Sunday, February 22, 2015

On rest, on sleep, on Sabbath love

When I was a young (so very young!) bride-to-be, the women at my church threw me a bridal shower. Among the dishes, towels, and utensils I received from this coven of kind and knowing women was a gift that did not seem to fit--a slim, beige volume of poetry: Sabbaths by Wendell Berry, published in 1987 by North Point Press, San Francisco. The friend who gave the gift was undoubtedly making a little joke about what my name would be when I married Phil Berry. I confess that at the time I didn't appreciate this gift fully; we were poor college students, grateful for every spoon. I'd never heard of Wendell Berry. To be sure, I loved "literature," whatever that meant to me then, but my first glance through the book didn't grab me, and I had impending marriage on the brain, agitating and addling it.

This week I will celebrate my twentieth wedding anniversary. The towels have frayed, and the dishes broken, but two marriage gifts have remained with me: this little volume, and Phil himself. Time has polished and elevated them both in my estimation. Here's Athena the Cat with my original book.

Marriage and maturity both settle down with time, like the moldering leaves in Wendell Berry's Kentucky woods. Neither can stay in the flighty, angsty, hormone-crazed place in which they begin. They settle in time into a Sabbath peace. I needed to grow up into these poems, just as I have grown up into life with Phil. I never was an adult without him; perhaps we haven't become adults yet. Just tired adolescents with adolescents of our own.

When I reach for Wendell Berry, it is usually on a Sunday, when I search, so often in vain, to infuse a bit of Sabbath rest into my sabbath. Mr. Berry the poet spent seven years embarking on a similar search. From 1979 to 1985, he spent Sabbaths in solitary reflection in the woods and fields near his home in Kentucky. From his meditations came this book of poetry. It's out of print now, replaced with an updated and expanded book called This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (2014, Counterpoint). His Sabbath musings and writings have become a lifelong labor of love, and how lucky we are for it. I shall treat myself to the new edition as an anniversary present for me. (I could give it, ahem, to Phil, but he might as well buy a chainsaw for me. We are neither of us fooled by such tricks at this point.)

There are several poems I'd love to share here, but to preserve Mr. Wendell Berry's copyright, and to entice you to lay hands upon this collection if you can, I will content myself with a few teasing snippets. Oh, but they're a butchery; each piece demands its whole.

On Sabbath rest, from the end of poem II, 1979:

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. 

These two stanzas are all the sermon I will ever need.

Here's all of poem X of the same year, a poem that speaks as much to farm work as to the work of art, and to the work of building a life, a love, a family:

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. 

All we've ever grown, or built, written, performed, or birthed is contained in this graceful piece. Phil and I have learned to work well together.

Finally, tucked away in 1982 is poem VIII, "To Tanya," a poem on the occasion of their twenty-fifth anniversary. Some excerpts here:

Our household for the time made right,
All right around us on the hill
For time and for this time, tonight,
Two kernels folded in one shell,

We're joined in sleep beyond desire 
To one another and to time,
Whatever time will take or spare ...

... In faith no better sighted yet
Than when we plighted first by hope,
By vows more solemn than we thought,
Ourselves to this combining sleep

A quarter century ago,
Lives given to each other and
To time, to lives we did not know
Already given, heart and hand.

Would I come to this time this way
Again, now that I know, confess
So much, knowing I cannot say
More now than then what will be? Yes. 

This week I must leave Phil on a business trip, and though I travel often, I'll be a piece demanding its whole. Sabbaths are more than a day in the cycle of seven to rest, though that itself is more than a gift. A sabbath is a place, a time, a space, a person in which we find our heart's rest. To live, to die, to sleep, to rise into the rest I find with Phil has been and will forever be my wedding gift.


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