A Place on Earth, not in Church

Two books helped disarrange my neat path to priesthood and religious life.

The first was Ursula Le Guin's 'The Telling' that I found myself reading and re-reading at critical junctures in the process of vocational testing and reaffirmed my sense that no narrative is a closed account of the truth. Each story is an enterprise after knowing and truth is embedded in the gracefulness, poise and vulnerability of the telling. The story is offered compassionately to the world as a way of seeing and it is judged by its fruits - in the wholeness and harmony it grants to a society. It is manner of story telling that the church, sadly, has often failed even though it is embodied in the parables of its founder.

The second, I realised on re-reading it now, is Wendell Berry's 'A Place on Earth'. This is a marvellous telling of a community bound to a place and to one another who lives are measured by their responsibility to one another and to the care and use of their place (and their failures towards that responsibility).

It is, also, a compelling study of the pathways of grief and the responses of mourning. Virgil, the son of Mat and Margaret Feltner, and the husband of Hannah, is announced as missing in action (during the Second World War). The local pastor comes to 'comfort' them and in a brilliant set piece of writing, he wholly fails to connect with the reality of their feelings, even as they listen politely to him. He does not share the reality, the particularity of their lives. He speaks of heaven but they now are bound in grief to earth and memory. Reading it now, I remember its effect on me a decade ago, how donning that place - of priest - would put me 'apart', make me separate. I often feel isolation enough as it is, without making it so apparent, visible.

The priesthood was doomed! I cannot represent anything as embodying the truth. I would rather be quietly invisible than set apart.

Meanwhile, Berry's novel, I think, is a great achievement - full of moments that arrest you into feeling just so, seeing something utterly close and real, as if for the first time. There is a moment when he is describing through Mat what it feels like - the responsibility of being a parent - that caught me up and made me see and feel what it must be like to be my parents. I rested my feeling in his words and my seeing was permanently changed. Literature that does that is truly remarkable and his is. It is 'didactic' in the best sense - it wants you to embody a renewing moral vision but it is done so seamlessly with the grain of imagined lives as to soak in to your feelings, to touch the depths, before rising to the consideration of thought. And the two, feeling and thought, are strikingly well-attuned.


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