Wendell Berry and the Sabbath imagination

By Frank Ramirez

Life, death, awe in the face of creation, alarm at the sins of humanity, anger, despair, lament, complaint, faith, hope, and love standing side by side–these are not only the qualities of the Psalms, but they are also found in the profound poetry of 86-year-old novelist, environmentalist, farmer, and poet Wendell Berry.

Last fall, Joelle Hathaway, the new assistant professor of Theological Studies at Bethany Theological Seminary, taught a course about Berry’s Sabbath poetry, which plumbs the heights and depths of human experience.

Her insight session at this Annual Conference introduced attendees to a whole new conception of what Sabbath means–not a collapse and escape from soul-destroying systems that chew up, but an entry into God’s gift of rest and respite from a life of worthwhile work, along with an apprehension of God’s consequential presence in all things great and small.

Hathaway noted that Berry “sees his vocation…as a way to preserve and honor that which needs to be remembered.” In addition to poems that traditionally reflect on trees and birds and Creation and Sabbath rest and beauty, as one would expect, there are poems reflecting on the memory of friends, scripture, war and the brokenness of politics, lament over the industrial economy, love, grandchildren, and poems from the perspective of his literary character. One poem describes a year in the life of his farm.

The book cover of Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems.

“All life is implicated in this Sabbath.”

She reminded her listeners that the theme of the Sabbath permeates the whole of Hebrew scriptures, yet is the source of controversy between Jesus and the religious authorities. She called attention to Leviticus, which includes a Sabbath year every seven years for the benefit of the land, as well as a return to Jubilee, with land returned, slaves set free, debts canceled, and justice restored.

These themes come to life in Berry’s ruminations on his small, marginal Kentucky farm. She focused on four poems among the more than 350 he has written following his Sabbath walks since 1979.

In Sabbath Poem 2006 (I) Berry weaves together images of Jacob and his ladder, Jesus knocking on the door, John the Baptist, and the Kingdom of Heaven, questioning whether he’s one of the “chosen few” or the “elect,” but sure that at least he’s on the bottom rung of the ladder of Heaven.

Sabbath Poem 2002 (VIII) is more than a reflection on an old turtle emerging from a river to rest on a rotten log, instilling the poet with the same delight God takes in creatures. It reminds us all that the “wild animals are the truly domestic ones,” Hathaway said. “They’re the ones that live in their places…. Humans, we’re the wild ones. We don’t attend to our places, live outside of our means, live in ways that destroy our places.”

The lament over war that pervades Sabbath Poem 2003 (IX) does not at first seem appropriate for a Sabbath collection. But just as the Psalms include laments, complaints, and the horrors of Psalm 137, so too this poem that depicts a survivor of a bomb blast “who was pulled free, bloody with his own blood and the blood of the reeking dead.” The survivor who must, we suspect, pick up his cross and live.

Like all the poems, the latter inspired a steady stream of comments in the Zoom chat box. “It doesn’t look holy,” Hathaway admitted, but reminded her listeners that sometimes “creation doesn’t look like a place that could be a place of rest…. These Sabbath poems are a wrestling, like Jacob. These too are Sabbath poems.”

Finally, the paradox of work as rest is examined in Sabbath Poem 2002 (X), which is a prayer with the request, “Teach me work that honors Thy work.” Hathaway commented on “people involved in work that provides no rest, the larger economy.” This prayer invites God to teach us “to make my arts compatible with the songs of the local birds.”

Hathaway informed those involved in TRIM programs as well as those who might be advancing their continuing education that she will offer her course on Berry again in the fall of 2022.

— Frank Ramirez pastors Union Center Church of the Brethren in Nappanee, Ind.

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