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Wise Words From Kentucky


Like many, I have to face the battle that rages within me - a battle that can generate significant chaos. No one sees it or feels it but me. You, also, may have similar battles raging within you. No one sees or feels them but you. Chances are that we may become weighed down with the chaos so much that its effect becomes all too visible to ignore, or when we gather enough courage and motivation we may yet share these inner battles with a loved one, an acquaintance, or priest. There are also times when we succumb to these battles. Like it or not, there may be some chaos within you and I, and the causes and effects of them are as many and varied as the sands at the shore.


A few days ago, a friend introduced me to the works of Wendell Berry - a wise man who is a farmer in Kentucky. He is also an environmental activist, writer, and poet. Upon hearing that he is a Kentucky farmer, I was reminded of our own parishioners, Ron and Alexi, who are also from Kentucky. Ron, unfortunately, lost his father a couple of weeks ago - an example of the raging chaos. We hold him and his family in our thoughts and prayers.


In those wise words that spring from the pages of Wendell’s work, we find that he is funny, rebellious, bitter, and gentle - moments which reflect those varying but raging chaos within us. In his funny manner he writes, “Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.” I thought that was a good one, especially if you are a bit of a hoarder. In a more subtle way, however, he also appeals to the value of not storing treasures where thieves can break in and steal, but to ponder on the necessities of our daily lives.


When Wendell sounds rebellious, we read this: “You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.” Indeed, if you think about what it is that we have lost as a result of our so-called civilization, you might agree with Wendell that the best way to save a civilization that has created an indifferent populace is to challenge it. Come to think of it, the Rabbi (Jesus) we follow did the exact same thing by challenging a system that had reduced its citizens into ritual robots. His rebellion is captured in words that set us free to live abundantly: “ I came that you might have life, and to live abundantly.”


Many are those who have expressed regrets at our fractured political system - an example of the effects of the chaos within. We have set camps at CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. I am always confounded by what people say on TV, and very much concerned about the fact that we all chew on what others say without measuring them against our own values and best judgement - the effects of our own raging chaos. For that, Wendell suggests that “As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go.”


As I mentioned earlier on about Ron, losing a loved one often creates despair... "Why should he or she die this way or that way? What could I have done differently?" You hold on to the pain and anguish, and you sometimes let go, not because you really want to let go but because you seem powerless in the face of your questions. The moments of powerlessness, when you want to do everything in your power to alter the cause of a particular situation but then you realize that you cannot, there’s another power which is more controlling of the situation than you care to appreciate. As a matter of fact, the battle that rages within might not even be about the passing of a loved one, but the different types of illnesses that we are all fighting - within, and without. Added to that confusion are questions about why that promising medication is no longer working... if it ever worked at all. Even more so, we wonder about the sort of inner chaos our loved ones may be dealing with. It’s often a lot.


In the face of all of these, our powerlessness stares us in the face and whips up our despair. It is akin to flying in a plane, and hoping that one of the two sleepy pilots has had enough caffeine to help him/her stay awake throughout the long flight. Wendell offers this about human despair and powerlessness: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. And when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” The thought of not knowing what to do sends us rushing to do something, anything. Yes, uncertainty is difficult to hold. And it is precisely for that reason that the psalmist assures us to be still and know that I am God.


When Wendell says "real work", he isn’t incentivizing us to do more but, instead, to do less. Sit still. Go inward. Have a cup of coffee with a friend. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Meditate. Hold the powerlessness and despair gently, and get to know them. Learn their lessons.


If we sit long enough, we might even find the lion and the lamb that live within us, and learn from them too. Maybe we can even practice helping them learn to live together better.


Yes, the raging chaos within each of us causes some deep distress. Maybe it’s about time we quiet the mind, relax the body and simply be in the moment. Wendell will say, “Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.”


Live abundantly, my friends.


~Manny