Wendell Berry On Hell

Wendell Berry On Hell January 16, 2013

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.

Dear Ed,

I dreamed that you and I were sent to Hell.
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
would be a clear day in a place we would know.
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.

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  • Love this poem Tim. Had never seen it before. It is much gentler than my attempt some years ago:-

    Ode to the concept of Hell as a place of eternal suffering;
    The ultimate blasphemy of a loving God.
    David S. Ayliffe Saturday, 13 April 2002

    Hells Bells and flaming lies
    Repent or be damned!
    The preacher cries.

    Sweet the child’s face in the midst of the flames,
    So silent his screams, as silent his games.
    Four years old this little boy slain,
    Tortured now – forever in pain.
    His mother asks why? She can’t understand?
    The answer is simple. All in God’s plan.

    Hells Bells and flaming lies
    Repent or be damned!
    The preacher cries.

    In the Bible they say there’s answers for all.
    With peace and joy and all to enthral.
    But the woman’s breast aches
    As her mother’s heart breaks
    For the loss of a son who died without peace,
    Her tiny boy whose strife will not cease.

    Hells Bells and flaming lies
    Repent or be damned!
    The preacher cries.

    God’s ministers preach of the wonderful love
    Of the Saviour who came from heaven above.
    He bore our sins on his back on the tree,
    And he died of his love for you and for me.
    He died for a people who did not deserve
    His actions, our life, there to conserve.

    Hells Bells and flaming lies
    Repent or be damned!
    The preacher cries.

    Such love, so great, is beyond what I know,
    I cannot conceive that God loves me so.
    It’s a story so great, it stills our breath,
    Gives meaning to life and even to death.
    Yet mother’s tears fall down to the earth,
    As her agonised child suffers new birth.

    Hells Bells and flaming lies
    Repent or be damned!
    The preacher cries.

    Now the Commandant God stands in the tower
    Watching the pain of an infinite hour.
    Where suffering continues on without end,
    There’s no room for mercy, no souls to tend.
    Auswich was cruel, yet terribly kind
    Compared to justice so horribly blind.

    Hells Bells and flaming lies
    Repent or be damned!
    The preacher cries.

    A Mother rises, stands up from the plaque,
    Which now she sees as her dear son’s ark.
    “My God’s name” she cries out “is LOVE”
    “My son is kept in the womb of the dove.”
    Hell cannot be the place that blasphemes,
    The nature of God who loves to extremes.

    Hells Bells and flaming lies
    Be damned to the message
    The preacher cries!