When despair for the world grows in meWendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I was listening to the new episode of the Dark Horse podcast, hosted by Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, and they read this poem by Wendell Berry. I already knew Berry as an essayist, though I haven’t read him extensively. Berry is a farmer, writer, and a Christian. This was the first time I heard one of his poems. And while I am not often one who reads poetry, there are times when I appreciate it. This was one of those times.
Our world is an uncertain one. There are wars and rumours of war. There is pestilence. There is cultural division. There are political scandals and missteps. There are people in our own country angry with one another. There is relational dysfunction in our communities and homes. Some people are lonely. Some are bitter. Some struggle to give and receive love. There are reasons to be afraid and confused. There are reasons to be frustrated. We live in a time where it takes a special kind of paying attention to notice what Berry calls “the grace of the world.” Or perhaps that was always the case.
As a parent of three teenagers, I can’t begin to imagine what their future holds. The acceleration of change in our world has entirely eclipsed what I knew growing up. While I don’t normally wake in the night with worry about the world my kids will have to face, I certainly cannot hope to predict it either. So much lies outside of my control–and theirs.
So what do we do as go about life from day to day in this world, being aware as we are of the tumult of nations and our indefinite future? What does it mean that I can spend an evening making a meal, doing dishes, and being with my family, while across the globe the people of Ukraine grieve the loss of their freedom and families in the midst of violent invasion?
Berry’s poem reminds me in some ways of Psalm 23. In both, the poet lies down in “the presence of still water,” all while in the shadow of grief, of death and fear, and enemies. And that’s how it always is in this world. Joy is often mingled with grief. Seasons of peace are met with seasons of upset.
And in both the poet is led into a place of wild things. Berry takes solace in the presence of nature and God’s creatures and David the shepherd boy is led by the Lord–the Good Shepherd–beside quiet streams. In both, the poet removes himself, either literally or metaphorically, from civilization, the everyday (and sometimes anxiety-ridden) busyness of life. Both place themselves in a position of receptivity to a greater, larger voice and presence, one that comes to all of us if we are but willing to listen. Like Jesus says, I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me . . . The sheep follow him because they know his voice (John 10:4, 14). Jesus the Good Shepherd is the same shepherd we find in Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd;
I have what I need.
He lets me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside quiet waters.
He renews my life;
he leads me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even when I go through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—they comfort me.
You prepare a table before mePsalm 23
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
as long as I live.
I don’t have any answers for the big problems of the world. I don’t know what political solutions can peacefully resolve what’s happening in Ukraine. I don’t know what can heal the divisions in our country. And I don’t always know how to help the people around me who are obviously in pain. I do believe that ultimately only God himself can end all wars, relieve all fears, heal all wounds, and fulfill all hopes that have their origin in him. And I believe that one day he will bring a new kingdom, one where there is no conflict and anger, where death no longer exacts its debilitating toll of fear that bankrupts so many lives. Of course, I do not know when this will happen. I do not know the arrival date of the new heavens and new earth. All in God’s time according to God’s wisdom.
For now, then, I have the task and privilege of making the best of it in this sin-drenched world. I am grateful, therefore, that as a person of faith I see with different eyes–or that I continue learning to. I hear the laughter of my sons and daughter. I gaze at my wife’s smile whose beauty the years has only deepened. I listen to music that contains echoes of eternity. I read a book that invites me into deeper layers of reflection. I exchange words in conversation that open me up to someone else’s story, however incompletely. I glimpse the world God has made while shovelling some of it out of my driveway. I pray and worship and spend time with brothers and sisters in Christ at church and at other times, glad that we’re not alone as we traverse this sometimes difficult territory. Paying attention to all of these things–taking pleasure in them as gifts given by my Lord and Creator–is this not what Berry means by finding “rest in the grace of the world”? I believe that it is. And I also believe, as he does, that this is what it means to be free.