The Highest and the Lowest
“…And so the highest
and the lowest stories are made one
in his mind in his work, clumsily,
difficulty as may be, day by day.”
–Wendell Barry, Sabbath V, 2013–
When I was thirteen years old, I made a commitment simultaneously monumental and unnoticeable. I had walked from home down to our church to go to Confession one Saturday afternoon. As I sat in the cool dark church praying a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers after confession, I couldn’t seem to keep my mind on track. Almost constantly, it seemed, I’d catch my thoughts swimming away down some tangential stream and reel them in—but only to have them slip my line again. As I drew to the close of this rather frustrating and apparently fruitless attempt at prayer, I was struck by a thought that, to me at thirteen, came as something of a revelation—or a large flapping fish to the face, to maintain my metaphor. I stood up, faced the altar and crucifix, then slowly and purposefully made the Sign of the Cross. From this point on, I told myself, my life would be a prayer. Of course, like a wandering mind, I would often fail to stay focused, but my goal would be to maintain, for the rest of my life, a constant orientation toward the Trinity Whose name I had just invoked.
Looking back, this action has been both unnoticeable and monumental, as I mentioned above. I very much doubt that my friends and family noticed any particular change in my life, my character, or my attitude at that time. The commitment mattered personally—in fact, as far as I can recall, this is the first time I’ve ever spoken of it to anyone. So, in one sense, life carried on as usual. However, it also mattered personally. I can remember the seat in which I sat that day (fourth to the left from the center aisle in the back row), the thoughts that distracted me (a dream from the night before of my aunt flying a plane), the words I said (“Lord, I’m beginning this prayer in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I’m not going to stop it.”), the excitement I felt to start a new chapter of my life. I think of it often, returning to it as a reminder and a goad in times of weakness or laziness. It matters.
Now, to my mind there are a great many similarities between my young conception of life as prayer and the intentionality espoused by the Organic Prayer Program. An intentional life, much like my commitment to live out a prayer, seeks to establish an orientation toward an ultimate end that structures and pervades every action. To unpack the ways in which such an orientation could take shape in our lives, I’m going to turn—unsurprisingly—to Wendell Berry and to my mother.
In Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, the titular narrator reflects on his life as the bachelor barber of Port William, a small Kentucky town. He explores, with all the slow meanderings of a river, the contrasts and apparent oppositions that make up so much of human life. With beauty and stateliness, he shows the agony and the ecstasy of living on the edge of Heaven and Hell, eternity and time, community and isolation. Through the development and description of the sort of life that can unite all these contrasting pairs, Berry offers hope. Despite the loneliness and isolation of Jayber’s life, despite the disintegration and destruction of Port William’s community, despite the sorrow and suffering and senselessness of the events of the story, despite all the Hell that is life on earth, there is still “a light that includes our darkness, a day that shines down even on the clouds” . This light and day—this hope—comes from love. While there are many beautiful reflections on love sprinkled throughout the book, here is one that, to my mind, eloquently points toward the strange unity of human life “on the edge”:
“But love, sooner or later, forces us out of time. It does not accept that limit. Of all that we feel and do, all the virtues and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge of the world. For love is always more than a little strange here… It is in the world but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there when it most holds us here” .
“It takes us there when it most holds us here.” Love, then, holds us tightly to the face of the earth yet hurls us heavenward. It grounds us yet uplifts us. It is wholly human yet utterly divine. It is a tree whose downward rooting mirrors its upward reaching.
This image—a tree moving into the earth and up to the sky simultaneously and co-dependently—deserves a bit more reflection. The roots go down and out in order that the leaves might find the sunlight. The sunlight’s energy, in turn, passes down to the roots, causing them plunge even deeper. And, again, the deepening roots push the crown up higher.
I realize, of course, that this is not a picture of all trees, and certainly not of all photosynthesizing organisms, but it does illustrate an important characteristic of the type of love that concerns Jayber and me. To see this, note that the end or goal of the tree is the upward reaching—the downward rooting is a means to that end. However, I hurry to add, it is an intrinsic and integral means. That is, while the tree’s “purpose,” so to speak, is to gain energy from the sun, it cannot accomplish this without harmonizing its upward and downward movements. The end and the means, the crown and the roots, are inseparable from one another. Similarly, our love’s grounding in the world has, as its end, a Love beyond this world. That Love “over the edge of the world,” however, reflexively causes a deepening of love in the world. Like the tree’s growth up and down, the love beyond and the love within the world are distinct but inextricably united. “It takes us there when it most holds us here.”
While I think I am on the right track with this development of Berry’s theme of unity through love, I don’t think that I have yet addressed how love both “takes us there” and “holds us here.” To see an answer to that question, consider the relationship of my mother to my youngest sister, Rosie. There is no aspect of Mom’s life about which you could say, “It’s irrelevant here that she is Rosie’s mother.” Those words just wouldn’t make sense. Her love and care for Rosie transform every dimension of her life. (To be fair to me and to my other siblings, this is true of Mom for all of us. I’m simply focusing on Rosie because it’s currently most obvious in her case as the baby of the family.) Mom is a new person.
As I see it, the relationship of mother to child exemplifies the call for personal transformation implicit in both the OPP’s intentionality and my youthful vision of life as a prayer. I’ve characterized both of these in terms of an orientation or an end. However, as in the case of my mother and sister, we see that any orientation that comes from love requires the recreation of the lover in response to the beloved. Just as a tree needs to put down deep roots in order to grow taller, so also my mom had to change herself in order to reach out in love to Rosie. Mom’s love for Rosie is inseparable from her inner transformation, but that love is the end that creates and feeds the transformation. The personal changes, in their turn, become the intrinsic means which make that love real and incarnate.
The union of ends and means in love that I’ve described here seems to be an accurate unfolding of intentionality and of life-as-prayer. It also, I believe, sheds some light on the claim I made in my last post: “It is in our work that we… pray.” Now I would say: our work is our prayer only insofar as our whole life is our prayer; that is, insofar as our striving love for God causes us to commit ourselves ever more deeply to the people and places that confront and surround us. Just as my mom’s love for her children reconstitutes her whole life—transforming her into a new person—so, also, my desire to live out my life as a prayer calls for me to become a “new creation in Christ Jesus.” The beauty of it all is that, after this recreation, we are left standing precisely where we were—with our heads a little higher and our feet more firmly planted, like a tree.
I suppose that everything I’ve said is just another way of saying: “And the second is like it.”
A few notes:
- I believe that I have, in large part, simply reinvented the wheel in this reflection. However, truth seems the better part of novelty, so I hope that you’ll forgive me.
- I told Mom about the example of her relationship to Rosie. Here’s her response: “…Seriously though, when I think it over, I believe you are correct because there is no longer an Erin who is not a mother, so all situations I find myself in proceed from that truth (which does not, unfortunately, mean that I necessarily make a more mature or selfless response—but I do go to confession as Mom rather than Erin). Same is true for marriage actually… I don’t mean the situations proceed from my being a mother, but that all my responses do, even if not consciously.”
- In addition to Berry’s novel and poem quoted above, I drew heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue for this reflection. I hope to explore soon the connections between intentionality, prayer, and virtue. Although less explicitly present in what I’ve written, I also had Kierkegaard and Deacon Phil bumping around in the back of my mind quite a bit.