Building Sacred Ground with Wendell Berry

A spiritual classroom report.

On September 25, 2017 I dreamed I was in an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse. Poet, novelist, and farmer Wendell Berry was at the blackboard writing away with a stick of chalk. His first lines were written in Hebrew and then he changed to Greek. Inside these sentences I noticed several words written in English but they were too faded to clearly distinguish. As he wrote and talked, he looked like he did when I first met him over thirty years ago. I have long valued his special way of teaching people how to live the truth that we are small and inseparable from it all.

Wendell Berry has always honored divine mystery and the complexity of systems, knowing that we can never reduce things to simple methods and interventions without risk of fractionating and harming the whole ecology. This is as true for agriculture as it is for spirituality and human relationships. I spent my whole career in psychotherapy advancing an eco-systemic approach to working with human suffering, only to see this vital wisdom get laid to waste by every so-called helping profession, including the family therapists who once claimed to be its guardians. Wendell Berry has experienced equal frustration challenging the profit-driven insanity of Big Ag as Hillary and I have experienced when challenging the profit-driven ignorance of psychotherapy and Big Pharma:

I think there really is something like a national insanity, this fiction we have that we are living in a service and knowledge economy is insane–just horribly misleading and dangerous. Because of course we live in, and from, the land economy. . . . There are heard-headed realists now who think you’re a sentimentalist for talking this way—a bucolic idiot. But of course you’re not, as I have to keep reminding myself. . . . It’s been clear for a long time that the powers that be were not going to hear this argument–that they were not going to be reachable by the mere sanity of saying that we live from the land economy. Still, one is called upon to keep saying it. But maybe it’s instructive to be thrown back repeatedly on the need to make an act of faith, and one shouldn’t complain.[1]

These are the words of a man who lives on sacred ground. I’m not referring to his Kentucky farm, but the foundation he has built through finding value in the need to act on faith. There is always the choice to take our battles and our suffering and make fertilizer out of them, rather than use them as another excuse for remaining distant from bigger wisdom and deeper sensitivity.

Berry once proposed that if we take our spiritual life seriously then we must face “an entirely humbling question: How must we live and work so as to not be estranged from God’s presence?”[2] In case that question has you stymied, Berry answers with this:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.[3]

Not a man to placate or be wishy-washy, Berry wisely recognized that, “You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.”[4] He taught me that whether you are teaching, doctoring, ministering, or running a farm, don’t be so eager to create a “big business,” for such a perspective carries the pompous arrogance of over simplification that invalidates whatever truth and vitality was originally present in one’s endeavor. When the agricultural powers that be told Berry and his fellow small farmers to “get big or get out,” they countered with the axiom “get small and stay in.”[5]

In general we live in a time that that exalts bigness in the form of excess wealth, military power, box stores, and social media popularity. Even large, “perfect” fruits and vegetables are favored in the grocery aisle. Arguably more problematic is the insidious exaltation of a big self in charge of making its own destiny, taking on the world one selfie and “personal branding” opportunity at a time. When the primary frame of reference is the individual self – improving it, understanding it, reflecting on it, “embracing” it, etc.—the ground of our life is shrunken and impoverished. What else then must we aim for in life? Berry responds in Hannah Coulter:

“You mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”

Wendell Berry has always been a praying man and he brings us a wisdom that is contrary to the naïve and oversimplified “positive thinking” of our time that somehow assumes spirituality is primarily about feeling good and avoiding suffering. God’s will is not necessarily your will. Reflecting on The Lord’s Prayer, he wrote in Jayber Crow:

“This, I thought, is what is meant by ‘thy will be done’ in the Lord’s Prayer, which I had prayed time and again without thinking about it. It means that your will and God’s will may not be the same. It means there’s a good possibility that you won’t get what you pray for. It means that in spite of your prayers you are going to suffer.”

Hard work, discipline, civility, contrariness, joy, suffering, tears, and song are all required in a life lived on sacred ground and close to God. In the dream I thought I noticed some of Berry’s other key words and themes that appeared and disappeared amidst the chalk: “conversation,” “conviviality,” “company,” “home,” “laughter,” and “land.” Wendell Berry does not mine and exploit the earth, or its creatures or its spirits, to serve his desires. He has always emphasized our interdependence and our smallness in relationship to God and all of creation. Quoting St. Paul, Berry said, “We are members of one another.”[6] In this wholeness, inter-relatedness, and ecological interactivity we find the dynamic behind life: constant movement and change. We leave you with Berry’s sacred ground building poem-prayer:

Thrush song, stream song, holy love
That flows through earthly forms and folds,
The song of Heaven’s Sabbath fleshed
In throat and ear, in stream and stone,
A grace living here as we live,
Move my mind now to that which holds
Things as they change.[7]


-The Keeneys. September 28, 2017


[1] from Conversations with Wendell Berry. Morris Allen Grubbs (Ed.) Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. 2007. p. 194

[2] from “The Burden of the Gospels: An Unconfident Reader.” The Christian Century. September 20, 2005

[3] from “The Real Work,” Collected Poems. North Point Press. 1987

[4] from A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint. 2012. p. 41

[5] This advice was given to Berry from his friend and fellow farmer and author, Gene Logsdon.

[6] from Conversations with Wendell Berry. Morris Allen Grubbs (Ed.) Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. 2007. p. 23

[7] from This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint. 2013. p. 38

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