Anthony Esolen has a wonderful essay in The Human Vision of Wendell Berry titled “If Dante Were a Barber in Port William.” (Port William is Berry’s fictitious town, sort of like Lake Wobegone only better.)
We must ask, not while we are first reading but only afterward, just what this little place, the “Port William Membership,” with its barber shop and bank, its school on the hillside, its clearing in the woods for all-night “worter dranking,” even its cemetery, has to do with heaven. And that, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, should rouse in us both wonder and contrition: wonder, that so splendid a world, and so real a communion, and so exalted a love, should be so near to us; contrition, that we should so often barter it for the drab, lonely, idle dreams of pride.
Port William has no mayor, and no policemen; its informal officers of righteousness, the ill-behaved Regulators—a wicked spoof on government destroyers of innocent local pastimes and customs and businesses—are a gang of vandals who destroy moonshine stills so that they can corner the market for their own.
[A] community whose highest aim is material wealth, as Thomas Merton notes in his introduction to Saint Augustine’s City of God, will always be a “makeshift,” at best a truce, as all its members submit, in Augustine’s words, to being “ruled by the lust to rule.”
In this good and earthy Kentucky metaphysic, as in the narrowing funnel of Dante’s Inferno, Hell is our entrapment in lusts, in the hatred that “always finds its justifications and fulfills itself perfectly in time by destruction of the things of time.”36 So we meet souls in the Inferno utterly unable to leap the bounds of time, as they were unable to love God and neighbor ….
The old question “Why is there something, and not nothing?” implies, in the heart of the lover, the richer question “Why should there be such beautiful things to love?” And just as the things themselves cannot answer why they should exist, so they cannot answer why they are to be loved; those answers arrive to us, in moments of intuition, from somewhere or Someone beyond the foundations of the world ….
He who loves Heaven, says C. S. Lewis in his introduction to The Great Divorce, will receive earth into the bargain.
Thus does Catholic Esolen, translator (masterfully, I’m told) of Dante, exegete Baptist Berry. I’m not even touching the parallels he draws between Dante’s Beatrice and Berry’s Mattie (in Jayber Crow).
I’ve been in the mood to catch up on a particular podcast series, where I encountered “The Meaning of Meaningful.” It plays off two allusions: The Meaning of Meaning, a 90-year-old philosophy text, and the newsletter admonition of a Baptist pastor that parents should not allow their kiddies to have any of the chicklets and grape juice, at the upcoming “passover communion,” because it “wouldn’t be meaningful.”
What followed, though, was a true and useful definition of “secularism,” which some readers may find is instantiated in the darndest places.
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