Heaven's and Its Own
He’s writing a poem about a brass bowl?
I had just finished pondering the lines of a Wendell Berry poem about a man in distress, praying on his bed and then finding new strength by remembering love. Wiping sympathetic tears from my eyes, I turned the page. There I founda little poem titled “A Brass Bowl.” By halfway through, however, I doubted that this one could possibly compare to the last.
To be respectful, one must always read a poem at least twice, so I gave it another try. As I scanned the lines again, my breath caught. I read it a third time.
Wow, Wendell Berry. You did not just do that.
In the lines describing an everyday item, I found instruction about how I am to live my own life. Hidden in the lines I had first dismissed was a beautiful picture of submission to God and peace when He gives and takes away.
Worn to brightness, this
bowl opens outward
to the world, like
the marriage of a pair
we sometimes know
Filled full, it holds
not greedily. Empty,
it fills with light
that is Heaven’s and
its own. It holds
forever for a while.
I came away from these few simple lines convicted and so, so stirred. Forget my former aspiration to be a killer combination of Homer, Shakespeare, and Gandalf the Grey all rolled into one—I want to be a brass bowl! A brass bowl gleams more and more as it comes into contact with the scuffs and sufferings of life. When it is full, it serves its purpose faithfully. When its portion is taken away, it shines all the brighter. Wow. Pretty cool.
Berry’s poem exemplifies the purpose and power of art—art presents a piece of our world (usually one we’ve forgotten to appreciate) in a way that beckons us to re-examine it. The process often leads us to examine our own souls, too. Berry’s poem made me a lifelong fan of brass bowls and also a lifelong monitor of my own attitude toward blessing and suffering. It highlighted the beauty of an object and also encouraged me to build that beauty within my heart.
But art cannot stop there. It cannot remain earthbound. Berry says in his poem that the brass bowl radiates light that is “Heaven’s / and its own.” Just so with art. It dazzles our eyes but also directs them upward.
After all, the little poem would not have altered my perspective on suffering had it not also reminded me that there is Someone else’s light to reflect in my emptiest moments. In that glimmer of heavenly hope lies art’s most essential quality and its most precious power.
Yes, Wendell Berry, you are an artist, and you did just do that.
Berry, Wendell. “A Brass Bowl." This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013. 159. Medium of Publication.