Saturday, October 1, 2011

On St. Therese and Wendell Berry

At first glance, the above title may seem an unlikely juxtaposition of two disparate figures. What could the simple 19th century cloistered Carmelite, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, have in common with author, essayist, poet and agrarian, Wendell Berry? Yet, as I happened to be reading both this week, I thought I would share an interesting thematic similarity I see between the two.

The Office of Readings for today's Memorial of St. Thérèse contains an excerpt from her autobiography:

Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of St. Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer. By chance the 12th and 13th chapters of the 1st epistle to the Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.

I persevered in the reading…the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind…Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation…Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction.

St. Thérèse's realization, that love was the essence of her vocation, has come to be known as her "Little Way": "Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love."

Turning from the spiritual insights of St. Thérèse to the social and economic thought of Wendell Berry, Norman Wirzba's Introduction to The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, provides a thematic foundation for an understanding of the latter:

What the purveyors and boosters of conventional wisdom often fail to ask, however, is whether the social and economic transformations they facilitate lead to an improper or inauthentic sense of human identity and vocation. A knowledge economy, like the industrial economy before it, demands that we see ourselves as specialists or careerists, trained to do a task of very limited scope and significance….We do not see or appreciate the biological and social fact that our lives and our responsibilities are complexly, yet harmoniously,intertwined with the lives of many others. The effect of careerism is thus to make ourselves frustratingly helpless and ignorant in regard to basic human skills - growing food, maintaining a home, caring for and educating children, promoting friendship and cooperation, facing illness and death…Specialization also leads to the sense of our own isolation from the broader wholes of which we are a part."

Though Berry's essay, "Think Little", is primarily a commentary on social, environmental and economic issues, one paragraph reflects the theme discussed above:

For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. I have come to believe that a better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little….the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem. A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it - he is doing that work. A couple who make a good marriage, and raise healthy, morally competent children, are serving the world's future more directly and surely than any political leader, though they never utter a public word. A farmer who is dealing with the problem of soil erosion on an acre of ground has a sounder grasp of that problem and cares more about it and is probably doing more to solve it than any bureaucrat who is talking about it in general.

Given some of Wendell Berry's philosophical (and religious) ideas, an argument for a deep theological identity of the agrarian's thought with that of the Little Flower would be a bit extreme, and perhaps slightly ludicrous.

However, on an anthropological level, I do think that both St. Thérèse and Wendell Berry exhibit a similar insight into the human condition - an insight that resonates with both man's spiritual and material existence. That insight is this: man seems to possess an innate sense of vocation, the idea of a calling outside himself and greater than himself to which he must respond. Oftentimes, that sense is experienced as a desire to accomplish something great, something grandiose, something that is better than and beyond the drudgeries of his everyday existence (for St. Thérèse, this desire was for martyrdom; Wendell Berry diagnoses it as the "Think Big" motto).

Though a desire to accomplish or conform oneself to something (or someone) greater is not per se flawed, and indeed may be the impetus for an individual's achievements, both Thérèse and Berry prudentially warn against the temptation to human illusions of grandeur. Their counsel is something of a paradox: authentic human greatness is achieved not by casting off the trials of everyday life, but embracing them.

Thus, one could interpret Berry's encouragement to "Think Little", as analogous to the life of St. Thérèse. Her model of sanctity is, as John Paul II stated in his homily of 19 October 1997, "…not that of the great undertakings reserved for the few, but on the contrary, a way within everyone's reach, the "little way", a path of trust and total self-abandonment to the Lord's grace."

And I leave it to the reader to draw further analogies and/or implications, be they spiritual or agrarian, from here...

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