I recently finished my first book by Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and read it). There’s a specific conversation that occurs between Jayber and one of his professors at the college he’s attending as a “pre-ministerial student.” He wants to leave; he no longer wants to be a preacher, bothered by too many contradictions and unanswered questions, unable to even pray. So, Jayber approaches the professor (Dr. Ardmire) he is most afraid to go to, because he knows the man will tell the truth. Here’s the conversation that occurs.
“So,” I said, “I reckon what it all comes down to is, how can I preach if I don’t have any answers?”
“Yes, Mr. Crow,” he said. “How can you?”
…I said, “Well,” for now I was ashamed, “I had this feeling maybe I had been called.”
“And you may have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out–perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”
There’s something about this short conversation that hasn’t left me alone. It’s a voice that keeps speaking: “Theology, spirituality, faith, belief, cannot be detached from lived experience.”
What contradictions and paradoxes are you unable to reconcile? What questions are you begging to have answered? Instead of receiving answers, it could be that “you will have to live them out–perhaps a little at a time.”
As the book moves along, Jayber slowly begins and continues to live out the answers to his questions during his life in Port William, Kentucky. He receives spiritual revelation and insight through his everyday, lived experiences. In a moment of epiphany, long after leaving the college, he answers his professor from the very heart of these lived experiences:
Sometimes in my mind I would be setting again in Dr. Ardmire’s office…I finally knew, I told him, why Christ’s prayer in the garden could not be granted. He had been seeded and birthed into human flesh. He was one of us. (Once He had become mortal, He could not become immortal except by dying. That He prayed that prayer at all showed how human He was. That He knew it could not be granted showed His divinity; that He prayed it anyhow showed His mortality, His mortal love of life that His death made immortal.) And I could see Dr. Ardmire looking straight at me with that distant, amused light in his eyes, and I could hear him say, “Well. And now what?”
Well. And now what?
If God loves the world, might that not be proved in my own love for it? I prayed to know in my heart His love for the world, and this was my most prideful, foolish, and dangerous prayer. It was my step into the abyss. As soon as I prayed it, I knew that I would die. I knew the old wrong and the death that lay in the world. Just as a good man would not coerce the love of his wife, God does not coerce the love of His human creatures, not for Himself or for the world or for one another. To allow that love to exist fully and freely, He must allow it not to exist at all. His love is suffering. It is our freedom and His sorrow. To love the world as much even as I could love it would be suffering also, for I would fail. And yet all the good I know is in this, that a man might so love the world that it would break his heart.
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