Cormac McCarthy on Ministerial Power
December 22, 2015
I've been reading a good bit of Cormac McCarthy since late spring, when I have time for fiction anyway. McCarthy is a master of terse understated conversation and landscapes, and I happen to be a special admirer of landscapes--real and artistically rendered. But McCarthy is also a sharp observer not just of the human condition but of what that condition does to us, if you follow what I mean--of what it does to the single individual, in that peculiar Kierkegaardian sense, and to every individual so considered. No body escapes being human or being lost in his novels, though some come off rather witless about it just like in this non-fictional world of ours.
One somewhat witless fellow is a certain priest he describes in The Crossing. I know, witless ministers abound in novels. But McCarthy's priest is not a shell of a man and he's witless in a particularly subtle way--and for this reason he is a very good reminder of what pastoral ministry demands of those who would be evangelists and shepherds and potent preachers.
The backstory is convoluted and unnecessary to tell. Suffice to say there is a man living in Sonora who lost essentially everything in the terrible earthquake of 1887, including perhaps his mind. He has taken up residence inside a church whose roof is ruined and about to cave in, and he spends his days (and nights) there, reading and thumping his Bible, pacing and wrestling openly with God. He is Job, or perhaps Ahab the whaler, it's hard to tell.
"The people of the town came and they stood about. At a certain distance. They were interested to see what God would do with such a man. Perhaps he was a crazy person. Perhaps a saint. He paid them no mind." Eventually, they send for the priest, who comes and stands outside the structure and tries to reason with the man dwelling "beneath the shadow of the perilous vault." It's a great scene:
The priest spoke to this misguided man of the nature of God and of the spirit and the will and of the meaning of grace in men's lives and the old man heard him out and nodded his head at certain salient points and when the priest was done this old man raised his book aloft and shouted at the priest. You know nothing. That is what he shouted. You know nothing.
"The people looked at the priest. To see how he would respond." To hasten the story along, the priest went away, troubled by the exchange, but came back the next day, and day after day, to try again. "People came to attend. Scholars of the town. To hear what was said on either side. The old man pacing under the shadow of the vault. The priest outside."
And right there is the whole of the matter: the priest never entered in, never took up the place where the old man stood. He would not, perhaps could not. "The priest wagered nothing. He'd nothing to hazard. He stood on no such ground as the crazed old man. Under no such shadow. Rather he chose to stand outside the critical edifice of his own church and by his choice he sacrificed his words of their power to witness."
"He was a reasonable man and he believed that there was love in his heart," but "there was not."
A reasonable man stands aloof and tries to speak into the situation. The reasonable man imagines himself to love whenever he aims at helping from afar. The reasonable man, however, may well lack the faith to step under the threatening vault, to take up the place of those crazed this way or that by the terrors of life in this world, who rightly understand that everything is in the balance. And in just this way, the reasonable man of this sort often fails to love as he should.
How many ministers, some fresh out of seminary perhaps, stand in the pulpit a bit like this priest stood outside this crumpled church? Such preachers call out to the people and try to reason with them about God and the gospel with words "sacrificed of their power to witness" because they have never stepped into the half-crazed lives of the people before them. How many times have I been as witless as this priest in the world? More than I know or care to admit, I'm sure. Thank God his grace is sufficient to save his people through the preaching of the gospel even when my love is not what it ought to be; thank God that's no excuse for my failure to love the people before me, whoever they may be; and thank God I've sat under pastors who loved so well and see so many of seminary students and presbytery interns doing likewise.