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.

Save Your Sunday Afternoons!

Beatus Paul VI

Be watchful with all perseverance and supplication…that speech may be given…to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel. (Ephesians 6:18-19)

Guess what begins precisely one month from today? Holy Advent.

In our parish cluster, Advent-Sunday afternoons mean: Vespers and spiritual reading with Fr. Skinny Crewcut! [This Advent at St. Joseph, M’ville.]

Now, who is our newest beatified pope? Who wrote the original gameplan for the New Evangelization?

What kind of fools would we be if we didn’t read Evangelii Nuntiandi as our spiritual reading this Advent?

The presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit either indifference, syncretism, or accommodation. It is a question of people’s salvation. It is the beauty of the Revelation that it represents. It brings with it a wisdom that is not of this world. It is able to stir up by itself faith–faith that rests on the power of God. It is truth. It merits having the apostle consecrate to it all his time and all his energies, and to sacrifice for it, if necessary, his own life. (Blessed Pope Paul VI, EN 5)

Our Church, Babette’s Feast, Small Seats

Babette's Feast

The ancient term is pride. A 20th- and 21st-century way of saying it is: We have big egos. Pride, ego get in the way of communion, of the unity and harmony willed for us by the Lord. He has invited the human race to a table of unfathomable delights. The thing is: we have to take our places together, and the seats are small; big egos don’t fit.

I think we should pause and meditate for a moment on just what our parish buildings represent. The fact that the doors stand open. What a miracle of love and communion our parishes really are.

A parish church means: More than anything else, we need God. Jesus Christ gives us God, and the Catholic Church gives us Christ, and this place gives us the Catholic Church. We walk in, and, without a word, we join an unbroken chain of love and friendship that began when the Son of God walked the earth.

The world boasts many languages and styles of art, music, and architecture. Some of us have traveled widely and seen a lot of parish churches. They look and smell somewhat different. But the differences sit on top of a single foundation. Altar, crucifix, tabernacle, and the padrecito. From Timbuktu to Kathmandu, from Nawlins to Djibouti: altar, crucifix, tabernacle, priest—I see them, and I know, Church, Christ, God right here.

Anybody see “Babette’s Feast?” The chef had a past. She had no pretensions of being perfect. She arrived in the remote town a hard-luck case. But she could cook; she produced a feast for her neighbors. A cosmopolitan visitor to the town had eaten her dinners before, in Paris. But the self-righteous natives held themselves aloof, disapproved of her. They would not eat the sublime feast that Babette had set before them. The movie brilliantly succeeds in making these self-righteous townspeople look like perfect fools.

Now, for good or ill, I get to stand at the center of the glorious, living mess that our parishes are, in our humble little cluster. From where I stand, I have to say, this is what people who ‘leave the church’ look like to me. They look like the fools who won’t eat the delicious dinner.

St. Paul says: Children obey your parents. And parents, be kind to your children. Slaves, obey your masters. And masters, treat your servants with kindness and respect. Because, at the banquet table of God, we are all servants, we are all children. We are all small.

Our parishes have not come into being as the work of any single individual. No single individual can keep them going or sink them. Our buildings are beacons of the Blessed Trinity; our life in them shares in the power of heaven. We each take our small place; we mortify our foolish, judgmental, proprietary pride; we let our egos be cut down to their proper size by jostling against our brothers and sisters; and we rejoice in the goodness and almighty power of God.