Ragan Sutterfield Book, Wendell Berry and the Given Life

Sutterfield cover croppedWe all get asked now and again, “What are you reading?” In the past year or so I’ve read, among other titles, Seeking Jesus in Everyday Life; Teresa of Avila, the Book of My Life; and Gerard Manley Hopkins; the Major Works.

Of late, I’ve enjoyed Ragan Sutterfield’s wonderful new book Wendell Berry and the Given Life (Franciscan Media, 2017). I’ve never read any of Berry’s (prolific!) writings—for a garden lady in her sixties that’s hard to believe—and was delighted by author Ragan Sutterfield’s collection of essays about the philosopher.

The author’s compilations of Berry’s expansive writings fostered an understanding of the relationship of humans and nature. Each chapter distills a topic—such as givenness, work, economics, or language and peacableness—weaving together Berry’s thoughts with other Christian writers.

Sutterfield synthesizes Wendell Berry’s writings and his vision that our world and our life are gifts to be lived in and through a moral compass focused on ‘the other’, our neighbor. Much of the book fitted neatly with my Benedictine experience of living a virtuous life in a world often neglectful of those spiritual principles.

There is the humility of our creatureliness that comes through a reflective wisdom of interdependence, as Berry says “…that is born from soil…and home.” As Sutterfield’s essays highlight, Berry emphasizes the importance of stability and community of place.

We have come, as Elizabeth Scalia has written, to a generation of strange gods, where ‘virtual community’ is only one step away from imaginary. Sutterfield’s book reminds us of Wendell Berry’s conviction that we are designed to reach out—in our place, whether city dweller or along farm lanes—and touch our neighbor, our land, and embrace our Lord within the creation we were given.

Sutterfield’s lovely collection of essays was a help to me in that it brought together, concisely and cohesively, the nearly overwhelming abundance of Wendell Berry’s written works. The author masterfully weaves together Berry’s philosophies and makes it easy for the reader to see the truths of “a given life”. I am grateful for Sutterfield’s new work and my introduction to Wendell Berry through it.

Joy in Dying, Looking Beyond the Light of Day

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Image by Pixel2013, pixabay.com, CCO public domain.

Short of a miracle, my friend will be gone within the year. There is no question about his diagnosis, cholangiocarcinoma. No question of the prognosis either—as of this writing, only five to ten months left this side of the grave. Surprisingly, while he is not happy to leave his wife and children, he feels blessed.

Over the past several weeks he has shared this journey and his views at parishes as part of Lenten programs. I have not walked the path of a terminal diagnosis, and find some of what he talks about…challenging. I try not to focus on what is sorrowful, finding a different wisdom from my soon-to-pass friend.

Some of what he’s shared…

A terminal diagnosis grants the unique opportunity to say goodbye, to make funeral arrangements with priests and plan a Requiem Mass. For the dying there is time—though limited—to connect with friends, to reconcile if needed, and to speak of love in ways previously unexpressed.  There is a liberation. To the ones left behind, the transition through grief is tempered.

On the other hand, an unexpected death—accident, heart attack, stroke, suicide—jars family and friends unprepared for the separation. There is rarely joy in a sudden death.

The other night he shared the story of a woman who was first on the scene of a fatal accident. The semi-truck driver was shaken but unhurt; but another car lay upside-down in the field. As she ran to help, she recognized the car as her teenage son’s. He was sprawled on the ground a few feet away, and would die in her arms before paramedics arrived. We can only imagine the initial horror of that mother. And yet, the story told that she in that moment of profound grief found joy. Holding her child, as he looked to his mother and took his last breath, she was fully present, desiring no other place.

Each of us is journeying towards eternity. Whether or not we know when that time will come, we are called “…to live holy the present moment.” (St. Gianna Molla) There is a grace, what that mother shared in her experience, in living holy the moment—no matter the challenges—and being fully present.

In the light of day, we can see the beauty that is near. There is happiness in, as Wendell Berry says, the “given life.” But for all the gifts from God we can see in the light of day, our vision is limited to a certain distance, only about three miles.

The joy that comes in facing death, in our darkest moments, is like—as a priest had said—looking into the night sky. There in the darkness, without the light of day keeping us focused on earthly things, we can see past our immediate world and into eternity.

I can only pray when faced with the end of life that, as my friend has modeled, to have such clarity—our ultimate goal IS to go home to God. This is the joy of dying; to enter the darkness and eagerly anticipate the embrace beyond the stars.

Image by Pixel2013, pixabay.com, CCO Public Domain.