I’m reading Wendell Berry’s book along with the folks at Living our Days blog at https://michelemorin.wordpress.com We’re on the home stretch now! Each Thursday we talk about a few more chapters together and reflect on what we’ve noticed. Feel free to join us even if you’re not reading along. There is always good food for thought!
Jayber gets married!?
–In which Jabyer is ‘born’ into the ‘way of love’.
Two bigger-than-life characters sandwich Jayber’s thoughts on love and transformation this week. One, Athey, the storyteller, who only improves with age, comes out an admirable man no matter what the story–in this case a pig-killing gone amuck because of whiskey consumption… The other hero is of course Athie’s daughter: Mattie, who can do no wrong, deserves a faithful husband, and by some twist of Jayber’s lonely imagination becomes his ‘wife’, but only in his mind.
I have wrestled this week with Berry’s ideas on love and what it might look like for a bachelor man to love a married woman well. It all spills out of Jayber’s moment of epiphany, a sort of ‘thou art the man!’ moment at a crowded roadhouse dance. Troy appears with a woman that is not his wife. He winks in Jayber’s direction knowingly. Each has a woman that is not his wife with intent of taking sexual liberties with her. And Jayber is aghast at the realization that perhaps he is not so very unlike the man he hates!
This moment when truth hits has pre-occupied my thoughts this week. It is painful, seldom welcome, but a mercy of God to sinful man. The heart is desperately wicked, who can know it? But the Spirit of God broods over its deeps and brings to light just what we need to see when we need to see it. I have had my own epiphany this week. I’ve seen again that the bent of my heart, left to itself, is anything but lovely (or loving!). What do I do with this truth? What do I do when the Spirit shines His spotlight on that which is clearly not LOVE. Can I just go forth and ‘do better’? Love those I inwardly despise. Welcome the unlovely. Extend compassion instead of malice. Is it just a matter of retracing steps and starting over? Of thinking nicer thoughts?
That is I guess why I have wrestled with Jayber’s response to this realization that he is not a righteous man and has no right to condemn another. He goes forth, abandoning the girl he has brought to the dance, ‘birthed’ through a tight bathroom window into a long wintry walk home to sort things out in his mind…
But what I saw, walking up that dark road, was that it would also be a fearful thing to be unlike him. I saw that I had to try to become a man unimaginable to Troy Chatham, a man he could not imagine raising his hand to with the thumb and forefinger circled—but to do that I would have to become a man yet unimaginable to myself. p.241
And he concludes that what is needed is for Mattie to have the faithful husband she ‘deserves’ and for him to play that role, even if noone in the world should ever know about it. He makes a vow within his own mind:
“Do you, then, in love’s mystery and fear, give yourself to this woman to be her faithful husband from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death?”
–“I do. Yes! That is my vow.”
And so Jayber enters into a celibate life which he terms ‘the way of love’
But I was changed. I had entered, as I now clearly saw, upon the way of love (it was the way I followed home from Hargrave that snowy night; maybe it was the way I followed back to Port William during the flood), and it changed everything. It was not a way that I found for myself, but only a way that I found myself following. p.248
I wondered, what came of Clydie, the girl he has used to stave off loneliness but not really loved. Was abandoning her with the token guilt offering of his old car sufficient substitute for loving her truly? Could he not have offered her himself and his faithfulness and asked for her hand in marriage? She was lonely, in a difficult position having to work to care for her own relatives. Might he have eased her load? Might he have loved sacrificially the girl he had become one flesh with? This might have been a truer picture of sacrificial love than committing himself to love a woman who was altogether desirable though out of his reach. Just my thoughts…
The remainder of the chapter was taken up with Berry’s own wrestlings on the redemptive nature of love (and the value of prayer) and the obvious evidence in the world that hate has succeeded at least as well as love. What is the explanation?
Maybe love fails here, I thought, because it can not be fulfilled here.
Maybe to have it in your heart all your life in this world, even while it fails here, is to succeed. Maybe that is enough.
And with the coming of his new lifestyle, Jayber’s faith in God is revived.
And so there were times when I knew (I knew beyond any proof) that the faith that carried me through the waterless wastes was not wasted. I began to pray again. I took it up again exactly where I had left off twenty years before, in doubt and hesitation, bewildered and unknowing what to say. “Thy will be done,” I said, and seemed to feel my own bones tremble in the grave.p.250
His doubts about Scripture however have not left him, nor his sitting in the judgment seat over God’s own ways…
What would I do with a son who killed his father…that woman…who beat a black girl to death…a man who…I didn’t know. I could see that Hell existed and was daily among us. And yet I didn’t want to give up even on the ones in Hell…
But now he sees a bigger piece of the picture. He sees the verses that depict God’s love for the world.
But now (by a kind of generosity, it seemed) the world had so beaten me about the head, and so favored me with good and beautiful things, that I was able to see. “God loves Port William as it is,” I thought. “Why else should He want it to be better than it is?” p.251
Here is an insight into the nature of love that is not to be missed (!) but is so often overlooked. Because God loves…He is not willing to leave the object of His love as it is, in its sinful state. Love suffers in order to redeem! Love disciplines in order to bring the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
And as Jayber perceives God’s love he begins to see that God is a Father and his love for the world is like a father’s love for a wayward child. And he begins to understand why God chose to come in mortal flesh to ‘walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death’.
Yes. And I could imagine a Father who is yet like a mother hen spreading her wings before the storm or in the dusk before the dark night for the little ones of Port William to come in under, some of whom do, and some do not. p.252
A lovely little passage follows in which Jayber imagines God brooding over Port William, sustaining its people even while allowing them their free wills…And as he imagines this a great change occurs in his heart:
…it was not a “conversion” in the usual sense, as though I had been altogether out and now was altogether in. It was more as though I had been in a house and a storm had blown off the roof; I was more in the light than I had thought. And also, at night, of course, more in the dark. I had changed, and the sign of it was only that my own death now seemed to me by far the least important thing in my life
Jayber has many thoughts on prayer as well, which I won’t go into but here we see his pastor’s heart expanding as he prays that he might love the world as God does. Might I have something to learn here too?! Had I thought to pray his prayer? Am I willing to bear the pain of it?
If God loves the world, might that not be proved in my own love for it? 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. To love the world as much even as I could love it would be suffering also, for I would fail. And yet all the good I know is in this, that a man might so love this world that it would break his heart. p.254
I’ve lost track of how old Jayber would be at this point. Is the statement that then follows that of an old man who has seen enough of life to be content with himself and the world he lives in?
Now, finally, I really had lost all desire for change, every last twinge of the notion that I ought to get somewhere or make something of myself. I was what I was. “I will stand like a tree,” I thought, “and be in myself as I am.” p.254
I am not this old yet if age is what it takes! I find his contentment enviable, especially if it is nested in faith that God’s will will be done in me and my community without my striving…
Berry rounds out this philosophical chapter with some more local conversation and antics before returning to Jabyer’s vow and his affirmation of a growing sense of faith and its comcomitant, faithfulness.
It seemed to me that, because of my vow, a possibility—of faith, of faithfulness—that I could no longer live without had begun leaking into the world. p.259
Love does Win!
I had a sense at one point in this week’s reading that Berry was moving toward a universalism that would exclude hell by reason of its incompatibility with God’s deep love for humanity. His question of ‘why doesn’t love succeed?’ isn’t perhaps the right one, though he concedes that perhaps it will in the end: “Maybe love fails here, I thought, because it can not be fulfilled here.”
The failing isn’t in the power of love but in the propensity of man to resist it. It is one of the hardest things in the world to accept the unmerited love of God in Christ with no strings attached. Such love humbles us. That God loved us enough to die for us reminds us that we are not in a position to pay Him back, to point out our good qualities, or to try to prove ourselves loveable! The virtue in such love is all His. And we are naturally inclined to hate God rather than accept His love on those terms.
We love Him only because He first loved us and inclined our hearts to accept that love.
See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. — I Jn. 3:1-3 NASB
This is real love–not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.– I Jn.4:10-12
If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? — I Jn. 4:20 NLT
ephiphany: a moment of sudden revelation or insight
I couldn’t help thinking this week of another moment of ephiphany in literature–Flannery O’Connor’s short story, Revelation is one of the most potent I have ever read! I had to go back and read it again and ponder its painfully sharp but needful truth. It is not the one who thinks himself righteous that will be first in the Gate when the roll is called up yonder. It is the one whom God commends as righteous. May all our boasting be in God’s grace, not our good graces! Do look this one up and have a read if you can stomach O’Connor’s disturbingly penetrating style!
Her story perfectly illustrates this perspective from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:
Most of the man’s psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.”
–C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pg. 86
Other epiphanies in Scripture:
- Read Romans 1:18-32 then flip to Romans 2:1!
- Go to the temple with the Pharisee and the ‘publican’.
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” –Luke 18:11-14 ESV
- Join the conversation with Jesus as local news is discussed in Luke 13:1-5
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” — Luke 13:5 ESV
The passage I am putting to heart is just the prayer I need for this point in my ponderings!
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul…Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me! Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you… Ps. 25: 1,20,21
But finally I will cease and desist making so much of a story that the author warned us not to take too seriously!
Just for Laughs
Of a lame hound named Gnats, who belonged sort of to everybody in those days and who got around in a three-legged lope, Athey would say with amusement and respect, “There goes old Gnats, doing his arithmetic, putting down three and carrying one.” p.231
Thanks for sharing my thoughts. Feel free to disagree in the comments. How did these chapters affect you?