Wendell Berry on Spirit
My friend gave me a poem written by Wendell Berry. My friend knows I like Wendell Berry, although I would never claim that I know too much about him. Born about ten years before I was born, Berry is still active. Berry is a fascinating guy. Berry is a Kentuckian farmer. However that does not tell you much about this man. He is a learned farmer. He is famous writer and poet. He is an active Christian---a Baptist. He is a contemporary prophet who has challenged the complacency of so much of the traditional church. I have laughed at him and cringed at some of his challenge to my own faith.
My friend gave me a poem Berry penned in 1991. He entitled the poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Berry may be the most quotable living American. So to be given this poem is to be given enough thoughts and one-liners to fill a month’s worth of these inspirational reflections. Let me pick one line that my friend dearly loves and reflect on that.
Near the end of the poem, Berry writes that, “Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” I love that line, too. I have no idea why my friend focused on that line and called my attention to it. She probably has her own take and, as with all good poetry, it likely speaks a different message to her than it does to me. But this is what Berry says to me with this line.
I very much like the first sentence. “Laughter is immeasurable.” I have said on more than one occasion, I don’t trust someone who lacks the capacity to laugh. Of course, life is not just a barrel of laughs. We all know there are the ups and downs in life. There clearly are sad times and, even, tragic times. But ultimately, there are also occasions of celebration and laughter. Certainly within Christianity---and I think there other major religious traditions as well---the bottom line of life is either comedy or tragedy. Life is either a win or a loss. The essential Christian message is a message that is comedic---that claims life is finally a comedy.
Berry is no doubt correct when he says that laughter is immeasurable. Oddly, there are some phrases we use that point to that conclusion. “I laughed till I cried” means the laughter went off the charts---it was immeasurable. After that thought, we meet the ironic, spiritual Wendell Berry.
Berry says to “be joyful.” This connects quite well with the idea of laughter. Perhaps joy is the way laughter extends throughout our lives. It is true that we can laugh all the time. As noted, there inevitably are times of sadness and, often disappointment. It is not possible to laugh at these times. But there can be a subterranean joy that runs like ribbon through our lives.
Joy is the correct word. I like that idea of joy. So many folks I know want to be happy---to be happy all the time. I would like that, too. But it is unrealistic. Who would not want to sit around and giggle and laugh all day long! However, life does have its serious side. But joy is another matter. I can have joy. Especially spiritually speaking, I can have a joy in my life that goes very deep. That deep joy can withstand more surface disappointments and consequential sadness.
For me joy is a soulful quality. When I come to know myself as a soulful person, then I will inevitably have a sense of joy. The joy becomes part of my identity. I understand myself as a child of God. I have the dignity of the Divinity. My relationship with the Holy One is strong and inviolable. This is truly the kind of joy that one can often enjoy!
This understanding of joy as an issue of the Spirit enables me to comprehend what Berry might have meant by the remainder of that line. “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts,” Berry tells us. I had to laugh. I enjoyed this line and this thought. I am convinced this is Wendell Berry at his spiritual, ornery best.
He knows all the facts in our lives and in our world do not seem to lead to laughter and joy. We all know there are enough reasons to cry and be sad. But if we know ourselves as people of the Spirit, we will be ok. No, we will be more than ok. We will be healed of all the negativity that can seem pervasive. And we can become healers in a world that sorely needs us and our action.
That is Berry’s sneaky spiritual lesson. That is Wendell Berry on Spirit. The good news is it does not all depend on you. When you know that, you can laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. And when you can laugh, you begin to get it. You get it to the very core of your being---your soul. And when you get it, you know joy. Be joyful. Enjoy. And we can be joyful, though we have considered all the facts!