Near Mpumalanga, South Africa, are the marvelous and mysterious Echo Caves. Rediscovered in the last century and turned into a tourist site, these caverns are home to a truly remarkable ecosystem. One of the more amazing species found there, is its famous and unique wild fig trees. As far as plant life goes, these fig trees appear to be normal run-of-the-mill fruit bushes. What makes them so famous is the unseen: Their roots. Researchers and spelunking scientists have followed the roots of these trees deep into Echo Caves – 400 feet deep to be precise – the deepest known root system in the world.
These trees have survived and thrived in an arid climate for decades, employing an unparalleled root system to wring hydration from the deep, rocky soil. This is more than a science lesson; it’s a lesson for life, as you probably know a person (or a few people if you are really lucky) not unlike the wild fig trees of Echo Caves. Their environment is harsh. They have endured the drought of loss, injustice, and suffering. Their circumstances have been fiery, downright oppressive. The soil that life has given them is rocky and as hard as concrete. Yet, somehow, they survive and thrive. Their roots must be incredibly deep.
But deep into what? Maybe the Apostle Paul gives the best answer in a beautiful first century prayer: “I pray your roots will grow down deep into God’s love and keep you strong.” Or as Viktor Frankl said it, “The salvation of man is through love and in love.” It seems to me that those who endure, even flourish, in the worst of conditions are those who have a very real connection to God’s goodness and grace, and refuse to blame God for every wrong that life dishes out. They have rooted themselves deeply in his love, rather than in bitterness or resentment.
Granted, bitterness is the easy route, the path of least resistance that sends shallow, malignant offshoots in all directions. Our resentment feels so justifiable, so satisfying, especially when we flip through the catalog of past hurts, past regrets, ways we have been mistreated or harmed, and the conniving, unjust treatment inflicted upon us by others. But bitterness cannot hydrate the soul. It can only poison the water and prevent love and grace from soaking in. If we are going to get on with life and blossom in the desert of our days, it won’t be because we keep going back wishing things could be different, bemoaning how life has been so unfair, or repeating and re-repeating how someone did us wrong. The only way forward is by going deeper, deeper into the love of God.
I return to the lesson taught to us by the wild fig trees at Echo Caves. Those thirsty roots, soft and pliable, are able to split rocks to get to water deep beneath the desert floor. All the root needs is the smallest indentation, the tiniest weak spot in the bedrock, or the tiniest crack. Then, groping through the dark and ever deeper into the soil, the roots find their way to what they need to survive and sustain life.
This is how it works, I think. In the smallest rift, the smallest crevice or opening in the hardness of life, that is enough to find the depth of God’s love and for that love to take root. Yes, it feels like groping along in the dark. It is slow, pulverizing growth, sometimes millimeter by tiny millimeter, but at least it is growth; and it gives us the life we want and need, life so much more satisfying than the bitter shallowness that resentment offers. I’m no Pollyanna. I know that life is hard. I know it is unfair. Our growing conditions are not always what we wished they were, and we don’t always get what we feel we deserve. Still, all we need is there, somewhere under the surface. Our survival and salvation is “through love and in love” deep beneath all that can be seen.