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Thinking Out Loud

A Sabbath Walk

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 04, 2017

Over time, on repeated visits to Gethsemani Abbey, I have walked its garden, surrounding hills and forests. Even before visiting Gethsemani, I began reading Wendell Berry's poetry and prose. Like many, I rank his Sabbath poems among the most beautiful and prophetic poetry. I am profoundly grateful that Mr. Berry has allowed us to combine his poetry with my photography on three of our seminary Christmas cards. Not long ago, while on a midwinter silent retreat at Gethsemani, I wrote an extended theological reflection on Mr. Berry's volume, A Small Porch (Counterpoint, 2016), interspersing these reflections with photos I have taken on my meanderings at Gethsemani.

***


If there is such a thing as "the essence of good poetry," it is attentiveness. But if there is any one thing necessary for this attentiveness to be effectual it is humility: a willingness never to close off oneself from whatever sources promise to inform and enlighten. The poet is alive, awake, but not as one who stands on a ladder of judgment above the world looking down. Rather the poet knows his place within the world, and speaks from that place with all the honesty he can muster.

Sabbath Walk 1Berry writes:

"The watcher comes, knowing the small
knowledge of his life in this body
in this place in this world. He comes
to a place of rest where he cannot
mistake himself as larger than he is..."


"The watcher" is capable of seeing because of what he understands, that he is no "larger" in this place than "the gray flycatcher, the yellow butterfly, the green dragonfly, the white violet." "The watcher" understands also something of enormous theological significance, though he might not use such freighted words as "theological." He knows that he has received no more grace than these birds and insects and bushes. And knowing this, he will not think himself more graceful than he is.

Much of what the attentive watcher (whether poet or merely prosaic pedestrian) knows, she knows because she is conscious of the general loss of perception we have suffered as human beings in this world. She feels the gap, and, like Rabbi Abraham Heschel's Old Testament prophets, her feelings are tuned more finely than most.* So the watcher, like a prophet, puts into words the grief of a natural world denied and betrayed by its human stewards.

"What I am sure of," writes Berry, "is that we have lost the old apprehension of Nature as a being accessible to imagination, linking Heaven and Earth, making and informing the incarnate creation, and requiring of humanity an obedience at once worshipful, ethical and economic." (113). It is not only the "numinous and exalted" character of Nature, its "starlike beauty" that we have lost a sense of, (87) though much is lost today in our lack of contemplation on what the Romantic poets experienced as the sublime, that transcendent power and beauty that Nature possesses independent of our powers and preferences, and often in resistance to our efforts to bring the natural world under our control. It is also an "appropriate human cooperation" with Nature (106) that we have lost.**

If we are willing to allow Nature to teach us, willing to watch and listen, then Nature will tell us of the mutability of all things, the shifting cycles of seasons that roll irresistibly onward, and of the life-giving fertility of the world which relies on birth, and growing, and vitality, and dying, and rotting of everything created; that teaches us that we are not exempt from these changes, that our existence relies on this mutability as surely as does the end of our existence and our returning to the soil from which we also came. Nature can teach us wisdom, if we will be attentive. Nature will even teach us to number our transgressions, if we will enter its sacred confessional. (104-106; 149-151)**

Sitting in the walled garden by Gethsemani Abbey's Retreat House, I marvel at how Berry's words reflect the natural beauty of this part of central Kentucky, particularly this monastic house surrounding by rolling hills and knobs, as in his poem titled, "To The National Security Agency":

Sabbath Walk 2"I am away in a quiet valley
am busy at my quiet work
in this comely cup of country
exactly fitted to my mind,
my mind to it exactly fitted.
It is enclosed by slopes and trees,
filled full of light and air and wind,
fulfilled by time and wear and weather."
(6)

But even here, in this abbey, in this place so saturated by silence, where at times the only thing breaking the quiet and sense of solitude are the bells of the Church tolling at the quarters of the hours, maybe especially here in this valley ringed by forests and farmland, one also bears witness to the scarred and scarring "progress" of those of us who have carved from the wilderness a "possession." Forests, once breathing freely from hill to hill, the world's deep respiration, the world's full lungs, now near asthmatic, cough to catch their breath, the stirring wind interrupted by that which has been denuded.

So much stripped away. So much washed away. So much lost.

Sabbath Walk 3Berry writes:

"From Virginia, they came to wilderness
old past knowing, to them new. A quiet
resided here, into which came these
new ones, minds full of purpose, loud,
small, reductive, prone to disappointment.
They surveyed their places in it, established possession...."
(15)

"What was here
that they so wanted to change?
They wanted a farm, not a forest. From then to now, no caring thought was given to these slopes, ever tending lower.
Thus Nature's gift, her wealth and ours, is borne downstream, cluttering the bottomlands in passing, and finally is lost at sea."
(16)

The damage, or much of it, was not intentional. The destruction, or much of it, was unforeseen, says Berry. Much was ruined by remote forces, those "positioned to profit by global trade." (17)

Berry repeats the refrain, "What was here that you wanted to change?" His poetry hammers away with humanity sitting in the witness box under oath, bound to think carefully before we answer.

Was the change worth it?
Were the losses to humanity, not only the losses to the land, worth it?
Or did we strike a bad bargain?

Communities eroded as much as the land; laughter and friendships lost along with topsoil until: "the people drift in scatters, homeless/ as their garbage, on the currents/ of a violent economy, their care and work/ from their dismemoried country, beyond/ every dreamed beginning, lost." (19)

"Beyond every dreamed beginning, lost." Perhaps it is Berry's use of that word "dismemoried" in the previous line that does it, or maybe the rhythm of the whole passage, but I cannot help but think here of Shakespeare, especially when Berry moves from the opening verses to the reflections on what has been lost. When Shakespeare's Henry V confronts the traitorous English lords, once his friends, who betrayed him on the eve of his invasion of France; broken-hearted Henry said it seemed like another Fall of Man. When Berry moves from reveling in the miracle of "good soil" lovingly, responsibly preserved by "perennial vegetation kept with care on the uplands and slopes" to the unforeseen losses that trail after devastating erosion, a local tragedy pointing to an ecological catastrophe beyond words, it seems like another Fall of Creation, a land "dismemoried," and a people too. Any culture that wishes to reach high, Berry tells us, "must cultivate the low arts of land- and water-keeping." (14)

What grace there is in the next terrible lines! What grace, if we can only interpret the warning as a kind of hard mercy!

Sabbath Walk 4Berry continues:

"Nature does not prefer humans
to the fish, the eagles, or the moles...."
(14)

"The rain falls on the just and the unjust," so Jesus tells us, because the rain is indifferent. Nature has no regard whatsoever for that which gets wet, or that which dies of thirst, or for that which disappears forever from the earth. Nature does not weep. Humanity ought to have learned by now from nature the cruel and beautiful and exacting and gracious reality of God's creation. "If we love ourselves, we have got to love [Nature]." (14)

Sabbath Walk 5Berry writes:

"We must study
endlessly her long unending work,
thus learning to do our own, also unending, making Nature our ally so far as we can ask and she comply."
(14)

This is what Berry, the watcher, sees from his "small porch," his "lookout upon a place to work, live, move, and be in thought." From this vantage point he can "see the local/ geography as a guide for thinking." (20) And this land teaches him "Right-mindedness," that is, "a mind in place,/ in right relationship to Nature and/ its neighbors." (12)

So Berry tells us:

"Thoughts, instructions, stories, songs enter from outside, and some of these are needed, can be made welcome, but nothing replaces the living geography, topography, ecology, history, the mind's waking at home in its creaturely household, which is its work, its burden, its privilege, its intimate reference, its way to find at need, against the time's perilous leanings, the unshifting star." (12)

The alienation from Creation and Creation's God and the fellow creatures we should call neighbors which is the current shape of our fallenness is not our inevitable default nor our indelible fate. We fell from God's higher intention. We were created for much more than this failure. Creation was willed by God to have a steward not a despoiler. But God's love is always larger than our sin. We were called to the glory of caretakers and co-creators in the fruitful unfolding of this natural world. This is only possible when we are humble enough to understand Nature's own partnership with God in co-creation. "The best of human work defers," says the poet, "always to the in-forming beauty of Nature's work." (68)

May it be so.

_____________________
* Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (Harper, 1962), Vol. I, pp. 7-17.
**The references in these two paragraphs are to the prose essay, "The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation" included in A Small Porch. In this essay, Berry engages writers as varied as Alan of Lille, Chaucer and Thomas Carlyle, C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton. I do not believe I have ever witnessed a poet more fluently to make use of his own careful scholarship in the crafting of his poetry.

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