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Tree Models & Root Causes: Catholic Holistic Healing Series

Updated: Jul 14, 2020

The image of a tree is a beautiful illustration of cause and effect. Expressions like the "fruit of our labor" and "root cause" illustrate the relationship between different life elements. In this article, I propose combining insights from two trees, the Functional Medicine Tree from the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Tree of Life from the John Paul II Healing Center, as a model to understand how we get stuck and how to get free.

The Functional Medicine Tree

"Functional Medicine determines how and why illness occurs and restores health by addressing the root causes of disease for each individual." -

Functional medicine treats chronic disease by addressing the "root causes." To do this, the practitioner considers the patient as a complex, interconnected, biological system. The symptoms of whatever disease the patient has are not the focus of diagnosis or treatment. The symptoms are the canary in the coal mine. Exploring the patient's story and how the events of their life, environment, and behavior interact with their unique genetic predispositions exposes the cause of the symptoms. The Institute for Functional Medicine uses the Functional Medicine Tree as an illustration of these dynamics.

The "Standard of Care" approach typically begins by identifying the person's symptoms and assigning a diagnosis. Based on this diagnosis, there is a generally accepted course of surgical interventions, pharmaceuticals, and lifestyle recommendations based on their statistical effectiveness at alleviating the symptoms.

The tree illustrates how Functional Medicine approaches chronic disease differently. The signs and symptoms are manifestations of dysfunctions in the fundamental systems of the whole body. These systems define how the organs are interconnected and mutually dependent, like absorbing what is needed, getting rid of waste, repairing damage, and transporting important stuff around the body. Disruptions in these central systems lead to the malfunctioning of organs.

These dysfunctions are not the root cause. The function of these interconnected systems is the expression of the person's phenotype. The way a person's unique genetic predispositions are affected by their history, environment, and behavior determines their phenotype. What is at the root of the symptoms is how lifestyle and environmental factors directly affect the body and affect the expression of the person's genes.

Lifestyle and environmental factors are related to dysfunction in three different ways as antecedents, triggers, or mediators. A precursor predisposes or primes the person for the illness. A trigger provokes the start of the symptoms of the disease. Mediators contribute to the problem and perpetuate the dysfunction. Antecedents set up the condition, a trigger starts it, and a mediator perpetuates it.

There is also a "feed-forward" cycle in which the mediators can trigger new symptoms. It is like a snowball of disease rolling downhill. As long as the underlying complex of factors that lead to the dysfunction are intact, the symptoms accumulate, and the symptoms themselves can become the underlying causes of other conditions. One dysfunction can cause many diseases, and many root factors can underly one dysfunction. Although there are patterns, two people with very similar symptoms may have different lifestyle or environmental factors at the root of their condition.

The Tree of Life

"in order to be instruments of healing for others as well as find our own healing, we need to see the whole picture of our humanity in light of God's divinity." Dr. Bob Schuchts, Be Healed, p. 78.

The tree illustrates what someone has experienced who is sexually integrated and healthy. The roots are spiritual and emotional security that comes from God's experience, the Father's healing love both directly and through earthly fathers. The result of this security is maturity in the person; they are virtuous and free. The fruit of maturity is purity and the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If a person struggles in purity, the tree invites them to consider what is at the roots. We can simply inverse the tree. At the root of impurity is insecurity. This insecurity is the result of wounding from trauma, identity lies, inner vows, and soul ties. These lead to some form of immaturity or failure to grow. As a result, the person feels stuck in their sin.

Dr. Bob proposes a three-pronged approach to the healing process. Exploring your story with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and meditatively entering into difficult events with God is one part of the method. He also integrates the sacraments, especially bringing the roots you have identified to Penance and the Eucharist, to receive healing from God. The final prong of the approach is intercessory prayer ministry: entering into prayer with someone who will be attentive to the Holy Spirit, guiding the person to proclaim truth where they find lies, repent of unholy vows, severe soul-ties, and pray over them for deliverance.

An Integrated Tree

I am proposing integrating the insights from these two trees for a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of what leads to vice or virtue.

The left section of the image illustrates a functioning human person, and the right represents dysfunction. Love, virtue, purity, and health are the attributes of a functioning human person. Sin, vice, impurity, and disease are attributes of dysfunction. Good and evil are not two equal options. Living by God's order is good, and evil is contrary to design.

God is an essential part of functioning. In this image, God is the sun radiating grace on the tree. Plants cannot grow or heal without energy from the sun. Similarly, the human person cannot grow holistically nor experience full integration separate from God. God is not an addition on top of complete human nature. A person cannot function perfectly without a relationship with God.

At the roots of the tree are all of the inputs of experience: your life story, current actions, environment, and even inter-generational influences. These are physical, spiritual, and psychological factors. Listing all of the possible root causes is beyond this article's scope, but if it affects you, it could be a root. Like the functional medicine tree, these root causes function as antecedents, triggers, and mediators. An antecedent sets the person up for the struggle, the trigger initiates the actual behavior, and the mediator perpetuates it.

These factors interact with the person's individuality. Like the first tree, on the physical layer, this includes the genetic predisposition. From the view of the whole person in relation to God's design, this is the particular way the person expresses God's glory in the world. We are all in God's image and likeness as rational, free, creative, and relational people, but how these characteristics express themselves in the particularities of life is unique. The way that each person expresses God's image is distinctive. For example, one person may be an artist predisposed to solitude and connecting deeply with small groups of friends while another person is an athlete who is a social light and feeds on connecting with crowds. They both creatively use their bodies to express God's glory and connect with God and others in relationships, but each does it in a completely different way than the other.

In light of God's unique image, each antecedent, trigger, and mediator is either clarifying or obscuring the expression of God's glory. Let's consider an example from parenting. A father, wanting to affirm his three daughters, may regularly compliment how beautiful they are. The first may relish in the attention, experiencing the affirmation of her goodness, and feeling freer to express herself knowing her Father's heart. The second may wonder why her dad doesn't notice how smart she is, and she may feel unseen and too shy to share something she has created like a poem or a sketch. A third daughter, affected by an antecedent of sexual abuse from a relative, may fear her Father's compliment. She may associate her body and male attraction with danger and have a difficult time experiencing her Father's attention as safe. These examples certainly do not capture the full richness and complexity of life. They illustrate how the same input may be experienced differently based on their person's predispositions and antecedent inputs that have clarified or obscured their experience of God's design.

Things that clarify the unique Image of God act to heal and perfect human nature, while, what obscures the Image of God, damages, and diminishes human nature. The perfecting of human nature is associated with an integration of the whole human person, while what damages the person disintegrates. Integration expresses itself in harmony with God's design and the functioning of the shared aspect of human nature and the general ways the person is in the image of God.

Fundamental Systems - General Expressions of God's Image

Connection - Trust/Safety v. Fear/Danger

Reason - Truth v. Ignorance

Will - Goodness v. Malice

Irascible - Strength v. Weakness

Concupiscible - Satisfaction v. Concupiscence

Psychological - Mature/Secure v. Immature/Insecure

Body - Physical Function v. Physical Dysfunction (See Functional Medicine Tree)

The fruit of the tree, living well or poorly, comes from these fundamental faculties' function or dysfunction. As mediators of function and dysfunction, today's actions fall of the tree as they become the past. This momentum is the feed-forward loop of mediators becoming the soil that the future grows in and possibly antecedents or triggers of future actions.


I hope that the combined tree model that I am proposing deepens how you think of virtue and vice. I believe this model, along with the previous articles in this healing series, provides a framework for integrating the insights of modern medicine and science with the quest for holiness. If you have overcome some sinful habits, this tree image might illustrate how your actions dealt with the underlying roots of the sin. If a sinful pattern persists in your life and what you have tried has not helped, I hope this model will help you discover the underlying causes of your struggle and direct you to the healing God has in store for you.


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