Posted by: DCox | February 11, 2009

Reading: A Sublime Vocation

I recently finished reading the book Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. The words stirred my soul. Having said that, you may wonder “what was so compelling?”

I’m not going to try to describe much of the storyline here, instead I’ll attempt to paint a word picture for you to convey the feelings that swelled up as I read this fine book.

barber-chair-2 In the last third of the book Jayber is an older man reflecting back on some of his life and the things that have happened in his community of Port William, Kentucky. He’s spent most of his life as the town’s barber with his shop being the meeting place for men in the community. He’s also served as the church’s janitor and gravedigger. Port William isn’t sheltered from the industrialization of agriculture (after WWII) and as the years pass young people leave for the city and mom and pop businesses go under. Jayber closes his shop at the age of 54 when he’s unwilling to comply with state inspectors requiring there be running water in the barber shop. He moves to a local fishing shack owned by a friend and lives out his remaining years by the river.

wyeth-painting-1Jayber is an “old soul”. There’s depth to Jayber — he has substance developed through years of living life well. He doesn’t give up living out of his heart even when it would have been easy to do so. He suffers loss … orphaned, the love of his life married to another, the demise of farming as a way of life, and the death of friends. Yet, he lives each day with gratitude and the ability to see the best in others. He also lives in hope; not so much hope for the things of the present, but a hope for renewal and reconciliation in the future. A renewal and reconciliation that puts things aright in creation.

Here’s an excerpt from the book — you get feeling for the man Jayber Crow through his own words.

Pages 163-165… Other things about my janitorship I liked without qualification. I liked the church when it was empty. When I would go there to do my work and would come in out of the bustle and astir, and would shut the door and the quiet would come around me, I would see the light falling unbroken on the scarred and carved and much-repainted pews – well, it was lovely. I would work as quietly as I could so as to be in the quiet without breaking it. Coming there so soon after dinner, I would sometimes get sleepy, and then I would lie down on the floor and take a nap. I would just go dead away for maybe twenty minutes and would wake up in wonder, rested, at one with the quiet, and the light still the same.

What gave me the most pleasure of all was just going up there, whatever the occasion, and sitting down with the people. I always wished a little that the church was not a church, set off as it was behind its barriers of doctrine and creed, so that all the people in the town and neighborhood might two or three times a week freely have come there and sat down together – though I knew perfectly well that, in the actual world, any gathering would exclude some, and some would not consent to be gathered, and some (like me) would be outside even when inside.

One day when I went up there to work, sleepiness overcame me and I lay down on the floor behind the back pew to take a nap. Waking or sleeping (I couldn’t tell which), I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them as I had seen them from the back pew, where I sat with Uncle Othy (who would not come in any further) while Aunt Cordie sang in the choir, and I saw them as I had seen them (from the back pew) on the Sunday before. I saw them in all the times past and to come, all somehow there in their own time and in all time and in no time: the cheerfully working and singing women, the men quiet or reluctant or shy, the weary, the troubled in spirit, the sick, the lame, the desperate, the dying, the little children tucked into the pews beside their elders, the young married couples full of visions, the old men with their dreams, the parent proud of their children, the grandparents with tears in their eyes, the pairs of young lovers attentive only to each other on the edge of the world, the grieving widows and widowers, the mothers and fathers of children newly dead, the proud, the humble, the attentive, the distracted – I saw them all. I saw the creases crisscrossed on the backs of the men’s necks, their work-thickened hands, the Sunday dresses faded with washing. They were just there. They said nothing, and I said nothing. I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me. When I came myself again, my face was wet with tears.

Pages 205-206… My vision of the gathered church that had come to me after I became the janitor had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on. If you could go back into the story of Uncle Ive and Verna Shoals, you would find, certainly before and maybe after, somebody who loved them both. It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its division and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and ever will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.

What I had come to know (by feeling only) was that the place’s true being, its presence you might say, was a sort of current, like an underground flow of water, except that the flowing was in all directions and yet did not flow away. When it rose into your heart and throat, you felt joy and sorrow at the same time, and joining of times and lives. To come into the presence of the place was to know life and death, and to be near in all your thoughts to laughter and to tears. This would come over you and them pass away, as fragile as a moment of light.


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