Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Snippets from "Sabbaths" by Wendell Berry

At my bridal shower, fifteen years ago, I received an unusual gift: a slim volume of poetry entitled "Sabbaths" by Wendell Berry. I had never heard of him. The friend who gave it to me wrote, simply, "Good luck" on the title page, and I don't blame her. I was 20 years old. I assumed she chose the book because I was about to become a Berry.

The dishes are broken, the towels long frayed and cut into rags, but this shower gift remains, and at certain moments through the years I've returned to this volume to immerse myself in Wendell Berry's sabbatical meditations. I have no experience critiquing poetry -- I fear I lack the vocabulary, and the breadth of exposure to do it credibly -- but I love these poems, and through them, this man, Wendell Berry.

Fast forward fourteen years to the publication of my first novel. I bought a plane ticket and flew to Salt Lake City for my first-ever out of town book tour event. I contacted the instructor of a distance writing class I'd taken, years back, and invited him to come to my event. He had said nice things about my writing nearly a decade prior, and I wanted him to know his student had made good. He politely declined, saying Wendell Berry was also in town that night. I didn't blame him a bit.

It startles me to learn, with a little research, that Berry has written a handful of novels and dozens of essays, critiques, volumes of poetry. I only know this one collection. For me he remains a Sabbath voice, someone I hold secret, as though these poems connect us privately.

I am a Sabbath-keeper, in my imperfect way, and as my writing life has gotten more hectic, I've felt the need all the more to guard this day of worshipful rest zealousy -- this cathedral in time instead of in space. However pressing the Monday morning deadline, I still won't work that day. It's reckless and wrong to attribute one's blessings to any worthiness on their part, but I have felt this hallowed time to be a lifeline for me, and a conduit for heaven's help through the frantic balance of my week.

I'll share below three moments from this volume that resonate for me. All selections are from Sabbaths by Wendell Berry, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1987.

From poem IV:

Projects, plans unfulfilled
Waylay and snatch at me like briars,
For there is no rest here
Where ceaseless effort seems to be required,
Yet fails, and spirit tires
With flesh, because failure
And weariness are sure
In all that mortal wishing has inspired.

Poem X (in its entirety):

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we're asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

From poem II:

The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it.

So thank you, Jeannie T., for this gift that keeps on giving. Used editions of this collection can still be bought, I believe.


  1. Love these! To me, he seems to be saying that we should take time from doing to be, because in being we are closer to the Divine. Or maybe I see that because that's what I've been thinking about lately.

  2. I agree completely. Being isn't easy. Doing keeps intruding into any peace we might carve out for ourselves. The art of meditation is one I'm far from mastering.

  3. Lovely sentiments. I'm so glad you got a gift that keeps on giving.

  4. I can't believe we have known eachother as long as we have and never spoken of Wendell Berry. He is my hands-down all-time favorite author! Even his novels are pure poetry. I'll have to share some of mine with you! We are overdue for breakfast anyway :)