy Spirit, as I said before, and the mystery adds to the effect (‘and no-one saw your footprints’  Ps 76).

God creates them and nurtures them, and he has the power to destroy them (his voice shatters the cedars as a divine punishment, Ps 104:33, the violence of the image paradoxically emphasizing the strength of the victim).  Destroying trees is something only God does.  Men may burn pieces of wood and branches, but only God is big enough to handle a tree.   When the wicked attack the great vine in Psalm 79, they burn it with fire, but retribution is swift, and they will perish at the frown of God’s face.  If a tree is strongly planted, with a safe water supply, only God can uproot it, as he does the wicked in psalm 51, ‘but’,  the psalmist adds with blithe self-confidence, ‘I am like a growing olive tree in the house of God’, so we are imagining one of those beautiful courtyards inside the house, green and pleasant.

..and women and children

The neutrality of the image is unusual (trees as both good and wicked men), and slightly surprising.  I think it is another consequence of the appreciation of trees as something much bigger than we are, and therefore hard to pigeonhole.  Both good and bad men can be compared to trees, but women never rank anything bigger than a vine (smaller, need something to lean on, good when they are fruitful, Ps 127).  Children are shoots of the olive, and we want them to flourish like saplings (Ps 143).

A vine can be as big as a tree, indeed can spread to fill all the available space (like Groot in the crisis in Guardians of the Galaxy, with a strong protective instinct leading to self-sacrifice; how myths recur).  The mighty vine in Psalm 79 covers the mountains with its shadow, overtops the cedars and spreads from sea to sea: this is the same vine as in Isaiah 5, but on a huge scale.  It represents the nation of Israel, and it sounds to be equivalent to Yggdrasil.  Maybe women should not repine at being limited to vine metaphors.

Yggdrasil tree with woven roots
Mighty vine with mighty woven Celtic roots
Practical uses of trees

Trees also feature in the psalms as habitats: the birds of the air nest in them,  but an altar can be an even better dwelling place (Ps 83), just as a tent is often the source of shade (Ps 26), because sometimes there aren’t trees when you need them.  Again, we need to read the psalms in their own context.  We think of tents as exotic or at least not a part of everyday life because we are used to trees; but in this desert land, tents are the norm, and trees are something special.  This is one reason why sacrifices are burnt: wood is precious as well as whatever you are sacrificing.  It takes time to grow; this is why a forest fire is shocking.  A man can last eighty years if he is strong (Ps 89), but trees can last much longer.  God can choose to uproot either, ‘swept away, green wood or dry’ (Ps 57).

Trees are valued for their fruit, their sap, their shade and all the things you can make from them : staffs, crooks, pipes, timbrels, two very important types of ark, Noah’s and Moses’.  People celebrate by carrying branches to the altar (Ps 117, and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem).  Jesus himself is very clear about what makes a tree valuable, pruning it together with God to make it bear more fruit.  ‘I am the vine and my Father is the vinedresser’  (Jn 15).  He is not happy when he comes across a figtree which bears no fruit (Mk 11, Mtt 21).  The idea of Jesus himself as fruit hanging on the tree of the Cross dates from at least the Middle Ages, considerably antedating ‘Strange Fruit‘, but our shock at that song ought to make us realise how much we have become habituated to the horror of the Cross.

Crucifixion scene on a living tree
Crucifixion on a living green tree
Death on the  Cross, the Tree of Life

Jesus’ cross as the tree of life is the central paradox which brings all the tree images together.  The Armenian cross (and remember Armenia was the first country to become officially Christian) always has buds on the end of the arms of the cross, to show life not death.

Armenian kachqar with ornate cross
The cross sprouting new life from every corner

It’s not the only cut wood with potential for growth in the psalms. ‘O gates, lift high your heads; grow higher, ancient doors,’ chants Psalm 23.  Like Ezekiel’s dry bones in the valley, something fixed and dead becomes alive and dynamic; it can move and stretch.  Resurrection is not limited.  We have just seen in the Pentecost liturgy the power of the Holy Spirit to bring things to life, and because of Jesus and Easter, we can add ‘again’.


I’ve given the standard Grail numbering of the Psalms in this blog, because giving alternatives took up so much room.  For US psalms, just add 1 to the number (not for Ps 1, obviously, but usually).


©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Come Holy Spirit : expressing the inexpressible

The feast of the Holy Spirit, the feast of Pentecost

Pentecost is nearly upon us, the feast or celebration of the Holy Spirit. Who is this third person of the Trinity, the one who proceeds from both the Father and the Son, the third side of the triangle?  This is the one usually represented in art by a dove (I have seen it referred to as the ‘holy pigeon’).

This Holy Spirit looks endearingly like a duck

The Paraclete, the Advocate, the Comforter. Lots of abstract titles, but this most shadowy member of the Godhead (itself a difficult subject to grasp) remains unclear. The more we try to put it into words, the more it escapes us, and for once Jesus isn’t much help; he is responsible for some of those abstract nouns which we adopt to hide the fact that we are groping in the dark here. But this is the Holy Spirit who teaches ‘little ones to think and understand’, the one whose fruits are wisdom and understanding, not fuzz and confusion. So it’s worth putting some work in.

The Holy Spirit is not male

One of the reasons I particularly appreciate the Holy Spirit is that it is the least male Person of God.  Although God has no gender, he is overwhelmingly referred to through male metaphors, including by Jesus, and although there are references to God as a mother in the Bible (e.g. Isaiah 66:13),  these tend to get lost or ignored compared with the weight of male metaphor (but thank God for Mother Julian of Norwich).   Jesus himself is incarnate as a human man (though one without the sexist assumptions of his contemporaries, which is pretty miraculous in itself, if you think about it), and he always talks of God as his Father.   The Bible occasionally uses female imagery for God (Isaiah, Hosea), but does not refer to him as ‘she’.  Some people use the feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit, which I find tempting but a bit of a cop-out, as there is no evidence or tradition to justify it.  I’m using ‘it’ to refer to the Holy Spirit precisely because it is odd and specifically non-specific, and one of the most important aspects of the Holy Spirit is its mysteriousness.

Numinous accounts of experiencing the Holy Spirit

All the accounts of the Holy Spirit are vague and baffling, and even the authors of them are frustrated by their vagueness.  It is ‘like’ the rushing of a mighty wind.  It comes down ‘as’ or ‘as if’ tongues or flames of fire (which is impressively inept as a description; as opposed to flames of water?).

The holy Spirit as dove and flames
Baptising with the Holy Spirit and with fire, in a musical manuscript

It comes with a whoosh and  completely fills the place it comes to, just like the cloud of God in the Old Testament, and it is most evident in its effect, making people speak and understand languages they do not know, in a reversal of Babel.  (in a beautifully appropriate coincidence, Pentecost Day Mass is one of the incredibly few occasions when everyone with an Anglophone Lectionary sings exactly the same words at the Alleluia verse.)  What they cannot do is explain coherently what happened to them, because the Spirit has not been sent for that, but to enable the important message to be passed on.

Illumnated capital showing Pentecost and a dragon
An unusual Holy Spirit as dragon : flames of fire with a vengeance!

Even someone as brilliant, articulate and educated as Blaise Pascal, after an experience which sounds very much like the Holy Spirit, is reduced to an impressionistic babble of emotion and conviction, though the Pensees as a whole are almost forensic in style.  Pascal is a mathematician, a philosopher, a physicist.  This is like Stephen Hawking being reduced to incoherence and trails of dots on the page.

Experiencing the Spirit through wonder

This means that writing about the Holy Spirit does not get us very far.  It is precisely the mysterious and ineffable aspect of God which we would be tackling.  What seems to work better is to develop and express our sense of wonder.

Beautiful dawn
This is ‘ just’  the sky from my garden, and I could have taken lots of different photographs equally beautiful

Children tend to be much better at this than adults, because they accept the new amazing things that happen to them as new and amazing, without the cynicism which adults employ to prevent them looking silly when they come across something new.  But we miss so much when we think like that.  Creation can be the source of so much wonder, if we let ourselves feel it.  Never mind the Northern Lights, dawn and sunset are totally amazing, and they happen every day.  No-one before you has ever seen that new shoot in the herb bed that has come up overnight. Every new flower or fruit or leaf is as exciting as a baby, only we don’t appreciate it because there are so many of them.   Tides, mountains, storms, creatures: all these are evidence of God’s Spirit moving, because the Spirit brings light, warmth, noise; it brings life.  The Catechism calles the Spirit ‘God’s artisan’ (CCC#741  and #1091) and ‘the master of prayer’, as well as helpfully defining it as inexpressible. (That always makes me smile, because ‘inexpressibles’ was a Regency euphemism for trousers, but as I said, the Holy Spirit is in fact the least male Person of God.)

Abstract Pentecost centred on dove
Bird’s eye view
Expressing the Spirit in words (and music)

When I was thinking about the Holy Spirit, I realised that a lot of my ideas come through the Holy Spirit hymns, and when I looked for illustrations for this piece, I was delighted to notice how many Pentecost illustrations are on musical manuscripts.

Even if we restrict ourselves to English translations of the Golden Sequence, the Veni Sancte Spiritus, this is a rich collection of images and ideas, and these hymns make good prayers.   Throwing up lots of images and letting them float in the air together is one way to approach the unsayable  – this is what George Herbert does in his sonnet which attempts to define prayer, and it works better than anything else I know.  If we put poems together with music, we are finding ways to tap into other ways of perception, and this also helps.

The Psalm for the Vigil and the Day Mass: same psalm but different

So we have Psalm 103/104, in different versions for the Vigil and for the Day Mass.  The Response is the same both times, but the verses are different, enough so that I have set the psalms as though they were completely different.  The emphasis for the Vigil is on God the Father, his greatness, the riches of his creation, and how well he looks after it.  It’s like one of those beautiful pictures of the Peaceable Kingdom, with all God’s creatures disposed around, coexisting happily and being taken care of as a well-ordered household.  God here is his own agent; he creates everything in the second strophe, feeds it in strophe 3, and the spirit only comes in the fourth strophe (once for US, coupled with ‘breath’, twice for everyone else; but no capital S).   I’ve tried to keep some of the feeling of mystery by starting the Response with some growly chords and letting it move on and up as it renews the face of the earth.

The Day Mass psalm

I wanted to develop this more in the day psalm.  The Response and the first two lines are the same as for the Vigil, but then instead of dwelling on God as Creator, we move on immediately to creation itself.  There is now a slight problem in the verses for the US, because the order 1,2,3 in Year A is changed to 1,3,2 in Years B and C.  I’ve had to alter the music so that the movement is still felt as forward throughout.  I’m not sure whether the order change is deliberate, as it goes against the running order in the psalm itself, but both my Missal and the published Lectionary do it like this, so I have followed them.  Everyone else stays with 1,2,3 for all three years, and the effect is strongly cumulative, as the second strophe (third for US) makes it clear that the Spirit is the source of life for all living things, not the food which God provides in the Vigil version.

God sending out multiple flames and doves

The Day psalm is shorter, only three strophes:  1 is about God making everything, 2 is about the spirit being the only source of life, so its absence means death, and 3 is a paean of praise, like a mini-Doxology.  That seemed to me to give a beautiful narrative arc, so I decided to make the music grow in the same way.

Making the music move

Most people can only sing comfortably in quite a narrow range, so when I wanted to move up the keys, I was very limited.  I wanted to start deep and quiet, and I knew this would be the simpler music, so I could put this into a key I wouldn’t normally dare to tackle (all those flats).  Each verse lifts into the next key up, and I still had to be able to play and sing it once it became more cheerful and more elaborate, so that’s why it starts where it does and ends where it does.  The music at the beginning is meant to give the sense of the Spirit brooding over the face of the waters like in Genesis, dark and inchoate, and if you miss any of the flats here, it doesn’t matter because here we have primeval chaos.  Accidental discords are a plus!

2nd strophe, and the Spirit goes out and starts working.  Harmonies start coming into the accompanying parts, and even the voice part begins to move more freely.  The recorder gives little twirls of dance : I’m trying to show things starting to grow, to sprout and to move.

3rd strophe and even more so : everything is beginning to dance and sing together and in patterns.  Trying to give the feeling of ‘free form’ in a Responsorial Psalm is very difficult without the whole thing coming off the rails and the congregation giving up, so I’m suggesting, rather than going for the full effect here, but you should be getting a feeling of expansion, light and freedom.  That’s what I’m aiming for, anyway.

Apostles and Mary at Pentecost
Don’t trust any Pentecost picture that omits Our Lady (and note the stave lines here)

The downside of this is that I can’t produce compacts, because I can’t stack the verses if they are in different keys.  So I’m sorry about that, and you will need someone to turn over for the instruments, but I hope you will feel that it’s worth it.  Think of it as a musical version of one of those little videos that people send instead of cards at Christmas or birthdays, where the picture is built up, bit by bit, or like a timelapse photograph of a plant coming into flower.  Only this is Creation, and it’s a whole rose garden.

Come, Holy Spirit, the most mysterious Person in the Trinity, and possibly the most exciting.  It is the one who starts things.  Who knows what they will go on to be?  Pentecost is the feast of unlimited potential.


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.