Finding the Burning Tree in the Winter Desert

A little earlier this school year I read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.  I would never recommend the book to anyone; I didn’t find any great moral dangers in it, even in the descriptive scenes of violence, but it was for the most part a rather boring and repetitive book that was dragged down past the halfway point by McCarthy’s excessive windbaggery.

There were, however, a few moments of brilliance, and one of them will serve as the subject of this post.  There’s a point in the story where the kid (yes, that’s the only name we get for him) is cut off from his main entourage of scalp-hunters and left to his own in the winter cold.  There’s a very lengthy sequence of him stumbling through the landscape as darkness grows and the temperature drops. He’s freezing and almost dead when he sees this:

“It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before the torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.”

It’s hard to explain the impact of this scene if you haven’t read the previous three-fifths of the book.  Most of the story is filled with random and unrelated vignettes of violence, dissipation, and death.  The only innocent characters get killed.  Nevertheless, at this point, the reader’s sympathy is drawn to the urgency of the kid’s situation.  Then, all of a sudden, there is the above sequence.  It’s startling to the point that I almost felt the heat coming from the burning tree as I read.

The power of this scene would have been greatly vitiated had the kid not been in such desperate straits immediately beforehand.  Had the kid not been cold, the heat would not have been so soothing, had he not been tired, the rest would not have been so sweet.

In his Confessions, Augustine makes a similar point.  Food and water are satisfying because we first grow hungry and thirsty.  We rejoice when a friend recovers from an illness and appreciate him even more than when he was alive.  And: “It is also ordered that the affianced bride should not at once be given, lest as a husband he should hold cheap whom, as betrothed, he sighed not after.”

The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 rejoiced in his weaknesses because it allowed him to experience and display Christ’s grace in ways that would not be possible otherwise.  Our brothers and sisters who are being cut down for the faith in foreign lands experience the goodness of God in precious and unique ways that those of us who have been blessed with peace don’t.  Missionaries working in third-world pagan nations report many supernatural displays of the power of God that we here in the decadent West see much less frequently.  Hymns sung by the deathbed of loved ones take on deeper meaning than those sung in the church aisles.  Modern medicine is a miracle, not a humdrum fact, to the sick and infirm.

The point here is not to elevate human suffering as being somehow better or more pleasant than its opposite.  But all these realities are ones that I have reflected on as I have been reading through Augustine’s The City of God (where he deals with the disaster of the fall of Rome) and dealing with my own bodily infirmities and pain.

There is, as John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead says, a dignity in suffering that should be acknowledged, reverently, soberly.  But 2 Corinthians 12 reminds us that suffering only has that dignity when we allow it to be an opportunity for the grace of God to be further revealed in us.  It is not valuable as an end in itself.  But as a means to the end our blessed Lord giving us more of Himself, it can be tremendously important and formative.

Much more could be said about this, but I’ll leave it there.  Thank you for your attention.  Discuss amongst yourselves.

Soli Deo Gloria,

David

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