Gratitude, Christmas and Homegrown Hogs Final thoughts on Wendell Berry's The Art of the Commonplace

Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace, Sacramental Living and Christamas feasting.

“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”

 

We start just about every meal in our family with this prayer which is also a psalm. Reciting it brings to mind one of my favorite quotes, “all food is divine love made edible.”

My heart needs to remember these words, especially now as the Christmas feasting approaches. I began this advent exhausted, and am already eager for the relief of having the holidays over-with and the return of a normal routine (though honestly a routine is starting to feel more and more like an illusive goal, anybody with me?).

I don’t want to be a Scrooge, and really I love Christmas. But for me the joy of the holidays can be quickly overshadowed by the demands (though I admit they are nearly all self-imposed).  We must make it to every party, and the Christmas pageant (seriously do they need to do a Christmas pageant when they are three years old? and actually we missed it but only because we had another holiday party), I need to get cookies baked, presents wrapped and in the mail (they already aren’t going to make it there by Christmas!).

Yet, ever so slowly (as in slooooowly) I am learning this year that if I can  just snap out of the craze long enough to take a deep breath before I start guzzling eggnog, then I can remember that all I have is a gift. And so for all things I can be grateful. The whole world changes when I remember that we are all made of God’s breath and the dust of His creation, that His spirit surrounds us like air (or maybe even His spirit is air, who can really tell?).  Living in this reality means it is possible to bake and eat, to wrap and shop and in those very same moments to give thanks to God. I can live  richly and prayerfully even standing in line at Walmart.

This week the Liturgy of Life Reading group finishes our last essay in Wendell Berry’s, The Art of the Commonplace, entitled, The Pleasures of Eating.  This excerpt is from the last section and I read it today coincidentally while I was feeling quite satisfied cooking a homegrown ham, realizing that knowing the history of the piece of meat added significantly to my delight in preparing it for my family and my thankfulness to God.  This passage is a beautiful conclusion to the book and is also a perfect bridge into the feasts of the Christmas season.

A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes. The pleasure of eating, then may be the best available standard of our health.  .  .  I mentioned earlier the politics, aesthetics and ethics of food. But to speak of the pleasure of eating is to go beyond those categories. Eating with the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance-is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection to the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.  When I think of the meaning of food, I always remember these lines by the poet William Carlos Williams, which seem to me merely honest:

There is nothing to eat,

seek it where you will,

but of the body of the Lord.

The blessed plants

and the sea, yield it

to the imagination

intact.

 

 

 

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and looking forward to having you reading along with us in 2016, starting mid-January.

 

This post is part of a series of reflections on The Art of The Commonplace. For more Liturgy of Life, subscribe or follow on facebook. To learn more about our reading group, click here, or check out our facebook group. We would love to have you read and ponder along with us.

Christmas, Craftsmanship and the Value of Good Work Some thoughts from Wendell Berry

In October when the Walmart shelves begin to fill up with Santa hats, glittering angels and new toys we like to imagine the inventory coming from someone like this,

 

santa

 

Though they were more likely made by someone like this,

 

redpaint
19 year old Wei, in Yiwu, China spray painting polystyrene decorations. See full article here.

 

It is a reality we don’t like to face, and for good reason.  Nearly all of us, at least at some level, value good work.  We respect the craftsman. We recognize beauty.  A carefully and thoughtfully made craft speaks to our souls. This isn’t materialism, rather it is the acknowledgement that all things, and even our own bodies, are made from the same earth. Craftsmanship teaches us about ourselves.

 

Philip Sherrad said, that, “Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden Being.”  And seeing God’s hidden being disguised in plastic and Styrofoam is unsettling.    As we deck the halls with plastic boughs of holly, and face the reality that our economy thrives on disposability, cheapness and exploitation, our “fa la la la la la la la,” begins to ring hollow.

 

Wendell Berry says,

“You cannot know that life is holy if you are content to live from economic practices that daily destroy life and diminish its possibility . . . To be uninterested in economy is to be uninterested in the practice of religion; it is to be uninterested in culture and in character. Probably the most urgent question now faced by people who would adhere to the Bible is this: What sort of economy would be responsible to the holiness of life?”

 

Many of us can look back at our high school days of flipping hamburgers (or mine was making popcorn at the movie theater) we have experienced the degradation of menial work. Not that all simple work has to be degrading, in fact quite the opposite, all work can be done well and with pride.  But part of the pride in work is knowing that what is being created will be valuable, helpful, or nourishing, and that the process the worker is valued intrinsically as a human being, and for their work.

 

Berry goes on to say,

“To work without pleasure or affection, make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy; to make shoddy work of the work of God.  .  . But such blasphemy is not possible when the entire Creation is understood as holy and when the works of God are understood as embodying and thus revealing His Spirit .  .  .  If we understand that no artist-no maker can work except by reworking the works of Creation, then we see that by our work we reveal what we think of the works of God. How we take our lives from this world, how we work, what work we do, how well we use the materials we use, and what we do with them after we have used them- all these are questions of the highest and gravest religious significance. In answering them, we practice, or do not practice, or religion.”

 

At least for those of us who call ourselves Christians, and likely for many who don’t, we don’t want to enjoy Christmas at the expense of someone elses’ dignity or health, the degradation of our planet or the blasphemy of God.  Yet doing exactly this is virtually inevitable in our contemporary practice of an American Christmas. If the Christmas spirit is real, if this is truly a time of charity and goodwill then it is also a good time for us to face a hard reality and begin to make choices, drastic as they may seem, to live in a way that honors God and man.

 

‘Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la la la la!
Don we now our gay apparel, Fa la la la la la la la!
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, Fa la la la la la la la!

See the blazing yule before us, Fa la la la la la la la!
Strike the harp and join the chorus, Fa la la la la la la la!

Follow me in merry measure, Fa la la la la la la la!
While I tell of Yuletide treasure, Fa la la la la la la la!

Fast away the old year passes, Fa la la la la la la la!
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses, Fa la la la la la la la!
Sing we joyous all together! Fa la la la la la la la!
Heedless of the wind and weather, Fa la la la la la la la!

 

Thanks for being here,

 

Erica

 

This post is part of a series of reflections on The Art of The Commonplace. For more Liturgy of Life, subscribe or follow on facebook. To learn more about our reading group, click here, or check out our facebook group. We would love to have you read and ponder along with us.

 

 

Wendell Berry, the Soil and the Resurrection A couple quotes to think on

Wendell Berry, The Art of The Commonplace, soil, resurrection, advent
Who knew we would be growing tomatoes in December?

 

Not much to say today just a couple quotes as our reading group finishes up Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace, this first one is an excerpt from an essay called, The Use of Energy. It seems especially poignant during this season of advent.

 

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community because without proper care for it we can have no life.

 

It is alive itself. It is a grave, too, of course. Or a healthy soil is. It is full of dead animals and plants, bodies that have passed through other bodies. For except for some humans- with their sealed coffins and vaults, their pathological fear of the earth-the only way into the soil is through other bodies. But no matter how finely the dead are broken down, or how many times they are eaten, they yet give into other life. If a healthy soil is full of death it is also full of life: worms, fungi, microorganisms of all kinds, for which, as for us humans, the dead bodies of the once living are a feast. Eventually this dead matter becomes soluble, available as food for plants, and life begins to rise up again, out of the soil into the light. Given only the health of the soil, nothing that dies is dead for very long. Within this powerful economy, it seems that death occurs only for the good of life. And having followed the cycle around, we see that we have not only a description of the fundamental biological process, but also a metaphor of great beauty and power. It is impossible to contemplate the life of the soil for very long without seeing it as analogous to the life of the spirit.

 

Wendell Berry, The Art of The Commonplace, soil, resurrection, advent

 

And another from St. John,

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

We do nothing in isolation, from God, from each other or from the earth. Together we wait for the hope that is, that has already, and that is yet to come.

Father glorify your name.

Thanks for reading along friends,

Erica

This post is part of a series of reflections on The Art of The Commonplace. For more Liturgy of Life, subscribe or follow on facebook. To learn more about our reading group, click here, or check out our facebook group. We would love to have you read and ponder along with us.

 

When to say, “Yes” to saying, “No”

One year ago I was unpacking Christmas lights while taping up moving boxes.  My husband’s job had ended unexpectedly and we planned to move between Christmas and the New Year.  We were racking our brains to come up with a plan, while trying to cheerfully sip eggnog at the holiday parties. It was not a time I want to repeat but is a cherished time because it drew us together and forced us to define our priorities as a family.

 

When to say yes to saying no, wendell berry, art of the commonplace

 

Over the past months the Liturgy of Life reading group has been reading Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace.  As we finish these last essays on agriculture Berry shares a story.

 

Mr. Evans was a New York farmer.  He was half way to meeting his goal of growing his dairy farm to 120 cattle when he went through a  season of wet weather which reduced his grain harvest by half.  He was faced with a choice.  He could feed only half his herd, he had to either sell the other half, or purchase twice as much grain as he could afford.

 

Though the circumstances are different, we all face decisions  like this one, about when to plunge ahead and when to scale back. Two years ago my husband got a dream job that required our family to live out in the country. We were an hour from the nearest city  and soon my commute for work became an incredible strain. It was unplanned but I decided to stop working and become a full time stay at home mom.

 

A year later when this same dream job ended unexpectedly we were in a tight spot.  We had to decide, do we move, take a job, make our decisions fast and not take a financial risk or take our time, use some of our savings and figure out what our next steps should be?

 

Mr. Evans  made the difficult decision to say, “No” to expansion. He sold half his herd. Afterwards he realized that he had been overworking his land and as a result his cattle were having serious health problems. By scaling back he was able to see his situation with more clarity, give it the attention it needed, and make better decisions for himself, his cattle, his family and his land.

 

I said, “No” to continuing in a situation that wasn’t working. I quit my job. A year later when my husband was out of work we decided I should continue  at home. He took some part time work and we lived off of savings and prayed for six months before taking our next step.

 

It was hard to walk away from a fulfilling career (especially one that I had worked for 10 years to obtain).  The following year it was difficult to be patient in what felt like an urgent situation. It was risky to say, “no” to financial security, and to not jump at any and every opportunity as we saw our savings dwindle.

 

Now before I go on I need to add that I realize that having the opportunity to say, “no” to a job and not starving to death is a privilege that I don’t take for granted.  I am grateful to be in a country and an economy that allows us to earn a living doing something we love and that has allowed me to  stay at home with my daughter.

 

This is also not a post about working versus staying at home, this just happens to be my example. Your life is probably totally different and what is important is that we learn to set priorities consistent with our values which can then guide our decisions and allow us to function well and live with intention and purpose.

 

Berry gives 14 guidelines to aid in decision making in these times.  He writes them specific to farming but they are applicable to nearly every situation.  You should read all of them, but for the moment I’m going to mention two.

 

First,

“In an organism, what is good for one part is good for another. What is good for the mind is good for the body; what is good for the arm is good for the heart.”

 

Berry’s definition of organism is actually more like an ecosystem. He describes it as a farmer, mind, body and soul living in relationship to land, soil, plants and animals.

 

We live in an individualistic society and tend to think of the organism as one person.  But I’ve found it helpful to think of my organism as my household.  There is no solution that is “good” if it works for me but is not good for my husband and daughter.

 

As a family we have learned to first define our main priorities,  which usually sound something like, “to be obedient to God, and have a household that functions well.”  When we decided for me to stop working it didn’t feel like a loss of career as much as a gain towards functioning better as a family.  In relationships our sacrifices stop being sacrificial as we work towards a common goal.

 

This brings me to the second point,

“A good solution always answers the question, How much is enough? Industrial solutions have always rested on the assumption that enough is all you can get. That destroys agriculture, as it destroys nature and culture. The good health of a farm implies a limit of scale, because it implies a limit of attention, and because such a limit is invariably implied by any pattern.”

 

During my residency I remember working my tail off to be a wife and mom and doctor. I was constantly juggling. Looking back I realize I wasn’t able to give my best to any part of my life. Yet everything in our culture stretches us thinner and encourages us to go for more, bigger house, new job, better pay, hotter oven, colder freezer, faster cars,  we have endless options and are bombarded constantly with advertising telling us we need it.

 

We are on a constant quest for personal happiness. Nagged unceasingly with the feeling of, “if I could just get one more .  .  .” or “if I could just get a little further with that .  .  .   then I would really be happy.”  But history and Wendell Berry tell us that there is another way to live.

 

Did you know that traditionally the times of hardest work, like harvesting grain and sheering sheep were seen as times of great religious depth and ceremony?

 

During  hard work man understood that he was drawn closer to God.  God can’t be contained to the 15 minutes of morning quiet time we give Him.  We can find Him in all things and all people, and sometimes our biggest, “Yes” to Him can be a, “No” to the things that draw us away from Him.

 

Thanks for being here,

 

Erica

 

This post is part of a series of reflections on The Art of The Commonplace. For more Liturgy of Life, subscribe or follow on facebook. To learn more about our reading group, click here, or check out our facebook group. We would love to have you read and ponder along with us.