A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Parable of the Mangrove

Fr P Cody sm

by Fr Philip Cody sm

Quite recently I found a mangrove plant, and formed a strange, life-giving relationship with it. I was on retreat near a beach. Walking down there I saw a strange green head of leaves appearing out of the sea, all by itself. I swam out to it and realised it was a mangrove tree!
I went back at low tide and sure enough, right in the middle of a rocky outcrop, a single mangrove somehow had managed to take root and was growing.

What first amazed me were all the hard rocks around. As I related to my director ‘Whew, I did not realise what sharp rocks I had been swimming over’. Yes, she said, would you like to share about that! So began a series of parallel illustrations that held all sorts of lessons for me.

In fact there are all sorts of ‘rocks’ in my life, hard spots, sharp ones, too, and at first appearance they seem rather lifeless. However, on examination all sorts of life inhabit them. A lot of the time I like to keep them hidden under a good ‘tide’. Other times they are only too evident to me and I need to accept their presence and live with them.

My new friend the mangrove had somehow managed to do just that. It had first found a little sand and gravel to root itself – something of a miracle in itself! Not only had it taken root, but it had set up a wide-reaching support system for itself. There was a cluster of shoots all around the main root and these were trapping more life-providing sand and support. The mangrove was clever and had sent down a shoot (on the side of the main wind and tide direction) and this had gone down to the sand, taken hold and then sent up another new shoot, in time to become a companion tree.

“It’s really amazing” I related to my director. “You say that about yourself, too, you know”, she noted! That was interesting to sit with and really acknowledge. Could I accept praise about myself and rejoice in the amazing gifts and qualities I had? What are those gifts? What abilities did I have? Do I rejoice in the goodness and mana that I have been given?

The support system around the mangrove was a study in itself. When I took time to really observe what it was setting up, I was rather stunned. Within a radius of about 3 metres, it had sent shoots, apparently under and around hard rock to establish lots of shoots! They in turn were rooting and forming quite a family around the main tree. So what were the supports I had? Family? Religious brothers and sisters? Supervision? Spiritual director? Friends? Care of myself – rest and exercise, company and hobbies, such as that (rather neglected) fuchsia bed? Time to take another closer look and ensure my support system was truly active and appreciated!

One thing I hope I remember all my life was sitting alongside the mangrove (at low tide of course!) holding the central trunk. It was only about 6 cm thick, but it was tough and strong – it had to be to survive the relentless pulling and wash of the sea! While it gave way and moved with the tug of the wind in its head of leaves, it was firmly rooted and almost rock-like itself. Well, I began to think, what is my central ‘trunk’?

A sober reminder to me was to notice that that trunk was badly scarred. In fact a large section had been broken or hollowed out. There was time to be spent reflecting on the ‘scars’ of my own life. What gaps were there? What had affected me, right from childhood? However, it was clear that had not stopped the mangrove from growing! It had developed a life-giving ‘skin’ around the scar and made sure that the sap still flowed. The scar had not disappeared, it was there, but life carried on.

It was almost at times that the mangrove was playing with me and leading me on to yet more discoveries. One really hot day with the temperature in the 30’s, I sat near the mangrove and do you know what, it sheltered me in its shade. I was reminded of the castor oil plant God had provided to shade and delight Jonah, even while he was full of indignation and ill-humour. (Jonah 4:1-11). The mangrove (and God) were teaching me to take time to sit in the ‘shade’ and let the life-giving space refresh and protect me.
It was the vital spiritual lesson of living in the present moment, or the ‘now’ as it is expressed today. To be fully present to what is happening and not, as I am so often, living with worry about the future or what might happen or what difficulties are to be faced. No, live in the present, Philip, and grasp the only grace you actually have! Well, until the tide comes in and it is time to move on. A ‘season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

Once I noticed the leaves of the mangrove contained some flies. My first reaction was to shoo them away – how dare they settle here! Then, waiting, I noticed they swarmed and formed a cocoon-like bunch, pulling the leaves around themselves. The mangrove, despite all it had to live with – even at times apparently struggling to keep its head above water - was providing a place of nurture for life. Mmmm? What did that mean for me?

I remembered advice I once had received: even when under pressure and feeling I am apparently not coping too well, it is still possible to remain competent and gently settle for the basics. The mangrove, despite the effort to survive and hold on to life, was providing a place for others to take life and find what they needed. When I looked more closely at the mangrove I noticed lots of small creatures of the sea which had found a basis for their life on the mangrove. There were crustation-like molluscs, ever so small, small snails, lichen type growths, all finding a base from which to live and let live.

I was struck by my first impulse to ‘clean up’ the mangrove and remove all these things. On reflection, and after consulting the mangrove itself, of course, I realised this was part of life. Sometimes things and events (and even other people!) may seem like pesky ‘flies’ and other encumbrances, and I can spend a lot of time being anxious, trying to avoid or ‘get rid’ or them! Well, the mangrove had quite a different lesson for me to learn.

One day, I sat on some nearby rocks and ‘lived with’ the mangrove as the tide came in. First a covering of the roots and then slowly the tide crept up, so that eventually there was only the green head of leaves I had first seen bobbing above the sea and the hidden rocks. Quite amazing indeed. Thanks, ‘mangrove’. Help me to live a little more fully the lessons you teach me.

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