In an earlier post, I reflected on the connection between holiness and wholeness, discussing the notion that the mechanization of modern societies detract both from a sense of the sacred and from a life of unity and wholeness. I’d like to return to the holiness and wholeness theme now, describing some contributions by Christian agrarian writer Wendell Berry, who, as I mentioned in another post, I have been reading.

The first post had been prompted by a comment in Fredric Morton’s book Thunder at Twilight that Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, was “starved for the wholeness that is holiness.” As Morton describes it, Princip’s ancestors were peasants who were tied to the land and thereby to the sacred. His father, however, was displaced from the land, and Princip himself was a student who, absent traditional roots, was seeking to root himself in Serbian nationalism.

If passion for Serbia seems a thin soil in which to put down roots, Berry points out that most of us have roots that run no deeper. In his essay “The Body and the Earth” (found in the collection, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry), he laments that we have lost the ancient insight that humans are only a small part of Creation. In most traditional cultures, “a man would go or be forced to go into the wilderness, measure himself against the Creation, recognize finally his place within it, and thus be saved both from pride and from despair.” With the rise of industry, we removed ourselves from the wilderness, transforming it into scenery. “We became less and less capable of sensing ourselves as small within Creation, partly because we thought we could comprehend it statistically, but also because we were becoming creators, ourselves, of a mechanical creation by which we felt ourselves greatly magnified.” Thus, we lost the wholeness and holiness that comes from experiencing the majesty of Creation and perceiving our place within it. An irony of the magnification of humanity that has come with assuming the role of creator is that individual humans are diminished, overshadowed by the machines we have constructed.

Later in the same essay, Berry suggests that an even more profound lack of wholeness has been occasioned by the isolation of the body from the soul. In our religion, he suggests, we have valued the soul and devalued the body, a division that permits us to assign demeaning and numbing tasks to our bodies (or, more often, to the bodies of others) without compunction. However, such a division leads to neither wholeness nor holiness, but to fragmentation and isolation. As Berry puts it:

“By dividing body and soul, we divide both from all else. We thus condemn ourselves to a loneliness for which the only compensation is violence—against other creatures, against the earth, against ourselves.”

Berry argues that, in separating ourselves from the natural order and our bodies from our souls, we have inevitably produced another division, that between the sexes. In an industrial society, he suggests, the tasks of nurturing family members and managing the household are relegated exclusively to women. It is here that he thinks we can start mending our brokenness and find some degree of wholeness and holiness. We can, he says, work to rebuild the household as a place of mutual dependence and obligation, “requiring skill, moral discipline, and work.” Such a household is a fitting venue for the marital and sexual bonds between husband and wife. As he envisions it, the well-functioning household is productive (of offspring, but also of food, shelter, and “well-made things”) and serves as a place of embodiment that is both whole and holy.