We were studying Lehi’s (and Nephi’s) vision of the Tree of Life in Sunday School today – like everyone else in the Latter-day Saint world – and the questions our teacher asked led to some interesting thoughts. I’ve wondered before about the symbolism of the Tree itself, and this is where my thoughts went again today. Lehi describes it as being at the end of the path with the iron rod – a destination, to which the path and the rod lead. This is consistent with its meaning of eternal life. Eternal life is something we will attain to eventually, after our mortal lives; an end point (even though it seems to be still a journey, too) towards which we’re aiming now. But the Tree, and its fruit, is also a representation of God’s love, demonstrated by Jesus Christ and His Atonement (1 Nephi 11:22-25 and 27-32). God’s love is something we can feel all the time, and it’s what keeps us going – at least, those who are aware of it – amid difficulty and pain. The Atonement, which is the greatest and most vital example of that love, has as its purpose not only our eventual salvation – the ‘end goal’ of eternal life – but our healing from sin and sorrow here, where we need it constantly.
The fruit of the Tree of Life also corresponds to our experience of the Gospel; the joy, peace, and enlightenment that it brings. The words which Lehi and Nephi use to describe it are all about joy, deliciousness, and something that is very desirable. The Gospel surely brings those sensations to me! Knowing of God’s reality, His love and His Plan, of our Saviour and all He has done; experiencing the testimony and inspiration of the Holy Ghost; feeling a connection to love, joy, and the spiritual world – all of these things are delicious to my soul and cause me to rejoice. They are the things of most worth to me. They’re things I’ve already felt, as I’ve partaken of the truths of the Gospel, and they’re things I want to keep experiencing. In fact, if I knew I wouldn’t feel them again on my mortal journey, I think I might sink into despair. I’m not sure I could hold on that long before knowing them again. They are what keep me on the path, moving toward the ‘big goal’ of eternal life. So the journey towards the Tree, holding fast to the word of God, is one we make, or need to make, many times in this life. Because if we haven’t tasted of its fruit, of the joy of the Gospel and of redemption through Christ; if we haven’t ever felt to sing the song of redeeming love, or only sing it once and never again until Heaven (if that were possible), how can we have sufficient faith and hope to press forward on the path to eternal life, where we can eat of its fruit forever? How can promises be enough? We need to eat of that fruit here in this life, over and over again. We need to have glimpses of eternity now. And God’s love, as Nephi describes it, is “shed… abroad in the hearts of the children of men”, giving us hope, life, and love ourselves.
I think of it as being like all those journeys to promised lands that you read about in the scriptures, which are also symbolic of the whole life cycle (leaving God’s presence, coming to a foreign land – earth, journeying towards the presence of God, but eternally) and of the myriad journeys we make within our earthly lives, from the known to the unknown and on to somewhere better and wiser.
The other thing I noticed as we studied the dream was about the group of people who commence in the path towards the tree, but lose their way in the mists of darkness (1 Nephi 8:22&23). I’ve often wondered why they so easily get lost – why would mists, as scary or disorienting as they might be, cause them to lose their way so badly? If the tree and its fruit was something they wanted, wouldn’t they just keep going until they got there? The answer, partly, is that they didn’t know the iron rod was there, or for some other reason didn’t hold onto it. Perhaps they thought they could get to the tree without having to.
As we read it again today, I realised that – it probably seems very obvious to you – these people were lost when they could no longer see the tree ahead of them. It wasn’t just that the mists were so disorienting, but that they caused them to lose sight of their goal – a really wonderful, shining goal which, I think, would be bright enough to keep anyone going… if you could see it. They lost hope. The Lord, and His prophets, teach us often through the scriptures to be of good cheer and to have faith. Sometimes this feels like a hard ask, since life seems to make it so difficult to have good cheer. Why do we keep getting directed to feel good when often there’s so little to feel good about? Well, it’s not because it’s easy, or because we’re being ungrateful if we don’t (although that’s also true – just not the central reason, perhaps); it’s because if we don’t, we’ll be led astray by those mists of darkness. We’ll begin to believe that hope is lost, that life just sucks and that’s all, that God is too far away from us to help, or that we just don’t have it in us to be any better, anymore; that our weaknesses are too strong. Nephi says that we must “press forward with a perfect brightness of hope” in Christ; Alma teaches us to look forward towards our salvation. Even when we can’t see the Tree of Life in front of us – when Satan’s deceptive dark and dreary mists, his lies and temptations, blow across and around us – we have to have a vision in our minds or hearts of God’s love and of His deliciously inviting end goal for us. And, we have to know what it tastes like now; we need to have experience of His love, of testimony, of beautiful interaction with spiritual things and the Gift of the Holy Ghost; and we have to hold that to our hearts. That is, I think, what holding fast to the iron rod means (at least at the point where the mists come; it probably means other things too in other parts of the path). If we can do it, then Satan’s lies and temptations, which would otherwise blind us to God’s love or lead us to forget it – this happens to me far too often – or stop believing in it, might still buffet us, but they won’t cause us to take our hands from the rod, as did the people in this part of the dream. We won’t be led away “into forbidden paths and [become] lost”, because we are believing in God and His love even when we can’t see it. That, it seems, is vital. Perhaps that’s why we’re encouraged to keep journals, and part of why Adam’s family began to keep a book of remembrance. Why Lehi was commanded to send his sons back to get the brass plates, and why Nephi took such care to record the things of the Spirit on his small plates and to preserve them. Obviously so we can believe in Christ, but also so we can keep hope when we cannot see the tree ourselves – so we can remember, with the ancients and our own past selves, how much God loves us, how wonderful His blessings are, and how sure His promises.