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    Wendell Berry and Living from a Place of Rest

    February 24, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    What Are People For?: Essays
    by Wendell Berry

    It is almost embarrassing to post this after yesterday. If there were a land called High-Strung or Frantic, that is where I would have hailed from yesterday. What with rampant attitude problems among our younger members, and then the kitchen sink backing up in the middle of the day due to my ineptitude in using a garbage disposal properly, I had good cause for the almost-panic attack. We ended the evening on a high note by discovering mold in our liquid gold–our grassfed beef tallow. And why was there mold in the tallow? Well, apparently yours truly is functionally illiterate and cannot properly read storage directions which give important details such as “freeze.”


    However, post this I must, for most of it was written during my peaceful weekend, during which I achieved a nirvana-like state of harmony with the universe, especially the portion of the universe in which my kitchen resides. I didn’t realize, at the time, that such things are fleeting.

    Ahem. {Again.}

    So, I’ve been reading through this collection of essays ever since they arrived {courtesy of my beloved PBS} a week or two ago. These are beautiful. I say this often, but Wendell Berry is very much worth reading, folks, so put him on your wishlists.

    The first two “essays” in this collection are almost poems {Berry is also an accomplished poet, so I was not surprised to find this sort of fusion}. Called Damage and Healing, it is the latter than I have been pondering the past few days. In section three of Healing, Berry sets up a sort of antithesis. He holds up two qualities: Pride and Despair. He says that Despair “is the too-little of responsibility” while Pride “is the too-much.” Instead of choosing between one or the other, however, he disposes of them both and introduces a third way: Good Work.

    And then Berry opens the flood gates of the possiblity which lies in Good Work, and it is hard to keep up. Good Work, he says, removes loneliness by connecting us to others: those who went before us, those who come after us, and all the creatures around us. Good Work also grants us solitude, in which we experience Creation without loneliness. “One returns from solitude,” Berry says, “laden with the gifts of circumstance.”

    And then Berry explains to us why the woods are so peaceful to us in the first place:

    And having returned from the woods, we remember with regret its restfulness. For all creatures there are in place, hence at rest.

    In their most strenuous striving, sleeping and waking, dead and living, they are at rest.

    In the circle of the human we are weary with striving, and are without rest. {emphasis mine}

    In other words, in the woods every creature has a rightful place, knows its rightful place, lives out its rightful place, and in this order is found rest.

    One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.

    Ecclesiastes 4:6

    The poetic esssay Healing is Berry’s own Ecclesiastes, in a lot of ways. For he seems to be saying that rest is found by discovering one’s place within the created order and living within that place. However, he acknowledges that all the world cannot be brought into perfection instantaneously, that there remains a Sabbath rest which is to come. He says:

    Seeing the work that is to be done, who can help wanting to be the one to do it?

    But one is afraid that there will be no rest until the work is finished and the house is in order, the farm is in order, the town is in order, and all loved ones are well.

    But it is pride that lies awake in the night with its desire and its grief.

    Instead of worrying, he promotes rejoicing in the tasks at hand:

    Rest and rejoicing belong to the task, and are its grace.

    There is a section in Passionate Housewives Desperate for God {a book of which I am growing fond, but I despise the title, I do, I do!} that I didn’t fully understand at first. It’s called Being Mary in the Kitchen and it focuses on this same issue of Berry’s, rejoicing in Good Work.

    We can all be Mary, even if we don’t have an hour to sit down for “quiet time.”It’s all in our attitude toward the things that need to be done and the people we are serving. If we view our husbands, families, and guests as so many leeches crying, “Give, give!” then we are not going to develop a godly joy as we serve them. If we resent the fact that our husbands sit down to read with the children while we are preparing supper, we are being harpies, just like Martha. Choose the better part. Be Mary in the kitchen. Sing praises while you sweep up those never-ending crumbs. Whistle hymns while you wipe down the bathroom. Meditate upon Scripture while you are folding that third pile of laundry.


    Be a Mary! When the laundry piles rise up in rebellion, the children don’t do their chores right, or the kitchen sink never seems to quite empty itself, rejoice! Choose the better part, crank up the praise, and lay down your life.

    As to delighting in work, Ecclesiastes 3 is appealed to:

    I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

    Rejoice and do good? Enjoy my Good Work?

    This is something I have had pleasant tastes of, but have not mastered: that my place in God’s order is Good, and the work He has given me is Good. And when I am living in this vein, very little depletes me. Sometimes in classical education, we talk about the concept of educating from a place of rest. Well, this is living from a place of rest–living in accordance with the created order, at peace with God and man.

    Wendell Berry reminds us:

    Order is the only possibility of rest.

    Or, as Mrs. Alfred Gatty concluded:

    “You’ve been very fond of talking of age and infirmity, and ‘cumbering the ground,’ and all that sort of thing. But what it means, is, quarrelling with your lot.”


    “[T]hat’s a good idea of the old gentleman that was here just now, and I shall try and remember it for future occasions, for it really appears to be true. ‘Everything is useful in its place at the appointed time.’ That was it, wasn’t it?”

    “Exactly. And, conscious as I feel just now of my own responsibility, I could almost add,…that I have a kind of sensation that everything is useful in its place, always, and at all times, though people mayn’t always find it out.”

    -from Parables from Nature

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  • Reply Katherine Grimm Bowers March 5, 2018 at 10:21 am

    I just love Wendell Berry, especially when I discover ways to apply him to my semi-suburban homemaker life. Thanks for this!

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