A Contemplative Life

As I work my way through Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, I’m struck by two things: the strength of the fiction, borne as it is from a thoughtful consideration of life in the membership of Port William; and by how contemplative life in Port William is. I realize that both those things belong to Berry himself. He is the writer after all, the maker of that world and its people.

I considered writing ‘creator,’ but I think I agree with the poet Kathleen Norris, who writes something along the lines of “God creates, we make.” It is the same distinction J.R.R. Tolkien found in writing, seeing human beings as “sub-creators.” In other words, we are incapable of ex nihilo creation–of course. But we are able to make things out of what God has given us, and perhaps the greatest of those gifts is language. But I digress.

Berry’s fiction doesn’t come at you, demanding that you bolt it down like a ballpark hot dog. It sneaks up on you, allowing you to hear voices and stories in the way you might at a family reunion. Indeed, while the membership is small and elite in its way, I get the feeling of sitting in Jayber Crow’s barber shop, listening to Mat Feltner and Athey Keith and others chuckle and grin through the life. Sadly, that’s something that we’re missing in our day, and sadder still, we scarcely know we’re missing anything at all. Our lives are full of stuff and events. But too few of us experience the kind of intentional existence that Berry’s folks do, even though their lives consist mostly of hard work and hope that it will matter when it must. That’s one of the great things about country people, one of the greatest lessons city folk could learn.

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