A few days ago I finished Wendell Berry’s The Memory of Old Jack, a memorable memoir of sorts of an earthy man of the land, Old Jack Beechum. In typical Berry fashion, the moments of Old Jack’s life into which readers get a glimpse are at times crude and at times beautiful and on occasion are both at the same time. Likewise, Berry manages to avoid the extremes of prudishness to the point of losing any claim to authenticity and crassness to the point of flaunting his own sense of freedom to be true to reality. While he may be accused of being overly sentimental concerning the agrarian life, through Old Jack he provides a glimpse into a world and a way of life utterly foreign to many readers, including me, for whom such over-sentimentality may be necessary to grab our attention.
Old Jack has plenty of flaws which Berry readily reveals. He’s largely unavailable to his wife. He’s hardly attentive to his daughter. He’s demanding of those who work for or with him. At times Old Jack seems rather self-aware, other times he seems blinded by the commitments long ago cemented in the depths of his being. Regardless, he never seems compelled to repent, to make a change. Readers may mourn his failure to repent, whether because of stubbornness or ignorance.
But while Old Jack’s failure to repent may be cause for lamentation, in one of the more profound moments of the book, he experiences a (divine?) revelation worthy of celebration. After finally making the last mortgage payment after fifteen long years of work to get out of debt, he heads back home.
He lost his life–fifteen years that he had thought would be, and ought to have been, the best and the most abundant; those are gone from the earth, lost in disappointment and grief and darkness and work without hope, and now he is only where he was when he began. But that is enough, and more. He is returning home–not only to the place but to the possibility and promise that he once saw in it, and now, as not before, to the understanding that that is enough. After such grievous spending, enough, more than enough, remains. There is more. He lost his life, and now he has found it again.
Words come to him: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”–the words of the old psalm that Nancy had made him repeat when he was a boy until he would remember it all his life. He had always been able to see through those words to what they were about. He could see the green pastures and the still waters and the shepherd bringing the sheep down out of the hills in the evening to drink. It comes to him that he never understood them before, but that he does now. The man who first spoke the psalm had been driven to the limit, he had seen his ruin, he had felt in the weight of his own flesh the substantiality of his death and the measure of his despair. He knew that his origin was in nothing that he or any man had done, and that he could do nothing sufficient to his needs. And he looked finally beyond those limits and saw the world still there, potent and abounding, as it would be whether he lived or died, worthy of his life and work and faith. He saw that he would be distinguished not by what he was or anything that he might become but by what he served. Beyond him was the peace and rest and joy that he desired. Beyond the limits of a man’s strength or intelligence or desire or hope or faith, there is more. The cup runs over. While a man lies asleep in exhaustion and despair, helpless as a child, the soft rain falls, the trees leaf, the seed sprouts in the planted field. And when he knows that he lives by a bounty not his own, though his ruin lies behind him and again ahead of him, he will be at peace, for he has seen what is worthy. (122-123)
I think Old Jack was on to something. While I still am convinced of the importance of repentance, of making changes, I’m also quite sure I need to be reminded that I’ll be distinguished not by what I am or anything I might become or to what degree I repent but by who I serve. And when I know that I live by a bounty not my own, though my ruin lies behind me and again ahead of me, I’ll be at peace, for I’ve seen what is worthy.
I’m thankful for Old Jack’s wisdom, or, more appropriately, Wendell Berry’s wisdom, and for the opportunity to get to know the folks of Port William.