Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Place, love and gift: Hannah Coulter

There have been so many “Brave New World” real-life scenarios circling the Internet in the past few weeks, that I had to escape to the refreshing pages of Hannah Coulter, a novel by Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry. It was required reading for our Book Forum at the JPII Institute. With classes, mile-high readings and other assignments, I can’t say that I fully enjoyed the book that time around. But this time, the book was absolutely refreshing.

Hannah Coulter is the kind of book that can only be properly read in silence. It’s not because of difficult vocabulary or puzzling theological insights. But the fictional reflections of Hannah make one yearn for a silence that we now have to look for in our world. Silence is no longer simply given. It has to be sought.

The same goes for other things – generosity, faithfulness, family life. Of course these things always required grace and the will and freedom and God’s love, but today they are often forgotten. Today they are often not desired.

So Hannah’s simple yet profound reflections on her life bring us from one world into our present situation. And as the book progresses we see the clash between the world she shared with her husband, Nathan, and the world her grandchildren know. We are led to our own reflections on commitment, education, community, marriage, and the pressures on anyone living in western culture today. Hannah Coulter gives us room to think.

What does this have to do with a blog dedicated to issues of life and love? Hannah’s own witness is a witness to the dual simplicity and profundity of marriage. She offers a vision of her own journey in love that we have lost sight of. She puts words – or at least the beginnings of words – to thoughts that have no words.

It’s not necessarily a book about marriage. It’s a book about life. A book that shows us that each person has a story to tell, whether it would make a blockbuster movie or not. A book that implicitly reveals what our world is missing in giving up on authentic community.

So, may I recommend that you spend some time this winter, sitting in a quiet corner with Hannah Coulter to reexamine the world in which we live? And you can hear her wisdom in thoughts such as this:

“Watching him and watching myself in my memory now, I know again what I knew before, but now I know more than that. Now I know what we were trying to stand for, and what I believe we did stand for: the possibility that among the world’s wars and sufferings two people could love each other for a long time, until death and beyond, and could make a place for each other that would be a part of their love, as their love for each other would be a way of loving their place. This love would be one of the acts of the greater love that holds and cherishes all the world” (67-68).


  1. Do you have any other quotes from the book that talk more about marriage?

  2. There are definitely others, but the most comprehensive quote is the entire book! It's not all about marriage per se, but it definitely gives a depiction of love, family and sacrifice in everyday life.