Wendell Berry and the Gift of Remembrance

(This devotion is day twenty-six of a 30-Day Thanksgiving Challenge. Each day includes a daily reading that will be accompanied by a post on this blog.)

“[Tol Proudfoot] had become an elder of the community, and had recognized his memories, the good ones anyhow, as gifts, to himself and to the rest of us.”[1]

Maybe it’s my small-town upbringing, but I feel at home when reading Wendell Berry’s fictional stories. His characters aren’t larger-than-life heroes or villains but they capture the ordinary, beautiful, flesh-and-blood people I’ve encountered in life. His plots aren’t moved along by intense action, but in their familiarity as true to life stories you might hear at your own family gathering.

Berry sets his fiction in one tiny town called Port William. Its people share a collective memory through the stories lived and retold. They become a source of wisdom for citizens across the years. For these characters, the practice of remembering isn’t a symptom of being stuck in the past but it’s how the past lives on and changes who they are in the present.

In one of my favorite stories, “Pray Without Ceasing,” Andy Catlett reflects on a pivotal moment of his grandfather’s life—even before Andy was born—which set a course of forgiveness for his family and his town.

“This is the man who will be my grandfather—the man who will be the man who was my grandfather. The tenses slur under the pressure of collapsed time. For that moment on the porch is not a now that was but a now that is and will be, inhabiting all the memory of Port William that followed and will follow.”[2]

This valuing and practice of remembrance is true for the town but it’s also true for individuals. As one of Port William’s characters, Andy Catlett, recollects lessons learned on his farm or specific sayings of men such as Jack Beechum and women like Hannah Coulter, those voices ring in his mind. They mentor him with wisdom beyond the limits of his own knowledge and experience.

Berry’s novel Remembering tells Andy Catlett’s story as a middle-aged man stuck in an unhappiness he doesn’t know how to escape. Andy is a broken man, symbolized through the physical loss of his hand. This dismemberment points to how he’s cut himself off from the membership of life within his own community, even his own family. He’s angered by this loss, and angered even more by his inability to change things.

As the story unfolds, Andy daydreams about lessons from his elders, his hopes when younger, where things went wrong, and the open wounds festering in his marriage. It’s through remembering the past in his current troubles that he finds some level of guidance and healing. Remembrance helps him get off the unwanted trail he’s strayed into and back on a path pointing him home and leading him forward. Similar to the prodigal son in Luke’s Gospel (Lk. 15:17), Andy comes to his senses as recalling what once was offers hope for what could be again.

Like Berry’s stories, the Bible upholds the value and necessity of remembering. Christians must draw from the well of our memories and our histories to find refreshment in God’s track-record of faithfulness. Throughout Scripture, God’s people remember God’s works, promises, and character. It’s not simply a way to swap stories and remember the good ole’ times. God’s people must remember because they need to look back to find grounds to trust in God.

Remembering is the means by which they recall what God did yesterday so they live in light of these truths today and tomorrow. Present fears and future anxieties are calmed by God’s past faithfulness.

Psalm 105

While we could go to numerous places in Scripture, consider Psalm 105 as an example. David exhorts God’s people: “Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered” (Ps. 105:5). A few verses prior (Ps. 105:1-2), the Psalm opened with thanksgiving. Here we see the connection between remembering God’s “wondrous works” and giving thanks to Him for those works. “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works!”

As this historical psalm progresses, it does exactly that. It remembers God’s mighty and gracious deeds in Israel and on their behalf throughout their story. David moves from Abraham (6) to the wilderness (12) to Joseph (16) to Moses and the Exodus (26). Our history anchors our theology and faith. David reaches back into Israel’s story to remind them who God is for the sake of reminding them who He will be forever.

Many of our faith-fueling lessons are forged in hardship. We remember God’s presence when we were alone, and we give thanks. God supplied the strength and might when we had nothing left to give. Our gratitude grows as we bring to mind when God delivered us when we felt doomed. Every believer’s story includes countless crossroads where we wondered how we could get beyond this. And yet, we see in hindsight, each time God was there. He proved Himself faithful and strong for us. We look back and find reasons to give thanks both for what He did and who for how that reveals to us who He is.

Grateful remembrance is a deep breath and big exhale pushing out anxiety and discouragement threatening to take our breath away. Pausing to look up refocuses our eyes on God rather than ourselves or circumstances. The scenario might have changed but God has not changed. It causes our theology to move from the head to the heart because things we think about God become convincing through the personal experience of our past.

Practicing It

As we see the value of remembering with thanksgiving in our life, we can take steps to practicing it with regularity. The gift of remembrance helps individuals, but it also serves communities—whether a family, church, friends, or a town.

Starting at the personal level, one thing we can do is store up memories of God’s works. Write them down. Log them in your memory. Whatever means it takes, remember.

This provides reasons to give thanks for what God’s done and reasons to trust what He will do. We need this recorded history to be easily accessible because we quickly dismiss all the ways God has acted on our behalf. We forget God and we focus on our problems. Our worry, fear, anxiety, sorrow, and discouragement don’t disappear because we want them too or know they should. They need squeezed out through faith in God. And faith in God increases through piling up the memories of his faithfulness.

Second, this lesson should shape how we view the way we encourage those around us, including parenting, mentoring, and discipleship. Whether it’s with your own kids, or with a less mature (maybe younger) believer, all of us can pass on a living faith by sharing stories of God’s goodness, might, and kindness in our own lives. Yes, we teach them the Bible, but we also tell them ways God proved His Word in our stories.

Returning to the fiction of Wendell Berry, while he sees the whole community taking part in collecting and retelling stories, it especially falls on the “elders” or the oldest ones in the town to do so. While culture today often sees a decrease in value associated with an increase in age, Berry argues that a key role shaping and serving others performed by older people is remembering. Not simply storytelling for laughs (though this plays an important role as well) but handing on wisdom and knowledge learned firsthand over a lifetime.

Berry writes in A Place in Time, “Uncle Isham Quail was a rememberer who had saved up in his mind everything he had seen and experienced and everything he had heard. In his latter years he seemed to live in all the times of that small place.”[3] In another story, Berry speaks of the relationship between the older Art Rowanberry and the younger Andy Catlett, a great picture of discipleship and mentoring. Art Rowanberry passed on his knowledge to Andy Catlett over the years of their long friendship, through “so many days, so many miles, so many remindings, so much remembering and telling.”[4]

Whether as parents and grandparents, mentors, or as fellow believers, Christians can disciple one another through practicing grateful remembrance. What has God done that you can share? When and where did God prove faithful? What trials did you walk through and how did God sustain, comfort, and even use you for good?

[1]  Wendell Berry, “Turn Back the Bed,” in Port William Novels and Stories: The Civil War to World War II, edited by Jack Shoemaker (New York: The Library of America, 2018), 351.
[2] Wendell Berry, “Pray Without Ceasing,” in Port William Novels and Stories: The Civil War to World War II, edited by Jack Shoemaker (New York: The Library of America, 2018), 80.
[3] Wendell Berry, A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port WilliamMembership (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2012), 218-219.
[4] Ibid., 294.

Featured image taken from lookandseefilm.com.

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indycrowe

You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram @IndyCrowe for the short & sweet stuff.

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