I started a new Wendell Berry essay this morning, knowing I didn’t really have the energy to read the whole thing, and he still got me with his opening paragraphs:
A sentence of my own, written thirteen years ago, has stayed in my mind. In it, I was speaking of the connection between my work on the small hill farm where I live and my work as a poet: “This place has become the form of my work, in discipline, in the same way a sonnet has been the form and discipline of the work of other poets: if it does not fit it’s not true.”
This connection between the two kinds of work and between my work and this place has seemed to me both interesting and problematical. And my old statement of it is far too simple. I wrote the sentence because I felt it to be true. I still feel that it is, and think so too, but I can no longer feel it or think it so simply. (106)
It was the last sentence in particular—that he could no longer think or feel it so simply. I understand. But the word hooked me. Simple. What a wonderfully layered word. We use the word as though life, or whatever is easily reduced, and yet the simple truth is full of nuance and character.
Simple. I read the word and hear the melody of the old Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.”
tis a gift to be simple tis a gift to be free
tis a gift to come down where we ought to be
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
twill be in the valley of love and delight
I went searching for more on the song and learned learned was actually a dance—the Shaker version of “Uptown Funk,” if you will. (Jedediah, get the horse.) Later in the morning, I turned to Marilynne Robinson and an essay called “Cosmology”—which was not simple— where she speaks to some of the prevailing contemporary cultural views of who we are as human beings, responding in particular to a book called The New Atheists (which I have not read).
The exclusion of a religious understanding of being has been simultaneous with a radical narrowing of the field of reality that we think of as pertaining to us. This seems on its fact not to have been inevitable. We are right where we have always been in time, in the cosmos, experiencing mind, which may well be an especially subtle and fluent quantum phenomenon. Our sense of what is at stake in any individual life has contracted as well, another consequence that seems less than inevitable. We have not escaped, nor have we in any sense diminished , the mystery of our existence. We have only rejected any language that would seem to acknowledge it. (187-88)
In one of Madeleine L’Engle’s books (that I can’t reference right now) she talks about how our vocabulary shrinks during wartime. When we are in the middle of conflict, or when we are captured by fear, we begin to lose words, and, as a result, lose part of our humanity. But in A Stone for a Pillow, she described what she learned while traveling in Egypt.
Those old Egyptians also worshipped the baboon because every morning, when the sun rose, the baboons all clapped their hands for joy, applauding the reappearance of the sun. What a lovely picture, the baboons all clapping their hands and shouting for joy as the sun rose! So it seemed to the Egyptians that the baboons must have had something to do with the rising of the sun, and that their applause helped to bring the sun back up into the sky. (169-70)
After laying out all the words I found in my morning meandering, I suppose I should explain the simple connection between them. Sunday morning as I sat down in the sanctuary, I looked over the order of service and saw the choral introit was a setting of the prophet Micah’s question and answers:
What does the Lord require of you?
To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.
Simple enough. Yet the simple truth is full of nuance, and layered with challenge and complexity. To do justice means to act and speak against those actions and forces that dehumanize others. It means working to right wrongs that have no direct effect on me. To love kindness means to remember, as the saying goes, that everyone is fighting a great battle, but not with us. It means to do more than the minimum daily requirement. It means to do more than live reciprocally. To walk humbly means to remember there is a God and it is not me. I am wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. I am not, however, God’s favorite.
We are on the cusp of some difficult days in our country. The political discussion is reducing the vocabulary to the language of violence, conquest, and conflict. Even these are pretty good days to be an American, we are being fed a steady diet of ideas that would have us believe scarcity and security should be the words we settle for. There is not enough. Be afraid. We are under attack. Fight back. Get what’s yours. Kick everyone else out.
No. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. Incarnate the simple truth that there is enough to go around by sharing, by risking. Incarnate the simple truth that noting can separate us from love by reaching out to someone not like you. Stand out under the stars, or on a beach, or in the middle of your back yard and act like a baboon, connected and caught up in the mystery that is larger than all of humanity. As Isaiah wrote,
For you will go out in joy, be led home in peace.
And as you go the land itself will break out in cheers;
The mountains and the hills will erupt in song,
and the trees of the field will clap their hands.
Prickly thorns and nasty briers will give way
to luxurious shade trees, sweet and good.
And they’ll remind you of the Eternal One
and how God can be trusted absolutely and forever.
(55:12-13, The Voice)