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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wendell Berry and pastoral theology - Part 2

As promised I will provide a sketch of another pastoral encounter in a Wendell Berry novel, this time from A Place on Earth, a novel in which land and community in the small Kentucky village of Port William are closely engaged against the backdrop of World War 2, the absence of young men from the
community serving overseas.

This story is more substantial than the interview I discussed previously and provides a more complex and nuanced account of the interactions between the people involved. What it shares with the first story is the fact that the people who are the supposed recipients of pastoral care are active agents in the encounter and challenge the expectations of the minister who expects to be in control. Not only is he not in control but he is a subject who has to respond to the actions of those who he expects to be the subjects of his visit.

The elements of the story that I want to draw attention to comes at the point at which the news gets around the community that Virgil Feltner is missing in action and the minister Brother Preston comes to pay a visit to Matt and Margaret Feltner his parents and his wife Hannah, who is pregnant and living with her in-laws. Matt it should be noted featured in previous incident in part 1 of the blog on this topic. Berry titles this episode involving the pastoral visit "A Comforter". Berry offers three accounts of how this visit was experienced and understood. The first is a direct description in which the progress of the visit is reported from the perspective of its direct impact on the four people directly involved.

Early Wednesday afternoon Brother Preston leaves the parsonage and walks across town to the Feltner house, ... The town is shut against the weather, and quiet except for the sounds everywhere of water dripping and running. He meets no one along the road. There is no sign of life at the Feltners' either.
 ... He draws a small black leather Testament out of his coat pocket , faces the door and knocks. His knock is itself an act of ministerial discretion; the sound is perfectly modulated, both quiet and loud enough.  As he waits he continues to face the door, standing erect , lifting himself slightly forward now and then onto the balls of his feet, patting the little Testament with a sort of casual correctness against the palm of his hand.
The door is opened by Margaret Feltner.
She smiles, greets him, moves aside from the entrance in welcome. The openness of her welcome is a little disconcerting; she is putting him at his ease - which is not why he has come. He senses that she has anticipated him, forseen his coming and his purpose, but greets him now on her terms, not his. (p.95)
The minister sits down while Mat is called back by Margaret from the barn.

Out of the sound of her voice - not speaking to him now, remote from him - and out of the look and atmosphere of the room where he sits, there comes to him the sense of the completeness of this household, the belonging together of Mat and Margaret Feltner, the generosity of these people, in which there is maybe no need form him. He is alone in his mission, which whole in itself surrounds him with its demands and isolates him. Uneasiness coming over him, a swift tremor, he thinks of the burden of his duty. And then, as though under the pressure of his own hand, he knows his old submission to the mastering of this duty and he knows he will do it. (p.96)
 While waiting for Mat the preacher sits talking with the two women about trifles, by unspoken mutual agreement staying clear of their feelings and the shared understanding of the purpose of the visit. The preacher is not unaware of the emotions and the body language of the two women and Berry portrays him as in many ways very aware of the unspoken messages. Watching Margaret ...

He believes that he sees in her face the marks of her grief for her son - but no sign that she expects to be comforted, or asks to be.  ... To Brother Preston, it is as if something in her leans in waiting, not for him to begin the business of his visit but for Mat. (p.97)

When Mat..returns from the barn the conversation remains at the level of pastime which as Berry observes ...  moves by no force of its own but by a determination in all of them against silence.(p.97)  The preacher struggles with hesitation feeling that he is failing in his duty. Finally he moves into a break in the conversation ... "My friends, I've come because I know of your trouble".

But he has begun and he goes on hastened like a man walking before a strong wind, moved no longer by his own intention but by the force of what he is saying.  His eyes have become detached from his hearers; he might be speaking from his pulpit now, looking at all, seeing none. But beneath the building edifice of  his meaning, he is aware of something falling between them. It is as though in the very offering of comfort to them he departs from them. And now he is hastened also by an urgency of haste. He feels the force of his voice is turning back toward himself, that he is fleeing from the safe coherence of his own words, away from those faces shut between him and their pain. He speaks into their silence like a man carrying a map in a strange country in the dark.(p.98)
Mat in his response of listening to the preacher is aware of his need to bear with Margaret and Hannah what he is coming to accept through the fear that he is acknowledging will be the loss of their son Virgil. The  preacher's voice is by this stage riding above mortal and worldly hope, moving toward rest in the hope of Heaven.

In the preacher's words the Heavenly city has risen up, surmounting their lives,  ... the final hope in which all the riddles and ends of the world are gathered, illuminated and bound. This is the preacher's hope, and  he is moved to it alone, outside the claims of time and sorrow, by the motion of desire which he calls faith. In it having invoked it and raised it up, he is free of the world.
Mat in Berry's account is not free to engage with this hope as announced by the preacher. Berry here is moving it seems to me by the impulse towards tracing out tine implications of the incarnation as opposed to the dangers of the unintentional but nevertheless real evangelical gnosticism of the preacher.
He (Mat) is doomed to hope in this world, in the bonds of his own love. ... His hope of Heaven, must be the hope of a man bound to the world that his life is not ultimately futile, or ultimately meaningless, a hope more burdening than despair.
It is from this possibility of meaninglessness that the preacher has retreated. So that the earth will not be plunged into darkness, he has lifted up the Heavenly City and hastened to refuge in its gates. and Mat in the act of leaning toward that restfulness, turns away from it to take back his pain. (p.99)
The preacher as the interview comes to a close feels that he is the subject of the generosity of Margaret and Hannah ... that they are offering to him, out of some kind of hospitality, the safe abstraction of his belief. (p.99)




The second perspective on the visit comes later when Brother Preston returns to the church and reflects on the visit.

He came away from the Feltner house grieved by the imperfection of his visit. It was not as he hoped it would be, a conversation, It was a sermon. this is the history of his life in Port William. The Word, in his speaking it, fails to be made flesh.  ... He belongs to the governance of those he ministers to without belonging to their knowledge, the bringer of the Word preserved from flesh. (P.101)


The third perspective comes in a letter from Burley Coulter in a letter to his nephew Nathan Coulter serving overseas and reflects Burley's presumption as to how the interview went based on his experience with the minister following the death of his older nephew Tom.

Wednesday after the news had pretty well got around, I seen Brother Piston going in up there at Mat's. And I says to Jayber "I know the speech he's going to make". And so would all of us. He came and said all that to me after we knew Tom was dead. and none of it quite fit.  ... Here in away he came to say the last words over Tom. And what claim did he have to do it? He never done a day's work with us in his life, nor could have. He never did stand up in his ache and sweat and go down the row with us. He never tasted any of our sweat in the water jug. And I was thinking, Preacher, who are you to speak of Tom to me, who him and knew the very smell of him?
And he sat there in your granddaddy's chair, with his consolations and his old speech,. Just putting our names in the blanks. and I thought, Preacher, he's dead, he's not here, and you'll never know what it is that's gone. (p.104)
Berry leaves us with a rich account of the complexity of what is going on in these pastoral conversations. There is no doubt that he places a strong emphasis on the limits of what the minister has to contribute. What he leave us with is an emphasis on the active role of those who are suffering grief and loss. That there is a mutuality in the encounter cannot be doubted and that underlying this is a strong ecclesiology - not of the institutional church but of membership of a community of people committed to a common place, a common purpose and the good work of sharing a life, work, food, joy and grief and  an accountability for the care of the land that they are part of.

But that brings me to some broader theological issues in the work of Wendell Berry and that will have to wait  as i anticipated for part 3 of this blog.







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