on preaching, learning, and knowing where we are

[Jayber Crow, the wise bachelor barber of Berry’s favourite fictional town of Port William, ponders the young preachers who get sent their way]:

The preachers were always young students from the seminary who wore, you might say, the mantle of power but not the mantle of knowledge. They wouldn’t stay long enough to know where they were, for one thing. Some were wise and some were foolish, but none, so far as Port William knew, was ever old…. They were not going to school to learn where they were, let alone the pleasures and the pains of being there, or what ought to be said there. You couldn’t learn those things in school. They went to school, apparently, to learn to say over and over again, regardless of where they were, what had already been said too often. They learned to have a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works – although they could tell you that this world had been made by God Himself.

What they didn’t see was that it is beautiful, and that some of the greatest beauties are the briefest. They had imagined the church, which is an organization, but not the world, which is an order and a mystery. To them the church did not exist in the world where people earn their living and have their being, but rather in the world where they fear death and Hell, which is not much of a world. To them, the soul was something dark and musty, stuck away for later. In their brief passage through or over it, most of the young preachers knew Port William only as it theoretically was (“lost”) and as it theoretically might be (“saved”). And they wanted us to do our part to spread the bad news to others who had not heard it – the Catholics, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Buddhists, and the others – or else they (and maybe we) would go to Hell. I did not believe it….

In Port William, more than anyplace I had been, this religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world was a puzzle to me. To begin with, I didn’t think anybody believed it. I still don’t think so.

– Wendell Berry (in Jayber Crow)

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