Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jayber Crow: Parable of the Kingdom of God

My introductory theology class here at Bellarmine is organized into three parts.  In the first part we look at the 'basics' of Christian theology, and do so through a close reading of Rowan Williams' Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian BeliefThis book is brief (only 159 pages), but deceptively so, for in it Williams provides his readers with an incredibly intricate and beautiful - almost poetic - account of Christian belief, using the Apostles' Creed as his framework.  One of the reasons I like this book so much is because of his emphasis on the centrality of Christian life being lived in community, that a community of self-giving, open, and generous love provides us with a glimpse not only of heaven, but of the inter-trinitarian life that God is.

In the second part of the course, we move on from Tokens of Trust to William Cavanaugh's Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, through which we examine the implications of Christian belief for concrete life, namely our economic decisions. His focus in the book is on combating an economy that is necessarily individualistic by becoming more fully human through communities that give abundant life to all through just economic decisions.

In the last part of the course I have students read Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow, a book to which I've referred previously on this blog.  To me, Jayber Crow is a parable of the Kingdom of God.  It is a novel told from the viewpoint of an unmarried barber in a fictional Kentucky town called Port William.  And the account Jayber gives of the community of Port William is one of the most beautiful accounts of the meaning and purpose of community I’ve ever read.  Not everyone in the community was loving or even lovely.  Some, like Cecelia Overhold, actually refuse to accept the generosity and openness of the town.  But the community itself held together because, whether you wanted it or not, you became known.  Jayber describes Port William as a place where your business simply is the business of everyone else, with the result that the community shares in your gains as well as in your losses.  It’s a community in which a crop is harvested for a sick farmer, where cooked food goes where it is needed, where fuel is provided to those who need it, where toys go to kids who wouldn’t have any otherwise.  “This is,” Jayber tells us, “a charity that includes the church rather than the other way around.”

Berry doesn’t have many kind words for the church in Jayber Crow.  The church in Port William frequently displays a kind of anti-community sentiment, an us-against-them attitude, and a body/soul dualism that always comes up for criticism from Berry.  The town is where real community occurs, because it is in the town that real love is demonstrated.

This is most clearly and beautifully expressed in the love Jayber has for Mattie.  Jayber, upon finding out that Mattie’s husband is cheating on her, decides that she deserves to have a husband who truly loves her and is faithful to her.  Jayber takes it upon himself to be that husband.  And so, tormented by the possibility that someone as worthy of love as Mattie is not, in this world, being given the love she deserves, Jayber decides to take a vow of fidelity to her in his own mind, without her being aware of it

It is telling to me that others often give me a look of incredulity or disgust when I talk about this vow of fidelity.  There is to many a sense that such a vow is strange, and perhaps even perverted.  But I would suggest that this vow is an expression of a completely selfless love, a love that is utterly giving, a love that exists solely for the sake of love.  And it is no accident that Jayber, upon taking this step of selfless love, suddenly comes to understand something profound about the nature of God:
“I imagined that the right name [for God] might be Father, and I imagined all that that name would imply: the love, the compassion, the taking offense, the disappointment, the anger, the bearing of wounds, the weeping of tears, the forgiveness, the suffering unto death. If love could force my own thoughts over the edge of the world and out of time, then could I not see how even divine omnipotence might by the force of its love be swayed down into the world? Could I not see how it might, because it could know its creatures only by compassion, put on moral flesh, become a man, and walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death?
Yes. And I could imagine a Father who is yet like a mother hen spreading her wings before the storm or in the dusk before the dark night for the little ones of Port William to come in under, some of whom do, and some do not. I could imagine Port William riding its humble wave through time under the sky, its little flames of wakefulness lighting and going out, its lives passing through birth, pleasure, suffering, and death. I could imagine God looking down upon it, its lives living by His spirit, breathing by His breath, knowing by His light, but each life living also (inescapably) by its own will - His own body given to be broken."
A barber in small-town Kentucky ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?") provides for us an image of true love, becomes truly a theologian with a more profound understanding of the divine than almost anything I've ever read.  And in articulating the meaning of love, Wendell Berry - through Jayber - provides a parable of true community, a community based on self-giving, generous, vulnerable, and open love.  If only the Church looked so much like paradise.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

The Catholic church has been in the news a great deal of late, and predominantly for unfortunate reasons.  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued an unfavourable doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) some weeks ago, and last week it censured Sr. Margaret Farley for her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (I have not read this book).

These two actions, coupled with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' continued focus on the issue of religious freedom (an issue many associate, rightly or wrongly, as being an argument about contraception), has led many within and without the church to raise questions about where the church is going, about the role and purpose of the hierarchy, about what it means to be church.

I don't intend here to articulate a position one way or another regarding the church's actions.  But I do want to express my concern about the level of discourse that takes place whenever issues such as these actions arise.  In the case of the LCWR, there's a segment of the American Catholic population who immediately assume the worst about the nuns and who question the validity of any who propose ideas that might stretch the boundaries of official church teaching.  On the other hand, there are those who immediately assume the worst about the Vatican, who characterize the actions of the CDF as being nothing more than an attempt to subjugate women.

In the midst of this polarization, I've very much appreciated the perspective of Fr. James Martin, S.J., a contributing editor for America magazine.  Over and over he has insisted to his readers that they give everyone - from the pope to Cardinal Levada to women religious themselves - the benefit of the doubt.  His sentiments were so clearly expressed in a prayer he posted on his Facebook page the evening before the LCWR meeting with the CDF, a meeting that occurred yesterday.  His prayer read as follows:
Dear God, tomorrow in Vatican City the leadership team from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will meet with Cardinal William Levada and Archbishop Peter Sartain at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. God, I know that all of the men and women at this meeting are devoted to your Son and want to serve your church as best they can. As they discuss the future of the LCWR, and of the tens of thousands of generous women religious in the United States, give them the spirit of "mutual understanding" that the Vatican spoke of today. Most of all, pour out your Holy Spirit on them so that they may all discern wisely, listen carefully to one another, and be aware, awake and attentive to the workings of grace. Help them make each decision in a spirit of love, respect and charity. Amen. [my emphasis]
What Fr. Martin emphasizes continually is that the people involved in these issues - all the people involved - are people who are endeavouring to serve and love God.  They all desire what is best for God's church, even if they have differing visions.  To give someone the benefit of the doubt is simply to understand that, first and foremost, these are people made in the image and likeness of God, immensely loved by God, who possess a surpassing value and limitless worth.  Simply to dismiss them is not an option, nor is such a dismissal compatible with the development of a well-formed conscience to which the church calls us.

Fr. Martin's call to thoughtful and charitable dialogue as well as to the careful development of conscience needs to be heeded, and I look forward to reading more of his editorials and his books.

Fr. Martin's contributions to a blog on the America website can be seen here.