An Ode to the Ordinary

An Ode to the Ordinary: Finding Salvation in the Everyday

by Megan Keyser

Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow is a meandering, poetic homage to community, human relationship, and leisure in a bygone era of pastoral, small town living. At its heart, it is also a tale of odyssey. While it chronicles the physical return of a young man to the land of his birth and early childhood, it is primarily his spiritual journey that fascinates. It details his path from a world of isolation and abject wandering to a life of connection, purpose, and authentic love, centered on the “invisible web” of the cherished, though seemingly commonplace, community of Port William, Kentucky. Though no cataclysmic events mark the novel, and the title character experiences little in the way of adventure, profundity remains. And such profundity, pervasive in an existence many would describe as humdrum or quaint, should give us pause, particularly as members of this modern world of frenzied hustle and bustle. It forces us to ask: what really is most important in this life?

Modernity insists that the path to personal fulfillment is paved by individual autonomy and a singular focus upon realizing private goals and ambitions. Under such a mentality, it is unsurprising that individualism is glorified, even idolatrized. Meanwhile, familial obligations, communal duty, common decency, or even virtue itself is callously discarded in the wake. Mothers, in a unique way, constantly battle this unbridled individualism, as we live out our oft-hidden life. A charitable servitude marks our vocations: the self (specifically the self-centered self) is slowly effaced to encourage the flowering of others. Modernity, however, suggests that motherhood hampers our individual advancement and should be summarily shunned. The same goes for any role that diminishes our perceived sense of self-worth or forces us to reexamine our professional or personal aspirations. I, however, would like to suggest that only a valiant suppression of pride and egocentrism has the capacity to accomplish truly great feats in our lives and the lives of those around us, while also facilitating the spiritual transformation and redemption our human hearts crave.

Jayber Crow is met with suffering early in his life, when he is uprooted abruptly from his beloved home and left to an institutionalized existence. In this institution, he grapples with the absence of genuine community and his ensuing lack of identity and purpose. Like so many in our modern era, he is isolated and adrift, futilely seeking fulfillment and direction in disconnected enterprises. In short, he struggles in the absence of an existence shared with others and a purposeful view of life. Severed from the life of a community, Jayber reflects: “I learned to think of myself as myself. The past was gone. I was unattached. I could put my whole life in a smallish cardboard box and carry it in my hand.” Such an existence is, in many ways, liberating and uncomplicated. It is unthreatened by the prospect of true suffering that comes with meaningful human interaction and intimacy. But is it fulfilling? Authentically human? A path to becoming a more virtuous person? Jayber certainly cannot rest in it. Ultimately, the tug for human connection leads him back to his homeland, in spite of the risk to his autonomy:

By assimilating himself back into the life of the small, deeply connected community of Port William, Jayber finds his individual purpose within the framework of fellowship. He demonstrates that our true selves are most vividly and fully revealed through cultivation of relationship with God, the created world, and others. We can only learn virtue if we are asked to practice it through our interactions with our fellows. This is particularly true for those who tax our patience, frustrate our hopes, or injure those we love. We comprehend the significance of suffering and sacrifice only if we experience the fullness of human tenderness. Forgiveness and understanding only thrive when we are stretched by the demands of other human beings. This includes their idiosyncrasies, their caprices, their faults, and even their transgressions against us and those we love and cherish. In a tight-knit community comprised of colorful temperaments and personalities (rather like family life!), Jayber quickly learns both the sweetness of human connection and its hardships, as he navigates friendship, discord, and even hidden love.

The Port William community gradually, almost mystically, transforms him. Jayber immerses himself in the communal life, interacting with and carefully observing his friends, neighbors, and even enemies. He is encouraged to an increased thoughtfulness, a heightened awareness of others’ needs and sufferings, and a magnified sense of virtue. The most amazing quality of this transformation is that it is prompted primarily by the ordinary acts and encounters of everyday living. Tragedy does at times strike the town, and various individuals – particularly those Jayber loves – suffer acute losses. Still, what prove the most meaningful are the simple and humble acts of barbering countless heads; socializing with patrons; digging graves in the church cemetery; growing a backyard garden; maintaining friendships through impromptu gatherings on porches and in the woods; and forbearing personal and continued grievances. Near the novel’s conclusion, Jayber ponders the temptations of seeking power and glory, authority and influence rather than gentleness and care, self-sacrifice and consideration. He considers the age-old wish that God would manifest Himself and His power in indisputable glory, as the Pharisees of Jesus’ time shouted: “Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:32). Yet, in response, Jayber reflects:

Yet, in response, Jayber reflects:

“Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave […] He didn’t [come down in power and glory] […] because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world […] even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in Him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.”

“[…] He must forbear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures. Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.”

Any mother will tell you that communal life is not easy. And a hidden life of humble albeit necessary service can appear unattractive, lacking in the glamour, esteem, and praise our society incessantly encourages us to seek. Such a life demands countless, sometimes unfathomably difficult, sacrifices of us, because human interaction and love require courage, faith, and, most anguishing of all, self-denial. The prospect of suffering is not one easily relished, but without it, love on this earth simply cannot exist. As Jayber remarked:

“If God so loves the world, might that not be proved in my own love for it? […] Just as a good man would not coerce the love of his wife, God does not coerce the love of His human creatures, not for Himself or for the world or for one another. To allow that love to exist fully and freely, He must allow it not to exist at all. His love is suffering. It is our freedom and His sorrow. To love the world as much even as I could love it would be suffering also, for I would fail. And yet all the good I know is this, that a man might so love the world that it would break his heart.”

Love and fellowship may stretch us. They may hurt us. They may one day leave us hanging upon a cross, right beside Love Incarnate. But through all the suffering we find our purpose. We find direction, we find each other, we find home, we find light, and, ultimately, we find God. In this imperfect world, there is beauty and suffering, hope and destruction, love and sadness, all present side-by-side. We can lament the suffering, the destruction, and the sadness. We can seek to avoid it at all costs, isolating ourselves from human connection, exonerating ourselves from responsibility, and depriving ourselves of the exultations of love. Or we can take this reality for what it really is – a glimpse of the eternal: “But the earth speaks to us of Heaven, or why would we want to go there? If we knew nothing of Hell, how could we delight in Heaven should we get there?”

Author Bio:

By Megan Keyser<br>
By Megan Keyser

Originally hailing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Megan is a 2006 Hillsdale College graduate with a degree in Classical Studies. These days, Megan thrives on the challenges and joys of her role as a Catholic, stay-at-home mother, who heads a chapter of the Well-Read Mom, dabbles in social commentary and other writing pursuits, and advocates for the pro-life cause. Despite the inevitable chaos of large family life, Megan is thankful for her lively brood and relishes juggling household responsibilities, babies in diapers, and, of course, a good book. She resides in Noblesville, Indiana, with her husband, Marc, an engineer in the energy industry, and their nine children, ages 13 years to 10 months old.

About Well-Read Mom

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For our Tenth Anniversary, the reading list put together by Well-Read Mom will be reflecting on the theme of family. When Well-Read Mom began, we desired to create a place for women, not to escape from family life and work, but to experience a kind of leisure through friendship and literature so that women could return to their lives with a renewed vision and vigor. By reading books together, we help sustain a tradition of reading, which is a gift not only to our families but to the world. We hope you’ll join Well-Read Mom for our Year of the Family.

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