from The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty,
by Martin Schleske, translated by Janet Gesme; Eerdmans 2020
I can only describe this book as a uniquely beautiful work of art, both literary and aesthetically (right down to the weight of the pages), as well as one hefty piece of spiritual meditation.
The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty, written by a German luthier (violin maker), began as a response to a statement made by the painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser: “We have lost the ability to create metaphors for life.” The book is, indeed, a series of interrelated and extended metaphors, using violin making and playing as a trope for life in Christ. Schleske answers Hundertwasser’s challenge magnificently.
The following excerpt follows the author’s description of a trek that he and a friend made high into the Bavarian Alps, searching for the ‘singing tree,’ i.e., that rare timber that used to make the best violins. They passed by scads of inferior trees at lower altitudes to find a literal windfall of mountain spruce whose tall, straight trunks are free of branches and have only a crown of needles high up in the canopy.
“Our lives do not run along fixed tracks. We move through a jungle of options and must constantly decide what we will do or leave undone. In the mountain spruce we encounter a special kind of wisdom. In accordance with its nature, it develops a green crown of branches. By stretching these branches toward the light, it allows life-giving limbs to grow. Only by exposure to light are needles formed; only so do they become a source of strength for the tree. This is true for all living things: whatever pulls away from the light dies and becomes a burden on the organism. In its natural wisdom the mountain spruce casts aside dead, withered branches that remain in the dark, because there is no life in them. But right there, at the very place where the dead material has been cast aside, the material for the treasured sound is to be found. This is the tone-wood, rich in years, limb-free, long-fibered, and workable: out of this wood a violin will be made.
A resonant life demands wisdom and courage. We must discern which things are dead and separate ourselves from them. An honest heart recognizes the dead limbs that are robing us of strength and self-worth. For the tree, this wisdom is self-evident, but the myriad of options granted by our freedom makes our journey much more complex. Nothing in our life is self-evident. We must learn to stretch ourselves up toward the light in every area of life, through every branch, twig, and shoot of our existence. This is why Jesus says: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ (John 8:12).
The mountain spruce teaches us to cast off whatever is dead: things that are not right, internal intrigues that hide from the light, the retreat to dark places devoid of honesty, truth, righteousness, forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation. A resonant, sounding life has learned to sacrifice what is dead and unjust. ‘Not sinning’ has, in fact, something to do with sacrifice, with sacrificing some options. The only way to derive meaning from sin is not to do it, even though you could.
Those who seek the light of God must make many decisions that seem to limit them or make them poorer. This is the kind of poverty Jesus praises above all else when he says in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:3). The poverty of the spruce cultivates precious wood. The poverty of a person cultivates self-imposed limitations. But it is precisely through poverty that real substance emerges. A life limited by grace may indeed become slower, but surely it will also be more conscious, more concentrated, more passionate, and more sustainable. All power, everything we receive, arises out of this poverty before God, out of times of honest self-awareness and quiet in which we shed dead branches and are pruned.
Every authentic life must dig deep and search for its well springs. The rich run the danger of not finding these sources because they are never thirsty; they will not search and will not find. In the Gospel of Luke, we find not only Jesus’s blessing but also his warnings: ‘Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry'(6:24-25a). They have already received their consolation, for they searched in the wrong places! The ‘woe’ is not a decree of judgment but a cry of pain, a holy sorrow, for the rich have satisfied themselves in a way that hinders them from searching with their whole hearts. They injure themselves and the world entrusted to them because they no longer know what it means to be persistent in hope, to listen and to search.
The poor before God know how to be still and receive the gifts of grace. The poor whom Jesus blesses are aware of a void that only God can fill. In their thirst, they head out on their search. By becoming seekers they become rich recipients. Here an unusual truth comes into play. Instead of the normal differentiation between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ faith, there is a third way: the way of receptiveness. One might call it the Law of Grace, which says: you are powerless to create the essential things, you can only receive them. But you can make yourself receptive.
Our search for the singing tree speaks of that kind of receptiveness. It is necessary to become poor for the sake of our calling. Making ourselves poor means not wanting everything. It means to purposefully pass by certain things. In this poverty we gain the strength to cast aside things that will never produce true sound, to prune off our deadwood. We gain strength to live toward something not yet visible. This strength is also called hope, and it is well illustrated in an old story:
Three men were working on a construction site. Each one had a shovel with which he was digging in the ground. The first seemed listless and tired. Someone asked him: “What are you doing?” He replied, “I’m digging a hole.” The second seemed happier. Someone asked him, as well, “What are you doing?” He answered: “We are laying the foundation of a big wall!” The third was also digging away. He worked tirelessly and, defying exhaustion, was full of joy and strength of mind. Again, the question: “What are you doing?” He answered: “We are building a cathedral!”
Our search for the ‘singing tree’ is like that. Like the first man we could have answered: ‘We are climbing a mountain,’ but as it got colder, dirtier, and rougher, we would have given up. With the second man we might have said: ‘We are looking for wood.’ But being like the third man, we were drawn on by the beauty of the tonewood that we already heard in our mind’s ear, and the sounds of our future violins in all their purity, flexibility, sweetness, and luminous strength. This longing gave us wings. Our violins had long been living inside us, in a life dedicated to the sound. For our vision to become incarnate we needed good wood, and so we had the strength to bear our troubles. Everything we do depends on which inner search gives our vision wings. The moment when we found the wood was sublime, almost magical: the clouds parted, the sun cast its beams on the hillside, and we were awed by the wood in its crosscut sections.
The ‘tree of calling’ to which we turn goes through a kind of death: it will be struck down or broken by the wind. It sees the abyss and the raging stream. Floating down into the valley, it will be taken out of the water and brought in to the master’s workshop, baptized into a new life. The tree submits to the formative strength of the master and is there shaped into a sound of which it knew nothing when it was in the forest. One psalm says: ‘Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy’ (Psalm 96:12 NIV). To live in this formative power of God is to be made ‘holy’—whole and unique.
What dies in this space is not our created nature or goodness but rather our immaturity and chaos: our lovelessness, hopelessness, and lack of joy and peace. As a master luthier makes the tree sing, so does the Master work in us. With the poverty that our inner life requires, we are meant to cast off anything that damages our calling, whether riches, fallacies, or an overflow of options. A person who cannot take on the poverty blessed by Jesus risks harming his soul and losing purpose.”