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The holiness of place
Both the contemporary poet Wendell Berry and the Iron-Age writers of the psalms evoke the sacredness of ordinary space and of ordinary work, writes Ellen F. Davis.
November 17, 2009 | Editor’s note: The following is the concluding section of “The Poetry of Care and Loss,” given by Ellen F. Davis on Oct. 27, 2009, at Duke Divinity School as her inaugural lecture as the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology.
In the lecture, Davis discusses how the poetry of Wendell Berry, Anne Porter and Mary Oliver has enabled her to appreciate the traditional functions of poetry and see them at work in the psalms.
“Often, our theology does not have sufficient poetry.” John Chryssavgis
“Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart.” Mary Oliver
The holiness of place
Wendell Berry, like Mary Oliver, is a consummately local writer. Nearly every piece of his poetry, fiction and essays takes as its chief subject the place he knows best, his Kentucky hillside farm and its immediate neighborhood. While Oliver focuses on the life of wild creatures, Berry attends most closely to what has been placed within the realm of human care:
The bounds of the field bind
the mind to it. A bride
adorned, the field now wears
the green veil of a season’s
Berry has various counterparts among the psalmists, who celebrate the bounty of the Israelite field: grain, wine and oil, flocks of sheep and goats. One, the poet of Psalm 37, is, like Berry, especially sensitive to the economic vulnerability of small farmers and the loss of blessing that attends the loss of land. Five times Psalm 37 affirms, va‘anavim yirshu-’aretz, “the lowly [or “vulnerable”] shall inherit land.” In verse 18, the psalmist affirms that their “inheritance” shall endure forever (venaḥalatam le‘olam tehieh) -- naḥalah, the plot of arable land that was the intergenerational holding (ideally speaking) of every Israelite family. It seems that Jesus himself pondered this psalm, since that repeated phrase appears in the Beatitudes, where we generally render it, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) Have we lost something essential with that less material, and therefore less economically freighted, translation?
I would judge the strongest link between Berry and the psalmists to be their shared conviction about the holiness of place. That conviction is so basic to Berry’s self-understanding that he gives himself this advice in “How to Be a Poet”:
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
[He mentions electronic screens, for instance.]
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Here we have come to an area of mass insensitivity for urban Western Christians. The secularity of place is part of our cultural mindset -- or more accurately, it is the gap in our mental frame that destabilizes the whole structure. For most of us, place is little more than real estate, wherever we happen to be paying rent or a mortgage at any given time. Therefore the biblical insistence that God can invest hopes and dreams in a particular place, can even make a kind of home on this earth, is incomprehensible and often offensive.
“I simply don’t believe that Jerusalem is different from any other place,” a theological student once said to me -- unaware perhaps of how fully he was distinguishing himself from virtually all the biblical writers. The holiness of Zion is one foundational aspect of the scandal of particularity and concreteness that pervades the Bible and for Christians culminates in the incarnation of the Godhead in a Jewish male. The psalms are the locus classicus of the doctrine of Zion’s holiness; many of them celebrate Zion, or conversely, lament its loss.
Read along with Berry’s poems, the songs of Zion could be instrumental in reviving a cultural sensitivity to the claims that places make upon us as people of faith. If we can appreciate, even a little, what the holiness of Jerusalem might mean, then we have a chance of seeing other places as holy. If one place is sacramental, then perhaps every place, provided we learn to revere it, may yield access to grace.
Many of Berry’s Sabbath poems are laments for a landscape misused or lost, especially for “the lamed woods” whose great trees have been felled in the careless stripping of the vast forest of the Cumberland Plateau:
The burden of absence grows, and I pay
daily the grief I owe to love
for women and men, days and trees
I will not know again. Pray
for the world’s light thus borne away.
Pray for the little songs that wake and move.
The point for those who pray is that lamentation is local work. It must attach to particular places and lives, because lamentation is the debt the faithful pay to love. At the same time, to grieve for a place is work that is more than personal:
To live to mourn an ancient woodland, known
Always, loved with an old love handed down,
That is a grief that will outlast the griever,
Grief as a landmark, grief as a wearing river
That in its passing stays…