Today, an excerpt from Caught Up in a Story as I have been reading back through Berry here in between papers and thinking about the way that literature teaches us what it looks like to be faithful. Literature and theology, actually, can create quite an excellent conversation between them, something I have noticed often as I study church doctrine on the one hand, and continue with my old beloved novels on the other.
What books, my readers, have taught you or your children the value of fidelity?
“How about this one, Gwen?”
I pulled a slender yellow book off the shelf and held it up to her inspection. I was on my yearly autumn visit to “Tante” Gwen, my mother’s best friend from her years as a missionary, a woman who had known and loved me since the day of my birth. Gwen and I share a love for good literature and having forgotten my own current read, I was scouring her shelves for a novel during my stay. Gwen’s reaction surprised me.
“Well, that’s a special one. You shouldn’t read it when you’re busy, your heart has to be quiet.”
Startled by her words, I set the book back on the shelf and picked a mystery novel instead. I understood Gwen’s caution; some stories are sacred and must be met with a ready soul. But Hannah Coulter was the story of a Kentucky housewife, the simple narration of her life from childhood to old age, and I was slow to believe that her story would grip me with unusual power. I forgot about the book until my next visit, when I opened Gwen’s birthday gift to me. Hannah Coulter stared calmly up from my hands, the pastoral scene on its cover like an echo of the half smile I caught when I glanced at Gwen and knew I was deemed ready.
One hour of reading in and I understood. Never have I encountered a work of writing that wrought such quiet in my mind and heart, where I was made freshly aware of the beauty of the earth and the way it tethers us to humility, to the love that is possible between people who choose to bear and forbear again and again. Simple stories of an age of farming now passed they may be, but they presented a picture of home, faithfulness, and love that has become one of the most shaping influences in my adult life. After that first afternoon of reading when Gwen asked me what I thought so far, I instantly answered, “his writing is so hushed.” She nodded, laughed, and entirely agreed.
The writing of Wendell Berry is hushed in the way that my own life, lived in the circle of my own days is hushed. The story is quiet because it reflects, with expert artistry, the mundane rounds of real people in normal life. When I enter the world of a Berry novel, I am not whisked away to an exotic land or a romantically unrealistic setting. To read Berry is rather to settle down, to be immersed in the workaday thoughts of people who labor and eat and love with the same joy or doubt that I bear. Slowly, as our own real days are slow, Berry’s stories build gradually, told often through the inner contemplation of his characters, and through them I became aware of the cadence present in ordinary life when love is practiced and faith is kept, and the music that comes from the keeping.
For the past ten years, that cadence has enhanced and shored up the rhythm of my own heart, the work and love of my own life. But the rhythm is bought at the high price of fidelity and assent, two concepts that underlie all of Berry’s writing. He believes that our increasing lack of these two qualities in modern life (and our negligence in passing them onto our youth) has caused a tear in the fabric of our society that is slowly unraveling marriage, family, community, and culture. To read a Berry novel is a challenge to learn what it means to be faithful to the flawed (but precious) people we are bound to in love, to cultivate loyalty to one community, and to steward our one place on earth as a gift entrusted to us by God.
This is his concept of fidelity, a word defined as “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.” In our frantic, feverish modern rush to experience, own, and try every thing (and try it immediately), to escape pain and discomfort, and discover the clearest path happiness, we have made self-fulfillment the driving goal of modern life. To young adults and those just beginning the mature story of their life, even those who have a strong faith, the messages of self-fulfillment come with siren intensity. Their hearts are stirred with hunger for life, for love, for experience because God created us in his own image with minds capable of great thought, imaginations primed to create, hearts hungry to love and souls driven to, yes, fulfillment.
But what culture will not tell young people today is that fulfillment will never be found in casting aside the bonds of love, the requirements of good work, the integrity required by virtue. Self-expression cannot be achieved in isolation or autonomy because we are inescapably communal creatures, tied first to God and then to each other in holy and eternal bonds. We were made to cultivate the earth, to work, to love. Fulfillment is found, not in casting aside the “ties that bind” but in fidelity to them, in walking the long journey required to bring about fulfillment, a journey that includes faith in love, devotion in work, and integrity in the discipline of our desires.
In the midst of my own tumultuous teenage years, the stories of Wendell Berry presented a picture of fulfillment that was much truer than the one offered by culture. The rooted, longsuffering love he portrayed, the homes built over decades of nurture and care, the pride his farmers took in the work of their hands offered me a picture of what my own faithful actions could attain. In Berry’s idea of fidelity, I also found hope that even in a broken world, beauty is still possible and love can remain. I know that many in my own generation, hungry for meaning just as I have been, find Berry’s words a deep comfort. We need images of something different than what concrete framed, technology driven, self-seeking modernity has offered.
That is why story is so vastly important in this period of falling action, this stage in which a young hero or heroine must decide which goal they want, which battles they will fight, which reward they give their life to attain. My siblings and I encountered this stage mostly as teenagers, and teenagers are notoriously restless as they begin that search for identity and love. But we also encountered specific stories that stabilized us in those tumultuous times.
My brother Joel greatly loved Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, the story of a father’s long, faithful, sorrowing love for his son. Nate loved Peace Like a River. We read it out loud together, learning much from a dark and bright story of a rebel son, his janitor father who loves with a faith and hope that verge on the miraculous, and the asthmatic son Reuben who believes he was saved from death just to witness their tale. Joy shared my love for Elizabeth Goudge and her story of an orphan girl brought to a cathedral town and the many quietly faithful people who upheld its beauty.
For each of us, stories were an education in what it means to “be faithful to a person, cause, or belief,” to show continuing “loyalty and support,” even when that cost us much. But we were willing to bear the cost because in the stories we loved we had glimpsed a fulfillment of love, a richness of friendship, and a satisfaction after work that gave us a goal toward which, in our long days of falling action, we could journey with great hope.