With the recent arrival of warm days and cool nights, my neighbors were out opening their tap lines on their sugar maple trees to begin this year’s sugaring season. As I watched them check their lines and prepare their collection tanks, I was struck by some of the similarities between sugaring and the process of spiritual development.
The process of producing maple syrup begins with tapping the trees. It involves driving a small metal tube through the outer bark of the tree to allow the tree’s sap to flow out and be collected. Done properly, the tapping doesn’t harm the tree but allows some of its sugar-rich “lifeblood” to be used for a special purpose. This small “wound” to the tree opens a way for the tree to share its life and share itself with the world.
In a similar way, our spiritual development is also usually stimulated by some sort of wound. Whether it is an outward trauma such as an illness or tragic loss, or whether it’s more of an eruption of the Life Force within us that causes an opening in the protective “bark” of our lives, a process is set in motion that will eventually touch the lives of those around us. Such “tapping” is often an uncomfortable experience since it won’t let us continue to be comfortable, self-contained units, isolated from the larger world around us. But just as donating blood can involve a painful prick and a temporary loss of our most precious bodily fluid, it also makes it possible for wonderful blessings to take place in the lives of others that we may never see.
The raw sap that pours from the tapped trees must be carefully collected. It takes between 20 and 50 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of maple syrup. Therefore, each drop of raw sap is extremely precious and shouldn’t be wasted.
Likewise, the experiences – both pleasant and unpleasant – that have shaped the course of our lives also need to be treated as precious and to be carefully collected. This doesn’t mean wallowing in our painful moments or longing for the return of “the good old days.” Nor does it mean repressing things that we’d rather not remember. Rather, it means accepting the full range of events that have shaped our journey, convinced that God has used all these things to bring about a marvelous alchemical transformation.
The final, crucial step in turning sap into syrup involves boiling the sap in large pans over a hot fire. Boiling (also known as “sugaring off”) is a process that can’t be rushed. It takes time. Only by lowering the water content of the sap is the goal of this procedure achieved (not to mention producing the most heavenly smell in and around the sugar house!)
And here again, this process parallels that of our spiritual journeys. All the experiences that we’ve collected over the course of a lifetime need to be boiled long enough to bring out their spiritual sweetness. That can sometimes take a lot of boiling. Depending on our age and the nature of our experiences, it may take a lot of time and work to turn the raw sap into syrup. But the time and effort needed are definitely worth it. Every life carries within it the capacity of blessing others with incomparable sweetness and flavor. It may also be a blessing to us to know how much our lives can contribute to the enjoyment of others.
It is in this boiling down stage that spiritual direction can be most helpful. While it can assist in the tapping and collecting phases as well, it’s in the boiling stage that it can offer its greatest benefit. The range and intensity of experience collected may feel overwhelming. It may be difficult to know where to start. A Spiritual Director can help us to know where to focus our attention. The time it takes to do the work may often seem boring and tedious. A Spiritual Director can provide encouragement, support, and the assurance that the work is not in vain.
But perhaps the most wonderful part of all is the otherworldly fragrance that arises from our spiritual “boiling,” much as it does from a sugar house. As we engage in distilling the spiritual “syrup” of our lives, an intangible but unmistakable change in the atmosphere around us occurs. Some will say that we give off a different “vibe” or “aura.” The apostle Paul described it as the “aroma of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:15). But whatever language you may use to describe it, I invite you to begin this process of “spiritual sugaring.” You (and those around you) will be glad you did!