A few weeks ago, I posted a quick reflection on Wendell Berry’s thoughts on community and health. I think about that essay often, which is why another chunk of it shows up here today. This is from 1994, before the ubiquity of the internet and cell phones.
If we were lucky enough as children to be surrounded by grown-ups who loved us, then our sense of wholeness is not just the sense of completeness in ourselves but also is the sense of belonging to others and to our place; it is an unconscious awareness of community, of having in common. It may be that this double sense of singular integrity and of communal belonging is our personal standard of health for as long as we live. Anyhow, we seem to know instinctively that health is not divided.
Of course, growing up and growing older as fallen creatures in a fallen world can only instruct us painfully in division and disintegration. This is the stuff of consciousness and experience. But if our culture works in us as it should, then we do not age merely into disintegration and division, but that very experience begins our education, leading us into knowledge of wholeness and holiness. I am describing here the story of Job, of Lazarus, of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, of Milton’s Samson, of King Lear. If our culture works in us as it should, our experience is balanced by education; we are led out of our lonely suffering and are made whole.
In the present age of the world, disintegration and division, isolation and suffering seem to have overwhelmed us. The balance between education and experience has been overthrown; we are lost in experience, and so-called education is leading us nowhere.
Like so many other authors, something about what Berry articulates connects with some part of my own experience, helping me name it and own it. That’s true here, as well. While no place or time is perfect, I was definitely fortunate enough to grow up in the kind of culture Berry writes about here. I found it in college and in bits and pieces in seminary, too. The idea of wholeness, though, has been a bit more elusive these last few years. Existential experience is there, but the education than can frame it healthily is mostly missing. I do see a kind of wholeness in the lives of others, but it’s not the kind of wholeness that expands and welcomes. It is temporary at best . . . maybe even fleeting.
So if you cannot find that kind of wholeness at home, you have to become something of a turtle, able to carry it around with you, even as it serves as a kind of isolating factor.
Berry’s inclusion of figures like Job and Lear and Samson strikes a kind of chord. They are a reminder that sometimes life offers you a full-circle moment. Not always, but sometimes. Their ‘education’ was in no way easy. But it is something to think about, something that can help frame our experiences in a way that other parts of our more ‘formal’ culture cannot.
When I think of the “undivided life,” the words of Psalm 86 come to mind:
Teach me your way, Lord,
that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name.
An undivided heart may be reflected in an undivided life. Both, I think, are good things for which to pray.