Wendell Berry and the Gift of Interruption

Wendell Berry & Winn

Whenever I scratch out the short list of writers who, whenever everything is said and done, will have been my companions and teachers over the long story, Wendell Berry will certainly be there. Several months ago, I had the chance to visit with Wendell on his front porch, a misty day when the clouds were gray and the breeze steady. The conversation was rich, and there was much laughter. Later, a friend asked about the time, and I found myself saying, “You know, I felt enjoyed…” For a man who has spent his life writing of the necessity of presence, on that day Wendell practiced what he preached. And I am grateful.

Today is Wendell’s 80th birthday, and in the Collier house, birthdays are a big deal. I did not want the day to pass without wishing Wendell a wonderful 80th.

Among the many things we chatted about on that quiet Kentucky day was the work of writing. I shared with Wendell how I often feel pulled in disparate directions, that my life does not have simplicity of focus. True to form, Wendell dismantled the idols of our age, the idols of our art. The notions of the aloof writer enveloped in a cocoon of creativity, where the craft takes precedence over everything else — that is not true to the human soul, to any work we do that is truly good. Wendell shared much with me, and I will share this little bit with you:

You have been given a gift to help you resist the temptation to believe that your writing must never be interrupted. The modern idea that our art must always come first and never be interrupted is complete BS. I can’t live that way with my land. When you have a mule and it needs something, you can’t tell it to wait. I can’t tell Tanya to wait. I couldn’t tell my kids to wait, I still can’t most times. I can’t help but be interrupted by my neighbor. Now, I have some ways of being unfindable when I have to be, but I’m going to be interrupted.

Happy birthday, Wendell. That’s 80 good years. Here’s to the beauty of interruption. And to being unfindable here and there.

Love the World. This One.

Jean-Christophe Verhaegen
Jean-Christophe Verhaegen

A Christian has every reason to love this good old world. And I do not mean love merely in an ethical sense or as an act of Christian duty. I mean we, of all people, should be the ones most ravaged by the pink glow above the Blue Ridge on a crisp morning, the ones who linger the longest in front of a canvas colored with life, the first to delight in a French Cabernet or a slice of potato sourdough drizzled with wild honey. When we read how Virgil has died in the war and how Hannah must now brave her days alone and raise their daughter who will never know her daddy, we have reason to be first to wince at the pain, the first to give thanks for the power of the story and the first to sit with a tear and at least a little awe for the one who could tell us such a tale.

This world, with its land and its people, was God’s idea. God was the Creator who, at every twist along the way, couldn’t help himself, exclaiming over and again, “Good. Good. Good.” Then, when the whole shebang was done, God clapped his hands and let out a big guffaw and said, “Well, now I’ve done it. This, friends, is real good.”

Old Uncle Jack, one of Berry’s numerous characters teaching us how to be human, how to be a neighbor, spouse and friend, “lived all his life loving solid objects.” Old Jack took God at his word.

God said, “Now, this is good.” And Old Jack answered, “Don’t you know it.”

The Membership. The Real One.

We who spend our days in the ecclesial world feel a grave temptation to think of the church in idyllic terms. We often speak of The Early Church (and precisely this way, all caps) with hushed solemnity as if it were some perfected version of Christian life that we must scratch and claw to recreate. As if these little bands of would-be disciples did not have grumpy parishioners and troubled kids, as if their marriages weren’t on the skids and their fervor didn’t wear thin. As if they did not have their share of wild sex scandals. As if the apostles didn’t shake their heads at times in frustration for all the folks who were not “on mission” (whatever that happens to mean in a moment).

I wonder if our fascination with The Early Church exists because we are so disappointed with the real church. If we can lionize a community that doesn’t actually exist, then we can save ourselves from having to live in the grind of the one that does. The longer I pastor, the more I believe that we are to live in the church we have, with the people we have. This is the only church that exists right now, for me.

Wendell Berry’s Port William community exists in multiple ways as a midrash on our refusal to live well in the places where we are, with people as they are, welcoming all their grime and glory. Wendell describes Port William:

It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership…

A membership. A community that is bound together in a time and in a place. A membership that exists not because of its grandeur or vision or ability to accomplish things – but a membership that exists because, well, it simply is

My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.

michael costa

Image by Michael Costa

The Bumbling Faithful

Wise spiritual voices invite us to welcome the humiliation of the ego. It’s a steady drumbeat: real freedom comes when we release the commitment to power, to being right, to holding our life and our possibilities in our strong hands. Writer Jim Harrison knows this well: “I can maintain my sense of the sacredness of existence only by understanding my own limitations and losing my self-importance.”

However, we do not want to embrace our limitations. Our anxiety piques in those moments when we have no answers, no options, no clear path forward. Some of us exert vast energies resisting the reality that we really are destitute or spent or absolutely clueless. Others of us have yet to arrive at our helpless place, but there’s plenty of time. Sooner or later, life has a way of ridding us of our illusions.

There is no reason to bemoan all this. Our inevitable bewilderment provides a gift. Once we surrender the silly notion that we have God or marriage or parenting wrapped around our pinky…Once we get over ourselves…Once we laugh off the ridiculous idea that we’ve got the world by the tail – then we can get on with our true life, our true selves. We need no longer lug the weight of perfection. We can enjoy the carefree life that only the bumbling faithful are able to enjoy.

Wendell Berry said it right. “It may be when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.”

Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2007

I’ve been pondering how, contrary to our persistent beliefs, nothing is wasted or forever ruined. There’s always hope. There’s always redemption. This really does seem to be at the core of what it means to live under God – rather than attempting to live as God.

A year or so ago, two friends gave me a limited, hand-printed edition of one of Wendell Berry’s poems. It sits immediately in front of me as I type. It watches over me as a I write. It watches over me as I prepare sermons. Berry’s words remind me of something important for my life as a pastor and a writer, a father and a friend.

I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees, 
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort 
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took 
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.

Wendell Berry
Sabbaths 2007, no. 9

Fascinating Responsibility

When asked why his Kentucky farm – that land, that work and rhythm – was important for him, Wendell Berry replied: “The farm provides me fascination and responsibility.” It seems to me that those two words aren’t put together often enough.

Fascination speaks of the lure of a thing, the magic it offers. It’s a childish word, a word filled to the brim with joy. When you’re fascinated with something, you feel a bit lost in it, giddy even. We aren’t giddy enough in this oh-so serious world of ours.

But then there’s responsibility, an obligation. Being obliged might carry a heavy ring. It’s no good, for instance, for the soul to be obliged to another’s expectation. However, if our obligation is toward that same thing that fascinates us, that same something we can’t let loose and that (wonderful how this happens) same something that won’t let us loose, then this responsibility is noble. It’s what some people mean when they speak of a call.

We are responsible for something, somewhere – for someone. There are words we can (must) uniquely speak. Truths we must uniquely discover – and tell. There is land only we can love, children only we can father or mother.

It’s a holy thing to be fascinated by something. And it’s a holy thing to be responsible for something.