The woods is shining this morning.
Red, gold and green, the leaves
lie on the ground, or fall,
or hang full of light in the air still.
Perfect in its rise and in its fall, it takes
the place it has been coming to forever.
It has not hastened here, or lagged.
See how surely it has sought itself,
its roots passing lordly through the earth.
See how without confusion it is
all that it is, and how flawless
its grace is. Running or walking, the way
is the same. Be still. Be still.
“He moves your bones, and the way is clear.”
The woods is shining this morning.
From the 1990 selection of Sabbath poems.
The body in the invisible
Familiar room accepts the gift
Of sleep, and for a while is still;
Instead of will, it lives by drift
In the great night that gathers up
The earth and sky. Slackened, unbent,
Unwanting, without fear or hope,
The body rests beyond intent.
Sleep is the prayer the body prays,
Breathing in unthought faith the Breath
That through our worry-wearied days
Preserves our rest, and is our truth.
In the midst of all the research for the upcoming Forgiveness Issue, this beauty surfaced.
If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,
how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then
is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go
free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not
think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.
In honor of the man’s 80th birthday, a poem from his newest collection of Sabbath poems, This Day.
Will-lessly the leaves fall,
are blown, coming at last
to the ground and to their rest.
Among them in their coming down
purposely the birds pass,
of all the unnumbered ways
choosing one, until
they like the leaves will
will-lessly fall. Thus freed
by gravity, every one
enters the soil, conformed
to the craft and wisdom, the behest
of God’s appointed vicar,
our mother and judge, who binds
us each to each, the largest
to the least, in the family of all
the creatures: great Nature
by whom all are changed, none
are wasted, none are lost.
Supreme artist of this
our present world, her works
live and move, love
their places and their lives in them.
And this is praise to the highest
knowledge by the most low.
I recently heard on the radio a short program about the night sky. In it they talked about the millennia of writing and cultural expression that have come specifically from an encounter with the darkness of night. The show made the point to say that now, in the age of light pollution and skyglow, the night sky is no longer a continual reminder of human finitude and impermanence: it’s for vacations and camping trips. And with the Night Sky II app (the Lite version is free in the AppStore!), it’s all mappable and nameable anyway. They cited the Wendell Berry…
How hard it is for me, who live
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them
in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.
Well, anyhow, it preserves us from the pride
of thinking we invented sin ourselves
by our originality, that famous modern power.
In fact, we have it from the beginning
of the world by the errors of being born,
being young, being old, causing pain
to ourselves, to others, to the world, to God
by ignorance, by knowledge, by intention,
by accident. Something is bad the matter
here, informing us of itself, handing down
its old instruction. We know it
when we see it, don’t we? Innocence
would never recognize it. We need it
too, for without it we would not know
forgiveness, goodness, gratitude,
that fund of grace by which alone we live.
What hard travail God does in death!
He strives in sleep, in our despair,
And all flesh shudders underneath
The nightmare of His sepulcher.
The earth shakes, grinding its deep stone;
All night the cold wind heaves and pries;
Creation strains sinew and bone
Against the dark door where He lies.
The stem bent, pent in seed, grow straight
And stands. Pain breaks in song. Surprising
The merely dead, graves fill with light
Like opened eyes. He rests in rising.
From Wendell Berry’s novel about the barber of Port William. He talks about the love of God, its foolishness, and the most dangerous prayer of all.
Hate succeeds. This world gives plentiful scope and means to hatred, which always finds its justifications and fulfills itself perfectly in time by destruction of the things of time. That is why war is complete and spares nothing, balks at nothing, justifies itself by all that is sacred, and seeks victory by everything that is profane. Hell itself, the war that is always among us, is the creature of time, unending time, unrelieved by any light or hope.
But love, sooner or later, forces us out of time. It does not accept that limit. Of all that we feel and do, all the virtues and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge of the world. For love is always more than a little strange here. It is not explainable or even justifiable. It is itself the justifier. We do not make it. If it did not happen to us, we could not imagine it. It includes the world and time as a pregnant woman includes her child whose wrongs she will suffer and forgive. It is in the world but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there when it most holds us here.
…What answer can human intelligence make to God’s love for the world? What answer, for that matter, can it make to our own love for the world? If a person loved the world–really loved it and forgave its wrongs and so might have his own wrongs forgiven–what would be next?
And so how was a human to pray? I didn’t know, and yet I prayed. I prayed the terrible prayer: “Thy will be done.” Having so prayed, I prayed for strength. That seemed reasonable and right enough. As did praying for forgiveness and the grace to forgive. I prayed unreasonably, foolishly, hopelessly, that everybody in Port William might be blessed and happy–the ones I loved and the ones I did not. I prayed my gratitude.
The results, perhaps, were no more than expectable… I prayed to know in my heart His love for the world, and this was my most prideful, foolish, and dangerous prayer. It was my step into the abyss. As soon as I prayed it, I knew that I would die. I knew the old wrong and the death that lay in the world. Just as a good man would not coerce the love of his wife, God does not coerce the love of His human creatures, not for Himself or for the world or for one another. To allow that love to exist fully and freely, He must allow it not to exist at all. His love is suffering. It is our freedom and His sorrow.
An enchanting novel all the way around, Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow is one of the Port William series, based fictionally on Mr. Berry’s own home, Port Royal, Kentucky. Jayber Crow is a barber-priest, a seminarian who left seminary to cut hair. He says this about the life that’s been given him:
If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line–starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led–make of that what you will.
The New York Times Magazine’s cover piece for this past week is a rejoinder to one from 2003, about mothers “opting out” of ambitious, lucrative career fields, to become stay-at-home mothers. This time, ten years later, Judith Warner catches up with and spotlights three women in particular who want a way back into their careers, and the picture given is definitely (and mercifully) mixed. Of the three women, one is divorced and living in a condo, one is living her dream as the CEO of her own non-profit, and another just lost her new job, worrying how the kids will…
From his 1987 Sabbath poems.
Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.