I am continuing this week the reading of Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry in conjunction with the followers of Michele Morin’s Living our Days blog at https://michelemorin.wordpress.com
Each Thursday we talk about a few more chapters together. Check out my About page above for the reading schedule and join us, or just come along for the conversation ( :
With a strange new feeling of freedom J. Crow sets off into the big wide world relieved of the burden of pursuing the calling of a preacher and suddenly aware of how misfitting this yoke would have been for him.
It has always taken me a long time to think of something to say, and then more often than not I say it to myself. I would have no business trying to preach a sermon three times a week.
He is not yet entirely free however. Still there is this nagging sense that he ought to make something of himself to improve on his humble origins. His newfound freedom takes him off on tangents to try things he’s missed but these aren’t the path to freedom. That path is found in following the river back to his humble origins. These two chapters tell that story with many wise thoughts on freedom and on calling and destiny.
I’ve grouped my favorite quotes this week by heading,
beginning with the ones I just loved for the way they were said…
A way with words
Whenever I caught the scent of a small coin looking to change pockets, I tried my best to furnish the pocket. “I’ll do it!” I’d say. “Let me do it!” p.62
Aside from eating and keeping warm, I didn’t have anything on my mind, and I slept good. p.63
I was eating my meals with the comforting thought that in several hours I was almost certainly going to eat again. p.68
And there was a perfectly lovely room called the Browsing Room, with shelf upon shelf of books, and several tall windows looking out into the trees, and easy chairs with reading lamps, and sofas. It was far and away the finest, most comfortable room I had ever seen in my life, and I loved to sit in it. p.70
–What an idyllic word picture ( :
…what was missing was the world of the present, where every body was living its small, short, surprising, miserable, wonderful, blessed, damaged, only life. p.71
The rain fell steady and pretty hard, and there was no place you could think of where it wasn’t raining. It was the kind of winter day that makes you forget that the weather was ever any different, and you feel like it has been winter all the way back to Adam. p.75
–We used to live in the rainy Northwest. I get this picture! Now I live in the Cold of the Rockies and the snow is what the rain was…winter feels like forever.
Some troublesome kindness was working in him—you could see p.78
–In two words Berry captures the struggle to do what is right when what is kind conflicts with the ‘rules’.
By the third day—the day known as Black Sunday, because then the sky and the rivers did their worst—I had pretty much used up my feeling of excitement and adventure. p.85
–so honest, so real!
It was impossible to hurry there, and so I settled myself into patience. p.89
–And at last, home, sweet home!..
But it seemed to me that even if everything had been changed, I would have recognized it by the look of the sky. p.93
–on educational institutions
The university was in some ways the opposite of The Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd looked upon the outside world as a threat to its conventional wisdom. The university looked upon itself as a threat to the conventional wisdom of the outside world. According to it, it not only knew more than ordinary people but was more advanced and had a better idea of the world of the future. p.70
Every one of the educational institutions that I had been in had been hard at work trying to be a world unto itself. The Good Shepherd and Pigeonville College were trying to be the world of the past. The university was trying to be the world of the future, and maybe it has had a good deal to do with the world as it has turned out to be, but this has not been as big an improvement as the university expected. p.71
[ I would object, that ideally in bringing the Scripture to bear on life as a Christian institution should be doing, what God has done in the past and revealed of the past is brought to bear on the present in a life-giving way that brings purpose to the present while giving confidence for the future as well. It is unfortunate that Jayber saw the ways of these religious institutions as merely antiquated]
It was a touchous moment. p.67
…the roads hellaciously crooked p.84
His chin stuck out, when he wanted it to, as though he used it for pushing open doors. p.57
…filling out the papers with false information or as near none as possible…Parents? None. Religion? None. National origin? Diehard. Race? Lost. Sex? Yes. p.69
I made up my mind that if ever I went traveling again—which, as it has happened, I never have—I would not carry my things in a cardboard box. p.85
Barber Horsefield didn’t believe in raising anything that don’t grow by itself, like babies and hair and subjects of conversation. p.92
I had a feeling of strangeness and a feeling of being free; I had no more obligations, no more fear of failure, for failure had already come and, in a way, had gone. My questions were still with me, but for the time being anyhow weren’t crying out to be answered. I wasn’t yet as free as I was going to become, but I knew that I was freer than I had ever been before. p.55
If I was freer than I had ever been in my life, I was not yet entirely free, for I still hung on to an idea that had been set deep in me by all my schooling so far: I was a bright boy and I ought to make something out of myself—if not a minister of the Gospel, then something else that would be (I had by now actually thought this) a cut or two above my humble origins. p.56
Sometimes I think these ‘ought to’s of life will go to the grave unfulfilled and nagging…this is a freedom that in my experience takes a lifetime to claim. It is very difficult to overcome impressions we take on when we are young that are not necessarily valid.
I assumed that since I didn’t have the religion of Pigeonville College I didn’t have any religion at all. That seemed a big load off my mind. I felt as light as a kite. Anybody who had been to The Good Shepherd and Pigeonville College knew very well what was forbidden and what was not. I was well acquainted with the unforbidden, but now that I was accumulating a little money I invested some in the forbidden. p.68
The supposed path to freedom…
Wherever I could locate the forbidden—and with our clientele, it wasn’t hard—I went and tried it. Wherever the sirens sang, I went ashore. Wherever I heard the suck of whirlpools and the waters gnashing on the rocks, I rowed hard to get there. It’s a little bit of a wonder that I didn’t get cast up from the depths in several pieces, or at least contract a foul disease. p.68
The university thought of itself as a place of freedom for thought and study and experimentation, and maybe it was, in a way. But it was an island too, a floating or a flying island. It was preparing people from the world of the past for the world of the future, and what was missing was the world of the present, p.71
Independence and anonymity have their draw. It feels like freedom, until it becomes a crushing loneliness…
For a long time I liked it that way. I enjoyed coming and going without telling or explaining, being free. I enjoyed listening without talking. I enjoyed being wherever I was without being noticed. But then when the dark change came over my mind, I was in a fix. My solitariness turned into loneliness. p.72
I had no past that I could go back to and no future that I could imagine, no family, no friends, and no plans. I was as free as a falling stone or a floating chip—freer, for I had no direction at all. p.73
I can’t say that I was full of hope myself, but I was full of excitement. By the time I had taken just a few steps, I could feel that I was leaving behind the little closed spaces…and was out in the wide world….I didn’t feel sad and lonely anymore but just alert. I don’t think I had even begun to have an idea where I was going, but wherever it was, that was where I wanted to go. p.82
–ah the unfettered aspirations of youth. Thank goodness that God has a hand in our direction when we are clueless.
I was on my way. My mind had changed as completely as if I had never thought of going to Louisville. I was on my way home, as surely as if I had a home to be on the way to. And to my surprise, I might add, for not a one of my teachers had ever suggested such a possibility. I suppose that in my freedom, when it came, I pointed to Port William as a compass needle points north. p.82
I could see that I lived in the created world, and it was still being created. I would be part of it forever. There was no escape. The Spirit that made it was in it, shaping it and reshaping it…I had almost no sooner broke my leash than I had hit the wall. p.83
–Even perceived utter freedom has its limits. Here it seems Jayber becomes aware that ultimately our paths are in God’s hands. He directs by His Spirit thwarting or enabling our plans. We can never escape His ultimate rule, and this is a good thing! ( :
Various Scripture verses pertain here:
Jeremiah said, “O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps.” Jer.10:23
Many are the plans in the mind of a man,
but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand. Prov.19:21
I like this one especially because it too uses the imagery of a river, but now the river is a picture of peacefulness…
This is what the LORD says– your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea. Isaiah 48:17-18
On Calling and Destiny
Maybe a lot of people could say the same—I think they could; the squeak between living and not living is pretty tight—but I have had a lucky life. That is to say that I know I’ve been lucky. Beyond that, the question is if I have not been also blessed, as I believe I have—and, beyond that, even called. Surely I was called to be, for one thing, a barber. All my real opportunities have been to be a barber, as you’ll see, and being a barber has made other opportunities. I have had the life I have had because I kept on being a barber, you might say, in spite of my intentions to the contrary. p.66
Now I have had most of the life I am going to have, and I can see what it has been. I can remember those early years when it seemed to me I was cut completely adrift, and times when, looking back at earlier times, it seemed I had been wandering in the dark woods of error. But now it looks to me as though I was following a path that was laid out for me, unbroken, and maybe even as straight as possible, from one end to the other, and I have this feeling, which never leaves me anymore, that I have been led. I will leave you to judge the truth of that for yourself; as Dr. Ardmire and I agreed, there is no proof. p.66
–When this lifetime is over and we have a fuller perspective I think we will be in awe of just how much our paths were actually directed by God when we thought so much was up to us and our clever plans…
The future was coming to me, but I had not so much as lifted a foot to go to it. Maybe my failure at Pigeonville carried over into my time at the university, like an infection. Maybe my character was leading me astray. Maybe I was called to what I had not thought, as Professor Ardmire had said. p.71
I was living, but I was not living my life. So far as I could see, I was going nowhere. And now, more and more, I seemed also to have come from nowhere. Without a loved life to live, I was becoming more and more a theoretical person, as if I might have been a figment of institutional self-justification: a theoretical ignorant person from the sticks, who one day would go to a theoretical somewhere and make a theoretical something of himself—the implication being that until he became that something he would be nothing. p.73
—This passage points up to me how so often institutional thinking assigns value to what a person does based on a standard that is so different from God’s. You are a nobody if you are not doing something recognized as what somebodies do… Maybe we put too much emphasis on formal vocations and not enough on serving God faithfully wherever you find yourself!
It took me a long time to see what was happening to me then. I have known no sudden revelations. No stroke of light has ever knocked me blind to the ground. But I know now that even then, in my hopelessness and sorrow, I began a motion of the heart toward my origins. Far from rising above them, I was longing to sink into them until I would know the fundamental things. I needed to know the original first chapter of the world. p.73
—the call of home…and all just a silent movement of the heart…
And this is what it was like—the words were just right there in my mind, and I knew they were true: “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” I’m not sure that I can tell you what was happening to me then, or that I know even now. At the time I surely wasn’t trying to tell myself. But after all my years of reading in that book and hearing it read and believing and disbelieving it, I seemed to have wandered my way back to the beginning—not just of the book, but of the world—and all the rest was yet to come. I felt knowledge crawl over my skin. I went on across… p.79
I love the imagery in this passage connecting his experience of the raging river with the story of Creation and the Spirit moving over the face of the deep. It reminds me of the New Testament passage I was reading just this morning, equating the working of the Spirit with life-giving freedom (II Cor.3), a freedom that can’t be acquired any other way.
Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. This is the only true freedom–to be in the path designed by God, led by God and empowered by God…
And I knew that the Spirit that had gone forth to shape the world and make it live was still alive in it. I just had no doubt. I could see that I lived in the created world, and it was still being created. I would be part of it forever. There was no escape. The Spirit that made it was in it, shaping it and reshaping it, sometimes lying at rest, sometimes standing up and shaking itself, like a muddy horse, and letting the pieces fly. p.83
…yet this feeling came over me that I had strayed back onto the right path of my life. It was as if in all my years of wandering, even when I had been the most uncertain or lost, I had been crossing back and forth across my path as if now and again I had seen a sign, “j. CROW’S PATH,” but without an arrow. p.86
I love this allusion to the expression ‘as the crow flies’! (at least I imagine Berry intended us to notice it!) J.Crow’s path home seemed a bit circuitous but at last he is arriving home where he belongs.
The mind of man plans his way,
But the LORD directs his steps.