The Body and the Rowan Tree


In Part XII of the novel Dr. Zhivago, the title character finds himself encamped in the Siberian wilderness with a detachment of troops.  The winter is coming on fast.  He observes this:

At the way out of the clearing and the forest, which was autumnally bare and could be seen through, as if the gates had been thrown open upon its emptiness, there grew a solitary, beautiful, rust-red-leafed rowan tree, the only one of the trees to keep its foliage. It grew on a mound above a low, hummocky bog, and reached right up into the sky, into the dark lead of the prewinter inclemency, the flatly widening corycombs of its head, brightly glowing berries.  Small winter birds, bullfinches and tomtits, with plumage bright as frosty dawns, settled on the rowan tree, slowly and selectively pecked the larger berries, and, thrusting up their little heads and stretching their necks, swallowed them with effort.

Some living intimacy was established between the birds and the tree. As if the rowan saw it all, resisted for a long time, then surrendered, taking pity on the little birds, yielded, unbuttoned herself, and gave them the breast, like a nurse to a baby.  ‘Well, what can I do with you? Go on, eat me, eat me. Feed yourselves.’ And she smiled.

Mother Earth, coursing with vigor and life, even in the Siberian winter.

What are we human beings made of?  It is in fact impossible for us to imagine ourselves, to conceive of ourselves at all, without including our earthen bodies in the picture.

Ephesians 6 offers a perfect case in point.  St. Paul is talking about purely spiritual matters. Fighting the devil, truth, righteousness, peace, faith.  And yet he cannot do so without painting an image of the human body, “armored” from head to toe.

The Apostolic See of Rome rarely intervenes to lay down laws regarding Christian burial. The last time the Vatican made a ruling in this area was over fifty years ago.  But the See of Peter has spoken definitively to us this month, to remind us of this crucial fact:

We believe in the resurrection of the body.  We believe that Mother Earth will give up her dead on the last day, and the bodies of the saints will stride forth with the fullness of life. God pours forth life to these earthen bodies of ours as surely as the rowan tree in Dr. Zhivago fed the winter birds.

We must bury our dead with this fact in the forefront of our minds.  As the instruction puts it: Burying the bodies of the deceased shows greater esteem for them than does cremation.

Or course God will raise the bodies of the dead who have been cremated, or whose bodies have been lost–He’s omnipotent; He can manage it.

But this is about us.  This is about us expressing what we believe about our bodies.  Our bodies are not instruments; they are not prisons; they are not husks or shells for our souls.  We are who we are: body and soul.  That’s why we lovingly lay the bodies of our beloved dead into the ground.  And patiently wait for the resurrection.

2 thoughts on “The Body and the Rowan Tree

  1. After hearing this at noon Mass today, I hoped it would be posted on my computer when I arrived home, and it was! An added bonus was the beautiful picture. I welcomed the opportunity to read through this as well as hearing it at Mass and am sure I will read it again…it is that kind of message. — Judy R.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Facing the one day passing of parents who are open and considering this, I have so much peace to be able to share the church’s teaching with them.

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