Stability

Poet Wendell Berry Bequeaths Farming Legacy to Small Catholic College

Wendell Berry. Image via RNS

The Berry family has lived in these parts for nine generations. While pursuing a prolific writing career, Berry never stopped caring for the land of his ancestors. Now, the 81-year-old writer wants to pass on his family’s farming legacy to a new generation. He decided against teaming up with a large university agricultural program, and instead selected a small Catholic liberal arts college about an hour’s drive from Louisville, run by the Dominican Sisters of Peace.

The Art of Householding

My "life plan" -- at age 23 -- was to own little and to move where the Spirit led. It was a late 20th century American religious quest interpreted through Dorothy Day’s Catholic anarchy, the factory theology of Simone Weil, Septima Clark's "practical politics," and the joyful authority of Clare of Assisi. Full of idealistic forward motion, I was ready to see and save the world -- in that order. My move in 1986 from California to inner-city Washington, D.C., was to be temporary.

Instead, I came into possession of a 1901 Victorian row house, and 25 years have passed. (Here's a koan for you: "Choosing your vocation.") I was given the gift of stability.

In 2000, after living in two other houses owned by Sojourners community's housing cooperative, Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter and I purchased our house on Fairmont Street. She was looking for more space (or at least a kitchen larger than a closet) and urban anchorage. I was already living in the house, didn't want to move, and needed a yard for my dog. I agonized over the ethics of "ownership" until my mom convinced me that "buying property is what the women in our family do." Julie and I scraped together the down payment, added in "urban homesteading" and first-time homeowner tax credits, learned the intricacies of joint tenancy, and shouldered the mortgage.

The "gift of stability" is considered the fourth vow in Orthodox and Benedictine monastic life. Poverty, chastity, and obedience are the "evangelical vows" that make one radically available to those in need of the gospel. Stability, as Thomas Merton put it, means to "find the place that God has given you and take root there."

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The Beauty of Roots

In our neighborhood of Indianapolis, Near Eastside, we in the Englewood Christian Church community have seen firsthand the wounds inflicted by a consumerist economy of scarcity. As in other urban neighborhoods, about 30 years ago many white neighbors uprooted themselves from here and moved to the bigger and greener pastures of suburbia. Into this vacuum has poured a host of greedy landlords, transient renters, and a wide variety of addicts—all of whom are held captive by perceived or actual economies of scarcity. And here we sit in the middle of it all, a church community that has weathered storms in this place for 115 years, seeking a life together that proclaims God’s liberation, abundance, and reconciliation to ourselves and our neighbors.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2010
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