Almonds and Christians. You might think that there is no connection linking the two – but you would be wrong! In fact, Christian theologians saw a connection between almonds and Christians as early as the 4th century! One of the early Christian theologians, St. Basil, offered this keen botanical advice: Pierce an almond tree in the trunk near its roots and stick a “fat plug of pine” into its center – and its almond seeds will undergo a remarkable change. St. Basil then offered this acute observation: “Thus the . . . bitter almonds . . . lose the acidity of their juice and become delicious fruits.” Then he drew this profound theological parallel: “Let not the sinner despair of himself. . . If agriculture can change the juices of plants, the efforts of the soul to arrive at virtue can certainly triumph over all infirmities.”
You may not know this, but wild almonds are poisonous. Wild almonds contain enough cyanide that eating a few dozen of them would probably kill you. Of course, it is unlikely that you would eat that many wild almonds for the simple reason that wild almonds are extremely bitter. So, how is it that we have almonds for our Almond Joy candy bars and almonds are a staple in every can of mixed nuts – and are considered a healthy food for our hearts – even if almonds do contain a slight trace of cyanide? The answer is because of a combination of curiosity, creativity and patient cultivation.
Many centuries ago – and some scientists say that humans have been eating almonds for at least ten thousand years – curious wanderers and farmers, and probably children who have a penchant for sticking things in their mouth, found that not all almond trees were bitter. Some had fruit that was wonderfully sweet and edible. What these hikers and farmers and children had found were mutant almond trees that lacked the chemical compound that breaks down into cyanide. Those wanderers and farmers, and maybe even the children, were so delighted with their discovery that they started planting the seeds of these mutant almond trees, and over hundreds of years of patient cultivation the human community made a wonderful nut out of something originally deadly. St. Basil’s advice to jam a plug of pine into an almond tree may have been one way of causing a wild almond tree to cease to be able to synthesize the chemical compound that made it deadly. At any rate, almonds came to be edible because of a sustained communal process of curiosity, creativity and patient cultivation.
Mature Christians are made through precisely the same process. St. Basil was quick to remind souls struggling with their weaknesses not to surrender to despair. He made the point that if a deadly almond can be turned into an edible delight through diligent cultivation, can we not also turn ourselves from a life of darkness to a life of light through the same process? Sure, all of us harbor a certain amount of deadly poisons within us. We all have inclinations to turn away from God that are as deadly to our souls as cyanide is to our bodies. But if almond trees can be turned from deadly to healthy, how much more so through openness to God’s Spirit we can be turned from spiritual death to spiritual life! It simply requires an insatiable curiosity about the ways of the Spirit, a creative courage that answers Christ’s incessant upward call, and a patient cultivation within the community of God that gradually orients us away from the path of darkness to the life and light of God’s Kingdom.
Paul was acutely aware of this long process of patient cultivation that leads us toward maturity of faith. He spells it out for the church in Rome: “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”
None of us instantly becomes a mature Christian upon accepting Christ as Savior. Walking down the aisle to accept Christ as Savior is important, but it is just the first step. Maturity of faith takes curiosity, creativity and communal patient cultivation. We suffer growing pains as Christians and have to learn spiritual endurance that molds our character in a Christ-like fashion and gives us the ability to hold to hope, even amidst the most adverse of circumstances. Suffering, endurance, character and hope – these are all stages in the long process of cultivation by which we rid ourselves of destructive and poisonous inclinations and become sweet in spirit and healthy in producing the fruit of good works that gives evidence of our maturation. We all have certain aspects of our personality and attitude that are bitter and deadly. The Good News of our faith is that we do not have to remain captive to this bitterness. Under the direction of Christ’s Spirit we can become sweet of spirit.
Certainly, the disciples who gathered around that first table bore in their hearts a fair amount of cyanide; Indeed, one of them was filled with it. But the rest of them slowly, through intense cultivation of their souls, lost their bitterness and became pure, sweet, healthy giants for Christ. They became spiritually fruitful of personality. And having been cultivated for use in the Kingdom, they cultivated others to live fruitful lives, too. So, too, as we eat the bread of Christ and drink the cup of Christ, we evince a commitment to be about the process of daily cultivating our spiritual growth, exercising the curiosity, creativity and patience necessary to gain fully the mind and virtue of Christ. We thereby evince a willingness to undergo a long process of cultivation within the family of faith. For we are meant over the course of our spiritual pilgrimage to create a faithful and fruitful personality that is sweet in spirit, healthy, and useful for God’s fellowship. It is with that high and holy ambition we approach our Lord’s Table.