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St John Gualbert
Abbot, (entered heaven in 1073)
I can’t tell you how delighted I was to receive your latest email. I was a little bit worried that working all summer for the Department of Forestry might prove a little wearisome, a little boring for you, considering your penchant for mental activity. I am glad that your mind (and heart) has found your work and environment useful for contemplation. Somehow, your experience of “God amongst the trees” as you put it so poetically (though other eyes might have misinterpreted such a phrase) reminds me of today’s saint, who happens to be the patron saint of forest workers and foresters, park services, and parks.
John was a Florentine nobleman who thoroughly enjoyed his sumptuous aristocratic privileges, of which he took maximum advantage. Besides pleasure, his one passion as a young man was revenge. His brother Hugh had been murdered, and John felt it was his duty of justice and honor to put the killer to death. He searched for the culprit, to no avail, and continued nursing his ire.
One Good Friday as he was returning to Florence from a short journey, he was making his way through a narrow pass when his prey entered the same pass from the other side. There was no way of escape. John, grateful to finally have an opportunity to do his duty, drew his sword and prepared to avenge his brother’s death. But the killer cast himself on his knees and begged for mercy. At that moment, his sword poised to do justice, the thought of Christ on the cross, forgiving his enemies, came to his mind. He couldn’t bring himself to execute his long-contemplated plan. Instead he embraced his enemy, forgave him, and spared him.
Soon afterwards, John had a vision of Christ on the Cross bowing to him, as if acknowledging the righteousness of his action. Entering Florence, he stopped at the ancient church of San Miniato al Monte to pray before the crucifix there. It was a moment of grace, and he felt his call to join the monastic community that took care of the church. His family was up in arms about the idea, but they couldn’t stop him, and he took the habit. Later he would leave that community and form his own monastery (still operating today in Vallombrosa, near Fiesole on the outskirts of Florence) as part of the European movement of monastic reform. He attracted many followers, who ended up founding another half dozen monasteries during his lifetime. He also attracted bishops and popes, who came to him for advice and guidance (it was said he had the gift of prophecy). He was a light of truth and grace in a difficult time for the Church and society in general.
So why is he the patron saint of parks and foresters? The area surrounding his monastery at Vallombrosa was wild and deserted when he first arrived. John thought that it would be more conducive to contemplation and discipline if the grounds were better kept. But instead of a traditional garden, he opted to have his monks plant trees (firs and pines mostly), creating a park and nature preserve to enhance the prayerful environment.
And judging from your own experience, I would say that you have learned the same lesson – at least about the real purpose of nature’s wonders and beauties. I pray you also learn the other lesson – about forgiveness and charity, which are as refreshing to the soul as a walk in the forest is to the body.
Your loving uncle,