‘Trees’ by Alfred Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918).
‘Trees’ by Alfred Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918).
by Canon Jim Foley
I think that I shall never see
a poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
and lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
a nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
but only God can make a tree.
At a distance of one hundred years:
The first week in August 2014 has seen the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I and with it so many memories of its heroes and victims. One victim of the war was a young American poet, Alfred Joyce Kilmer, a convert to the Catholic Church. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet on 30 July 1918. Although he was a prolific writer, he is remembered especially for the above deceptively simple poem, ‘Trees’, dated 2 February 1913.
The poem came to mind as I set about penning some reflections on a strange reference to trees in the gospel of Saint Mark.
At the centre of his sixteen chapters, the evangelist Mark situates three encounters which appear to have little in common, but which, on further scrutiny, prove to be very closely related to one another:
Pharisees and Herodians (8.14-21)
A blind man at Bethsaida (8.22-26)
Peter and his companions (8.27-30
Each encounter enshrines a question to do with vision. The Pharisees, Herodians and even the twelve are implicated in the first question raised by Jesus. ‘Have you eyes but do not see?’ Then a blind resident from Bethsaida is asked: ‘Can you see anything?’ Finally Simon Peter is challenged: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ In a short space Mark takes us from blindness, fuelled by hypocrisy, to an insight inspired by faith. The blind man from Bethsaida stands between these extremes. He bridges the gap.
Men like trees walking:
In a sense, his reply that he could see ‘men like trees, walking’, enjoys pride of place, not only at the centre of these three encounters, but right at the centre of the sixteen chapters of the Gospel of Saint Mark. In isolation from the context in which they were spoken, his words make little sense. Who ever heard of trees that walk? Is there more to these walking trees than meets the eye? The blind man can see something but it falls far short of reality. When Jesus repeats the healing process and repeats his question, we are told he can now ‘see everything clearly’ (Mark 8.25). There are distinct stages in his progress from total blindness to perfect vision.
When questioned about the identity of Jesus, the Apostles offer a variety of opinions that were already circulating. There were those who simply dismissed him as ‘the son of a carpenter’ (Mark 6.3); others that he was John the Baptist now returned to settle Herod’s hash. This was certainly King Herod’s opinion (Mark 6.26); or Elijah, or perhaps another of the great prophets of the past.
A suffering and glorious Messiah:
The Apostles, however, had good reason to suspect that these conjectures were not the full story and our attention is finally directed to Simon Peter as their spokesman. His reply could hardly be more decisive: ‘You are the Messiah’. His answer would appear to close the discussion. In fact, it proves to be only the beginning. It sets in motion a journey, not only to Jerusalem, but also to the discovery that Jesus was indeed ‘the Messiah’ but of a very different kind from the one Peter and his companions had in mind, whatever about the Pharisees, Herodians and the blind man from Bethsaida. Saint Mark draws our attention to the fact that it was precisely at this time that Jesus began the difficult task of persuading those closest to him that his destiny as the Messiah was to be one of suffering on behalf of others, although innocent of any crime.
A process of healing and discovery.
Simon Peter is about to follow a similar process of healing to that of the blind man. In Peter’s case it would lead him from the very limited understanding of Jesus’ identity as a miracle worker to that of the promised Messiah. Just how mistaken his understanding was, is obvious from his reaction to Jesus’ warning that, as the Messiah, he must suffer, die and rise again to fulfil that identity. Jesus had taken the blind man aside. Peter attempts to do the same with Jesus!
Then, taking him aside, Peter tried to rebuke him.
This will never happen to you’ (Mk 8.32)
We have reached a point in the Gospel narrative at which Jesus’ ministry in Galilee is about to come to an end and he will soon set out on his final journey to Jerusalem. Saint Mark had described seventeen miracles in quick succession in Galilee. Everyone, with the notable exception of the Pharisees and Herodians, was impressed as they applauded and joined the company along the way to success. Just when it seemed that the time for miracles was over and the fateful journey to Jerusalem was about to begin, a blind man gets in the way and the crowds begin to gather.
Jesus took the blind man aside, away from the village of Bethsaida, away from the blind hatred of the religious leaders and out of sight of the curious crowds. Time and time again Mark is much more protective of Jesus’ right to privacy than were his fellow evangelists. Jesus then went through a process that leads to a complete cure. At first the blind man can see something but can’t quite identify it. He evidently can’t see the wood for the trees. In the end he can see ‘everything clearly and distinctly’.
Our blind man has taken on a new identity. He has become the embodiment of a whole process of healing in mind and body and, to that extent, he anticipates what is about to happen to the disciple Peter in the encounter that follows.
Peter and his companions would follow the same path as the blind man. They were completely mistaken in their first attempts to identify Jesus. In the end Peter would see ‘clearly and distinctly’ that Jesus was the Christ, the anointed Messiah, descendant of King David. The blindness of the Pharisees gives way to the confusion of the blind man and, finally, to the certainty of Peter’s profession of faith. Yet we have to admit that Peter’s perfect act of faith in Jesus as his Messiah was not long lived. Jesus completed the portrait of the Messiah with the essential details of what this identity would involve:
The Son of man was destined to suffer grievously,
And to be put to death,
And after three days to rise again;
And he said all this quite plainly. Mark 9.31
The blind man of Bethsaida holds an honourable place at the heart of the Gospel of Mark. At times, we may well find ourselves at home in the company of the Pharisees, occasionally, along side the blind man of Bethsaida and his walking trees, but in the end, we would hope to keep in step with Simon Peter.
The tree of life.
Our poet’s naïve little poem, that we learned at school, gives pride of place to trees in the pantheon of nature. For the author, a tree is a thing of exceeding beauty; as close to mother earth as a child cradled in its mother’s embrace; it stands in silent contemplation of the glory of God with arms raised to the heavens like those of a suppliant; they provide a home for fugitive migrants, in season and out of season, through hail, rain and snow. There it stands tall and dignified, a proud witness to the glory of the creator and a gentle reminder to a ‘foolish poet’ of his limitations and his humble place within the universe.
Mark 8.23-28 in Scots
Translated by William Laughton Lorimer
Syne they cam til Bethsaida,
an there they brought him a blind man
an socht him to pit his haunds on him.
He grippit the man bi the haun an,
taken him out the clachan,
spat on his een an laid his haund on him,
syne speard at him,
“See ye ocht?”
The man luikit up, an said,
‘Ay, I can see the fowk;
I see them like as it wis trees traivlin about!”
Again Jesus laid his haund on his een,
an the man glaured fornent him,
an his sicht cam back til him,
an he saw aathing plain an clair.
Jesus then sent him strecht hame:
“Gingna een intil the clachan,” quo he.