Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s life may be,
 I go and lie down where the wood drake
 rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
 I come into the peace of wild things
 who do not tax their lives with forethought
 of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
 And I feel above me the day-blind stars
 waiting with their light. For a time
 I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
                                            Wendell Berry             

I sometimes worry that Lent can be for us something other than a move toward freedom and new life. Somewhere along the line some of us were (mistakenly) taught that Lent is a time for narcissistic self-flagellation. Less extreme than that (but also off-track) is that we are prone to focus on remorse rather than repentance. Remorse (like it’s close cousins, guilt and shame) is a paralyzing emotion. Just because someone feels badly about something doesn’t mean he or she is ready to change. We are invited in Lent not to remorse, but to repentance. 

Repentance is a change of mind—in the Greek, metanoia--and ultimately about a change in direction. For the Israelites in the Sinai Desert for forty years, that was about unlearning the old ways of being slaves obedient to a worldly master, in order to learn how to be a free and chosen people beloved of God. That is what the gift of Torah is for—not a list of rules but a call toward a new and richer life. The Decalogue ("Ten Words") is akin to the "Twelve Steps" - an invitation to a way of life that really does lead to live, one day at a time. 

Wendell Berry’s poem provides us with an insight that we have sometimes forgotten in the Church about what a gift Lent truly is. Namely, Berry sees that the metaphor of wilderness is not a negative one: not a place of punishment, but a place of beauty where we can remember who we really are. There is a kind of peace about the wilderness—a “peace of wild things” as Berry puts it—that calls us back into our skin. We are re-collected and re-membered in the wilderness.

Berry is one of the most faithful Christians I know, even if he is often frustrated with the institutional Church. He speaks in this poem about how despair for the world can grow within us like a cancer. Carefully follow the news for a week and if you are alive—if your heart is at all made of flesh and pumping blood--you will find despair for the world growing in you. Violence in the Middle East. Missing children. Terrorist cells. Global warming. Juvenile political campaigns in the face of daunting problems. The list is long.

No doubt it has the same effect on many of us that it has on Berry, keeping us awake nights. Fear—especially fear for our children and grandchildren—gives us all nightmares.

Berry suggests an antidote—or at least a way of repentance in the true meaning of that word. He suggests a way for us to turn around and find ourselves again as if for the first time. He suggests that some time underneath the “day-blind stars” will do wonders for your soul. That some time by still water—watching a wood drake or a great heron—will call you back to something deeper still—into the peace of wild things “who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” 

What the creation teaches us is not to “tax our lives with forethought of grief.” Or as Jesus put it elsewhere: “do not be anxious about tomorrow…today has enough worries of it’s own.”

Go to that place where you find “the peace of wild things” this Lent, and allow yourself to be ministered to by angels.From that place all else follows. We learn to be better spouses and friends, better grandparents or parents or children, better co-workers or classmates, and most of all, better followers of Jesus.

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