The Bamboo Tree

Fr. Sean Conneely
February 21, 2007

A Columban priest draws inspiration to help others through his own failings.

There is a story about a bamboo tree that stood tall and proud in his Master’s garden. Because the Master came to admire it every day, the tree felt happy and wanted.

One day, the Master told the tree it was needed for a special purpose and would have to be cut down. The bamboo tree felt angry. He cried for a long time. But because he knew the Master wanted to use him for another purpose, he bowed and said, “Take me, Master, cut me down and use me for whatever you will.”

The master took the bamboo tree and cut it down, slashed off all its beautiful branches and leaves, cut it in half and tore out its core. Then he laid the tall tree on the ground, joining it to a clear stream. The water ran from the stream through the tree’s hollow channel onto the rice fields.

When autumn came, the fields looked magnificent, full of beautiful yellow rice that became the nurturing grain for many people. The bamboo tree saw this and became very happy again. In its health, it was beautiful and glorious; in its brokenness and humility, it became more glorious as the channel of life for many people.

In many ages and cultures, people honor the rich, famous, strong, tall and beautiful. In modern-day media, these attributes are emphasized excessively.

All my life, I, too, valued highly being healthy and strong. I grew up in the countryside in Ireland and, from a young age, did manual labor. I loved it and was proud of my strength and work.

From my teen-age years until I came to Korea in 1969, I played sports every day and enjoyed it: I was proud of my energy and fame as an athlete. I continued playing sports during my early years in Korea.

People praised me and admired my strength and stamina. I was proud and considered it as God’s gift to me and the Church. It helped me serve others, especially young people.

In 1992, however, I had to admit to myself and to others that I had a health problem—an addiction to alcohol.

Cut Down & Reborn
In tears and with a broken heart, I left my ministry in Korea for treatment in the United States. After treatment, it was more difficult and sadder when I was told that, as a recovering addict, it would not be good for me to return to Korea for a long time.

When I was assigned to work in the United States, I felt like the bamboo tree in the story: my beautiful branches were cut off; I was split in half; it was as if my Korean heart was removed.

My old friends and ministries were gone and, for a long time, I cried every day and wanted to stand up again and be the beautiful, tall, bamboo tree—a priest whom people admire.

But God, the Master, had other plans.

Once I surrendered and accepted my fallen state, God began to use me as a channel of life for others in another way. I learned that my addiction was not just an illness or a curse, but rather a way to learn anew about myself, about others and the providence of God.

In humility and gratitude, I accepted the help of God and others. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “I accepted that I was powerless over alcohol and most things in life.”

After I was given the opportunity to study addiction counseling, I learned I could help others both professionally and in one-on-one friendships because of my recovery. In fact, my weakness and powerlessness became my strength—the very channels that God used to both heal me and help others.

I learned that I could easily relate to couples in hurting marriages, and that they wanted my help. I began my involvement in the marriage-renewal program called Retrouvaille, working with couples by sharing our stories of previous problems and our joy in recovery.

We shared our strength and hope and helped many broken marriages come back together. We know it wasn’t us alone but God’s grace flowing through our wounds and torn bodies, like the clear water flowing through the cut bamboo tree—giving life and strength.

Now, no longer alone, I am grateful—not ashamed—of being an alcoholic. Through my addiction, I can reach out to and relate to others in a new and hopefully more compassionate way.

I feel called to spiritual-direction ministry with Marriage Encounter couples since I have returned to Korea. We plan to give Retrouvaille Weekends for couples with marriage problems.

Every day I try to keep the lesson of the bamboo tree before me. In our health, we stand tall, proud, beautiful and glorious as we share those gifts with others and praise God.

But in our brokenness and humility, we become special channels of abundant life in our Master’s world.

Columban Father Sean Conneely served in Korea from 1969 to 1993, when he transferred to the United States for treatment and new ministries in Chicago. He returned to Korea in 2005.