I ran across a video today of Wendell Berry reading a couple poems from his collection of poems called Leavings. I thought it looked familiar and realized that I was in the audience in Louisville, KY the evening this clip was filmed. It’s from the Louisville Institute Sabbatical Consultation in 2010. It was one of the most stimulating weekends I’ve had in my lifetime. We were treated to two days of conversation with Norman Wirzba and an evening with Wendell Berry.
After the reading Berry was signing books and I had him sign my copy of Leavings. He asked me where I was from & when I told him I was from Salina, Kansas he nearly jumped out of his skin. We spent five minutes or so talking about Wes Jackson, the Land Institute, and how beautiful Kansas is. He lamented that these days nobody thought it was possible to drive across Kansas without a DVD player to distract them from its beauty (disguised as monotony). I asked him if he gets back there much and he said he didn’t. “I’m like a high school girl anymore,” pause for effect, “I say ‘no’ to everything.”
If Berry were writing the aphorism, “Hell is other people,” would become “Hell is busy people.”
Just before he starts to read, Berry says, “Hell is in business here all the time… heaven too, or we couldn’t stand it.” This is a tip of the hat to one of the central teachings of Jesus, that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Hell is in business all the time. We can choose to live that life. Many do. Heaven’s in business as well, or else all would be hell. Jesus was constantly pointing us to this realization, encouraging those he perceived were “very near the kingdom of God.” Richard Rohr often says it this way: “It’s heaven all the way to heaven; it’s hell all the way to hell.” I think Berry’s poem on hell is heaven. Below is the text of the poem and a video of WB reading.
The place we went to was not fiery
or cold, was not Dante’s Hell orMilton’s,
but was, even so, as true a Hell as any.
It was a place unalterably public
in which crowds of people were rushing
in weary frenzy this way and that,
as when classes change in a university
or at quitting time in a city street,
except that this place was wider far
than we could see, and the crowd as large
as the place. In that crowd every one
was alone. Every one was hurrying.
Nobody was sitting down. Nobody
was standing around. All were rushing
so uniformly frantic, that to average them
would have stood them still. It was a place
deeply disturbed. We thought, you and I,
that we might get across and come out
on the other side, if we stayed together,
only if we stayed together. The other side
We joined hands and hurried along,
snatching each other through small openings
in the throng. But the place was full
of dire distractions, dire satisfactions.
We were torn apart, and I found you
breakfasting upon a huge fried egg.
I snatched you away: “Ed! Come on!”
And then, still susceptible, I met
a lady whose luster no hell could dim.
She took all my thought. But then,
in the midst of my delight, my fear
returned: “Oh! Damn it all! Where’s Ed?”
I fled, searching, and found you again.
We went on together. How this ended
I do not know. I woke before it could end.
But, old friend, I want to tell you
how fine it was, what a durable
nucleus of joy it gave my fright
to force that horrid way with you, how
heavenly, let us say, in spite of Hell.
Do you want to know why
you were distracted by an egg, and I
by a beautiful lady? That’s Hell.