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The Road Goes On

Thursday, April 21, 2005 at 8:48 AM

A further mystery

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

Berry has written several novels about the fictional community of Port William, Kentucky. This was my first, but I’ll definitely be reading others. Jayber is a memorable character-narrator: an orphan-turned-seminary dropout-turned-village barber and grave digger.

Berry is a beautiful writer. Reading this tale and meeting Jayber and the people of the rural community he loves was a great experience. It’s also a powerful, though unique, love story – bittersweet, compelling and believable all at once (not an easy combination for any writer to pull off).

I sympathize with those who say that Berry just makes us nostalgic for a form of life that's now practically inaccessible. After all, he's able to remain on his family's land because of the extra income he gets from his writing. But I'm grateful to Berry for reminding us of what it could mean and must mean to be truly conservative -- to care deeply about stewardship of the good things that have been entrusted to us, realizing that the best gifts require cultivation, cooperation, and sacrifice.

I know extended block quotes can get tedious, but this needs to be shared.

As a teenager Jayber is living in a church-sponsored orphanage. He’s mainly a loner and misfit. All this changes when he responds affirmatively to one of the many invitations for students to announce that they’ve received a “call to ministry.” Jayber definitely hears something and assumes that’s what it must be – a call to preach. He then becomes a golden boy of sorts and is ushered off to the denomination’s seminary after graduation.

At seminary, Jayber’s mind will not stop asking questions about the Bible that deeply unsettle him. He first approaches several professors who kindly but bluntly tell him he needs to have more faith. He next decides to visit the most intimidating faculty member:

And so finally, late one afternoon, I went to see the professor I was afraid to go to, old Dr. Ardmire. I was afraid to go to him because I knew he was going to tell me the truth. Dr. Ardmire was a feared man. He was a master of the Greek New Testament, a hard student and a hard teacher. We believed that he had never given but one A in his entire life. The number of students in his class in New Testament Greek, which he taught every fall, varied from twenty to maybe three or four, as the horror died away and was renewed. He was known, behind his back, as Old Grit.

I knocked at his door and waited until he read to a stopping place and looked up from his book.

“Come in, Mr. J. Crow.” He didn’t like it that I went by my initial.

I went in.

He said, “Have a seat, please.”

I sat down.

Customarily, when I came to see him I would be bringing him work that he had required me to come talk with him about. That day I was empty handed.

Seeing that I was, he said, “What have you got in mind?”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve got a lot of questions.”

He said, “Perhaps you would like to say what they are?”

“Well, for instance,” I said, “if Jesus said for us to love our enemies – and He did say that, didn’t He?—how can it ever be right to kill our enemies? And if He said not to pray in public, how come we’re all the time praying in public? And if Jesus’ own prayer in the garden wasn’t granted, what is there for us to pray, except ‘thy will be done,’ which there’s no use in praying because is will be done anyhow?”

I sort of ran down. He didn’t say anything. He was looking straight at me. And then I realized that he wasn’t looking at me the way he usually did. I seemed to see way back in his eyes a little gleam of light. It was a light of kindness and (as I now think) of amusement.

He said, “Have you any more?”

“Well, for instance,” I said, for it had just occurred to me, “suppose you prayed for something and you got it, how do you know how you got it? How do you know you didn’t get it because you were going to get it whether you prayed for it or not? So how do you know it does any good to pray? You would need proof, wouldn’t you?

He nodded.

“But there’s no way to get any proof.”

He shook his head. We looked at each other.

He said, “Do you have any answers?”

“No,” I said. I was concentrating so hard, looking at him, you could have nailed my foot to the floor and I wouldn’t have felt it.

“So,” I said, “I reckon what it all comes down to is, how can I preach if I don’t have any answers?”

“Yes, Mr. Crow,” he said. “How can you?” He was not one of your frying-size chickens.

“I don’t believe I can,” I said, and I felt my skin turn cold, for I had not even thought that until then.

He said, “No, I don’t believe you can.” And we sat there and looked at each other again while he waited for me to see the next thing, so he wouldn’t have to tell me: I oughtn’t to waste any time resigning my scholarship and leaving Pigeonville. I saw it soon enough.

I said, “Well,” for now I was ashamed. “I had this feeling maybe I had been called.”

“And you may have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out – perhaps a little at a time.”

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

He held out his hand to me and I shook it. As I started to leave, it came to me that of all the teachers I’d had in school he was the kindest, and I turned around. I was going to thank him, but he had gone back to his book.

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