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On Living

June 9, 2014

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Wendell Berry is one of my all time favorite authors.

I first became acquainted to him through his essays on agrarian farming (I know that sounds redundant, but it is necessary to distinguish it from the big agribusiness farming).  I believe it was Barbara Kingsolver or Michael Pollan who referenced Berry’s essays in their respective books.  Or maybe it was articles in Edible Austin.  Regardless, I didn’t know Berry wrote novels when I first met him.  I was a fan of Berry, the agrarian essayist.

Later I was introduced to his poetry through the blogosphere–maybe it was Sarah Bessey or Micha Boyett who wrote about his collection of Sabbath Poems called Timbered Choir.  Eventually, I bought Timbered Choir and fell in love with Berry, the poet.

A year ago, as my grandfather was in the process of dying, I read Jayber Crow, which I discovered on a summer reading list.  I felt amazingly connected to my dying grandfather, 1500 miles away, as I read the story of Jayber Crow and Port William, Kentucky.  From there, I read Fidelty, a collection of Port William short stories.  Yesterday, I finished A World Lost, another of the Port William, Kentucky novels.

If there was ever any question, there no longer is–I am totally enamored with the writing of Wendell Berry.

A World Lost is about a death of an uncle from the viewpoint of a nephew.  Uncle Andrew was murdered and his loss changed the extended family for the rest of their lives.  The nephew, also an Andrew, felt a shroud of mystery surrounding the murder–it wasn’t something talked about, yet the absence of his slightly wild, impulsive uncle permeated all aspects of his life.

Wendell Berry could teach us a lot about living and dying.  I find it no small coincidence that all three books I’ve read of his talk at length about dying.  Unlike many of the novels, written across all times, death isn’t described as evil or something to be feared.  While the too soon death of his Uncle haunted everyone in the book, death itself was natural.

As humans, I think we go through life slightly (??) scared of death.  We do everything in power to avoid it–wear sunscreen, eat healthy foods, take lots and lots of medications.  We spend a lot of energy fighting aging because if we don’t age, we don’t die, right?  We use botox for our wrinkles, wear make up to hide our age spots, and even voluntarily go into surgery just to look younger.  For some of us, our purpose in life is not dying.

Granted, I am not rushing into death. I am not trying to convince you of its virtues (You are no longer busy!!  Your to-do list is gone!! You no longer have to keep up with your budget!!).  I love my life and I am grateful for every day I am given.  More so, I am in no hurry to have any one I love die.  The thought of losing a child…..I’m not going there.

What is interesting about Berry’s books is that death is not to be feared.  It is as natural as living.  While Uncle Andrew was murdered and none of the family was ever the same again, there was no whining, no belly-aching, no questions of why we must die.  Death just is.  I appreciate that from Berry.  In Fidelty, the short story that shares the name with the title, a loved family member ages and grows sick.  Not knowing what to do, the family takes the Grandfather to the hospital.  At the hospital, the goal is to save the man’s life, not to let him die.  Before long, the family wonders what good the hospital is doing, is the prolonged life really beneficial to their beloved patriarch?  In the middle of the night, they sneak into the hospital and “steal” their father.  They take him to a cabin in the hills so he can live his last days peacefully, so he is allowed to die.  We all die.

But this is not titled On Dying.  It is On Living.  I think our views of death influence how we live our lives.  If death is natural, if death is just a part of the journey, then why should we be afraid?  It is the unknown that frightens us, even those with a deep faith.  While there are books out there tell us what heaven is really like, I don’t think any human can fathom what heaven may be.  The ultimate step of faith is in death, believing that the God who we have loved and who calls us his beloved will continue to love us beyond death.  We will never be alone.

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Nor is death the purpose of life.  While some claim their purpose for living is to live a life that will get them into the Kingdom of Heaven, that is not my purpose.  If that’s a by-product of the life I live and the God I love, than that is what happens.  However, we are called to bring forth the Kingdom of God (of Heaven) here on earth by thanking God for all things, loving others, and walking humbly with God and our neighbor.  We are called to bring the Kingdom of God to those who may struggle to make ends meet, to those who stand on the street corners, and those who may not be educated or have enough stuff or anything else we may judge others by.  If we are not living in fear of death, it is much easier to work for God’s Kingdom here.  Now.  Fear paralyzes us and focuses the attention on ourselves.  The absence of fear lets us see those around us, who may be sitting outside the circle.

The last paragraphs of A World Lost include these words:

I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time.  It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed.  It is Hell until it is Heaven.  Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment.  And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within in, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and they are consoled.  In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.

That light can one into this world only as love, and love can enter only by suffering.  Not enough light has ever reached us here among the shadows, and yet I think it has never been entirely absent…

…slowly I have learned that my true home is not just this place, but is also that company of immortals with whom I have lived here day by day.  I live in their love, and I know something of the cost.  Sometimes in the darkness of my own shadow I know that I could not see at all were it not for this old injury of love and grief, this little flickering lamp that I have watched beside for all these years.

May we live well and love well, knowing that when we do die, we will join that company of immortals and we will remain with those who are still living.  We need not fear death.  We will not be forgotten.    We will be consoled and live in the forgiveness and beauty of the Light.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2014 11:19 pm

    I love Wendell, he’s one if my kindred spirits! One of my favorite quotes is: “I don’t believe that grief passes away. It has its time and place forever. More time is added to it; it becomes a story within a story. But grief and griever alike endure.”
    Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

    • June 10, 2014 7:00 am

      Thanks for sharing that, Joanna! I think my soul needs one of Berry’s Port William novels every 6 months or so to keep me grounded. Makes me smile to see we still share some kindred spirits some15 years later. 🙂

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