When the Time Comes to Look Back — Jayber Crow Discussion Group (7)

I listened to hard words today from a dear woman I’ve loved and admired for nearly twenty years. We were seated in her small room in a nursing home, my grandson was exploring every nook, cranny, and light switch (and eating one of the cookies we had brought for her!), and I asked her how she liked her new home.

“It’s hard,” she said. “They’re good to me here, but I’m at the end of my life. It’s hard to realize — emotionally.”

The words hung in the air, and I wanted to deny them, to beautify them with a neat little bow of comfort and joy. But that would not be fair, because she is right. At ninety-plus, she is unsteady and unable to care for herself or live in her own home. This is hard. She is nearing the end of her life. So I was quiet and nodded, waiting for her to go on. She did, sharing some of her concerns, repeating herself and circling back around. But then, she stopped and smiled and touched my grandson’s small hand, declaring:

“I have wonderful memories.”

My sweet friend has come to the point in her life when looking back is so much more satisfying and encouraging than looking ahead. That’s a treasure when the time comes to look back,  and Jayber Crow does his own share of looking back in Chapters 18-20, particularly concerning his relationship with Mattie — or, more accurately, his observations of Mattie.

His pivotal memory of Mattie, what he calls “the most deciding event of my life,” took place at a Vacation Bible School. He was there in his role as church caretaker. She was there to care for and play with the young children. As a long-time VBS war horse, this scene warms my heart, because it was not Mattie’s skillful use of curriculum or her wow-factor pedagogical methods that won Jayber’s heart. It was this one thing about her dealings with the children:

“She was just perfectly there with them in her pleasure.” (191)

Jayber makes mention of Mattie’s ability unique ability to be present to her people as he pondered and lamented her troubled marriage with Troy:

“She never made reference even by silence to anything she suffered. But in herself she was present. She was present in her dealings with other people. She was right there.”

And with this arrow piercing his heart, Jayber moved into a secret room of devotion to a woman who was completely unaware of his feelings, unlikely to reciprocate even if she had been aware, and unavailable to him in every possible way.

Jayber devotes a fair amount of time to his obsessive scorning of Troy Chatham, (Mattie’s husband) making special note of Troy’s loneliness. (194)
I wonder . . .
Unrequited love is pretty lonely, too.

“The visions of the mind have a debt to reality that it is hard to get the mind to pay when it is under the influence of its visions.”

Once Jayber worked his way through these “visions of the mind” and became free from his “glandular logic,” he saw the folly in his obsession, but held fast to his love for Mattie. Good, however, did come from this in the form of a renewed seeing:

“If you love somebody enough, and long enough, finally you must see yourself. What I was was a barber and grave digger and church janitor making half a living, a bachelor, a man about town, a friendly fellow. And this was perhaps acceptable, perhaps even creditable in its way, but to my newly chastened sight I was nobody’s husband.”

The Community’s Remember-ers

A day spent with Mat Feltner became a day of looking back, and it would seem that Jayber, with his patient listening and his eager interest, might be in training for a future role as one of Port William’s remember-ers. In my own remembering, when the time comes to look back, I want to bring to my remembering — and to the people I have loved — the grace Jayber brought to the membership:

” . . . I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”

Did You Ever Think About That?

Jayber had only to let his tongue play over the notch in one of his front teeth to remember that Cecelia Overhold held him in “joyous dislike,” even though a lot of years had passed since “the little worter dranking party” where the war began. Jayber can’t seem to free himself of this, but, then, there is something so contagious about unhappiness that Cecelia would be especially virulent:

“Cecelia thought that whatever she already had as no good, by virtue of the fact that she already had it.” 209

These are cautionary words in our present era of acquisitiveness — and throw-away relationships.

From the ashes of this sadness, Jayber salvages some deep and poignant observations about love and community:

  • “Love comprehends the world, though we don’t comprehend it. But hate comes off in slices, clear and whole — self-explanatory, you might say. You can hate people completely and kill them in an instant.”
  • “There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.”

There’s no way Wendell Berry could have anticipated the electricity that would remain in the air seventeen years after he wrote Jayber Crow (and half a century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act), but Athey Heath defuses a barber shop bully with words of tweetable brevity and piercing strength:

“It might prove out to be,” Athey said, “that if we can’t live together we can’t live atall. Did you ever think about that?”

Other Questions to Ponder

Does Jayber’s infatuation with Mattie warm your heart — or creep you out?

Can you point to a “newly chastened sight” in your own experience of loving or having been loved that has made you see yourself in new ways?

I’m puzzled by Jayber’s presence with Mattie when he finds her crying in the cemetery. His words are true and kind: “You can’t stay here.”
But what of this:  “I knelt beside her, according to my calling in this world.” What’s he talking about here? Do you see a connection between this and his earlier statement: “[M]y future, as it turned out, proved to be elsewhere. I hadn’t even glimpsed it yet. I had imagined no future. Who she was who would have my heart to own I had not imagined” (62)?

Whether Jayber’s love for Mattie proves to be idolatrous or life-affirming will be borne out in future chapters, and our final judgment, I think, should be based on how his devotion to Mattie affects his response to others in the Port William Membership. I’m thinking of a quote from Madeleine L’Engle that bears on this:

“If you find that you love lots more people than you ever did before, then I think you can trust this love. If you find that you need to be exclusive, that you don’t like being around other people, then I think that something may be wrong.”  (Circle of Quiet p.8)

I look forward to reading your insights, either in the comments section below, or in your own blog posts. Please share links so this party can reconvene at your place!

I’ll be here next Thursday (October 26) having read Chapters 21-23.

Here’s the schedule for future discussion topics:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion

OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32


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41 thoughts on “When the Time Comes to Look Back — Jayber Crow Discussion Group (7)”

  1. Question 1- Jayber’s devotion to Mattie kinda creeped me out. But that’s through a lens of having been the object of unrequited love before. To me, his love seemed selfish, as I found it idolatrous. But I look forward to seeing how that bears out in coming chapters!

    Question 2- Yes!

    When one of my best friends fell in love recently our discussion about it reminded me of something I learned when I fell in love: loving another person is a great way to discover how selfish you are! Suddenly your love for another who is different from you exposes and rubs against your love for yourself. One of the glories of God knitting people together, in my opinion, is having to see ourselves more clearly as we are, limited and imperfect and in need of bending too!

    Question 3- I’m unsure too. It seems his calling in life may be to be party to others experiencing their own lives?

    Thought-provoking questions, as usual! Thanks for your thoughts, Michele, I hope to check back for others’!


    1. Ooooh — “party to others experiencing their own lives.” What a great thought, Bethany.
      And it surely is true that living closely to another person — even if we claim to love them — shows up all our selfishness.
      I alternate between being creeped out by Jayber and seeing him as a picture of an ascetic, self-denying, self-giving love. The second is tied to his being fictional, I think, and even though Berry warned us against this kind of thinking in his preface, I do tend to go fishing around for sub-texts. I think if I encountered a Jayber in real life, the burden of that devotion would be too much.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That makes sense! In the fictional sense (having read ahead last night) I can see a sort of wonderful, loving devotion. But even in the warned-against subtext I find it more idolatrous. In real life, I think I would also find it too much!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Powerful post, Michele. Your friends words even hung in the air for me. I had to pause before I read on. It’s surreal to think that we all come to that point in life…when looking back brings pleasant memories but we know they outweigh the moments that lie ahead.


    1. And isn’t it tempting to deny or make light of words that are heavy and sad? The truth is that there’s nothing I can say to make it un-true, but I’m thankful that my friend is a believer and knows her eternal destination is far better than any of the wonderful days she’s loved here on this planet.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Michele,
    What a true friend you are, to sit with your friend in her own hard places! I reckon you to have a little of the “barber” calling in you also! 🙂 But, oh how my own heart does get stirred up with “newly chastened sight(s)” when I observe love–even just reading about it can bring me to convictions. Sometimes, it all can feel a little overwhelming to me, until I remember those key words of “Grace & Mercy.” God doesn’t reveal any weakness or stumbling point to us unless He already has the help and way out prepared for us. I do hope that Jayber will find his way into the life-affirming way of loving! Here are my thoughts, and the convictions that were brought to me this week: https://raseasons.blogspot.com/2017/10/transforming-stillness.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, Bettie, I’m no “barber” by nature. My mind flies directly to answers — and not always helpful ones, as I tend to be a fixer when I should be a listener. I appreciate the truth that when God reveals stumbling points it’s because He’s there to lift us (like the vine dresser!), so I’m eager to read your thoughts this week. Thanks for sharing the link.


  4. I always restrain myself from reading your thoughts, Michele, before I have published my own. And it continuously amazes me how differently, yet complementarily I hope?!, we come at this story…For me this week’s chapters were an insightful study in the anatomy of an affair and the incremental process of self-deception involved. (https://dictationbydawn.wordpress.com/)

    It was a relief to see Jayber come to his senses and move on to a purer love, one that was able to bring comfort in the graveyard rather than taking advantage of a vulnerable heart. “You cannot stay here” (with me) seemed an acknowledgment of her need to return to her own life with its calling for better or worse and not allow herself to be swallowed up with grief over what was, or to be drawn into an inappropriate relationship with Jayber (?) because he was there to comfort her when her husband was not… This might be a stretch, just my thoughts. I have known this kind of comfort from a friend. It is beyond precious to have someone there when your little one is taken from you, and to know you are not alone in your grief…No words need be said.

    I rehashed quite a few quotes this week but missed this perceptive one you shared, Michele. So good! So worth heeding!
    “Cecelia thought that whatever she already had as no good, by virtue of the fact that she already had it.” 209

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We do tend to notice different story elements, which is fascinating, and I am being enriched by reading all the different angles from which readers are approaching the story. For instance, I interpreted “you cannot stay here” with the “here” meaning a puddle of grief only with no thought of the Jayber connection. But having read your thoughts, I see that Berry has hinted that Mattie knows Jayber will drop everything and help her at the least indication of a need, so . . . more to think about.
      That tendency in Cecilia is such a sad commentary on human nature. I’m distressed by acquisitiveness and the idea of always “trading up.” We are always striving and dissatisfied.
      Thanks, Linda, for lending your wisdom here. Heading over to read your post now!


      1. I suppose a positive angle on the tendency always to be unsatisfied, is that we were made for more than this… (doesn’t C.S. point at this?) but we somehow think another newer and better ‘thing’ will fill the ache for more….


  5. Jayber’s tumble into ‘love’ reminds me how selfish is this thing we call ‘love’ which is at first largely comprised of hormones…where I love you for how you make me feel…and only as long as you make me feel this way… Of course, since Jayber and Mattie had no real relationship he could continue to hold her in an adoring mindset and not experience the rough spots of loving the unlovely and imperfect. It’s all so idyllic. And yet, this does seem to be how God has orchestrated for the plunge into a lifelong commitment to begin–we feel so much and know so little of the pain and joy around the bends to come, and of the rich reward of a life spent committed to loving one spouse above all others…Had Jayber ever managed to pull Mattie away from this he would have ruined a beautiful potential.


    1. It’s true that there really was no “relationship” there between the two, and yet I love how Mattie comes to Jayber when she is in need. Is Berry hinting that she knows a bit of Jayber’s heart? I don’t know. The important thing is that it was never spoiled. Have you read A Severe Mercy? Van Auken wrote about his love for his deceased wife sort of in that way — that death interrupted it before it could disintegrate into lackluster cohabitation or the mundane taking each other for granted which is so common.


      1. Yes, you are right. There was relationship in that sense. She knew he was someone she could count on to care. And yes, what a sweetness that it wasn’t spoiled by inappropriate intimacy. And yes, I read A Severe Mercy way back in courting days
        ( :

        Liked by 1 person

  6. “I knelt beside her, according to my calling in this world.” His calling? Was to have the heart of a pastor, to CARE when noone else was around to do so, to care deeply, and so to bless. Jayber seems to have been given the ability to feel deeply, as seen in his sensitivity to Cecilia also, and even in the glimmers of pity he has for Troy despite his will to hate him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, did you see the CT Magazine list that included Jayber Crow as a recommended book for churches seeking a pastor? It referred to Jayber as the pastor of Port William, and I do think you are onto something with the connection between Jayber’s heart and even prickly Cecilia. He can’t seem to let go of that sad situation. Berry does such a good job using Jayber’s response to other characters to reveal his heart.


      1. No, I didn’t see that. Fun. ‘the pastor of Port William’ That’s about it, isn’t it?! Berry does do a good job showing without telling. Something I aspire to!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I have to admit that Jayber’s feelings for Mattie creeped me out, especially at first. I was mentally thinking towards Mr. Berry, “Oh, PLEASE don’t go there.” But I appreciated that Jayber saw, after imagining them riding off together, that it could never be, because doing such a thing would change who she was, and he couldn’t do that or ask that. I wonder if his “You can’t stay here” reflected something of that sending her back into her life rather than comforting her as he would have liked.

    Loved Athey’s response to the barber shop bully.

    Regarding your friend you spoke of at the beginning, I was just reading in a blog post on a different matter this morning where someone said something like, “Christians want to help, but they want to swoop in and be the heroes.” Sometimes we want to slap a Bible verse on like a bandaid and “fix” it. She went on to say that sometimes there is nothing we can do but weep with those who weep – to sit with them and listen. That doesn’t mean we don’t ever share Bible verses or perspective. But we do so from a place of empathy and compassion. So I commend you for just listening and acknowledging her situation.

    On a different note, I wonder if the current era has any respect or appreciation for “rememberers.” I didn’t think to ask a lot about my family history until everyone whom I could ask was gone. Or maybe it’s just takes us getting to a certain age before we want to listen to remembering rather than going off to whatever is current and new.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, it was a relief to me also that Jayber chose the high road. But what a lonely choice for him.
      I’ve heard someone say that Christians have a tendency to use Bible verses as periods to slap shut the conversation, and I really try not to do that. We do have “answers” in the Bible, but it’s not always an “answer” that broken hearts are seeking.
      And sadly, by the time we reach the age to appreciate the “rememberers” in our lives, many of them are either in heaven or have become forgetful. C.S. Lewis lamented our chronological snobbery that sends us looking for the new and shiny, thinking that anything old must not be as important. My husband was just sharing with me a few days ago how he is learning to enjoy the prayers of older saints that reveal a long time relationship and comfort level we do not have yet.


  8. I so identify with the opening part of your post today about your friend. I have a friend who turned 92 about 3 weeks ago. I have known her for probably 40 years and when I visit her, I am always blessed by her strength of faith (especially after being widowed a few years ago), her deep gratitude for all the Lord has walked her through, her consistent encouragement, and gentle, loving spirit. I always take her fresh flowers that are in a bunch because she loves to arrange them (She used to have her own flower garden.) and a small bag of chocolate that she rarely gets now. She serves me “friendship tea” as she has for the whole of our relationship. I am not overly fond of it, but it is a precious part of our friendship.

    I think Jayber’s love for Mattie impacted me in his capacity to seemingly love her so deeply and yet never once cross boundary lines to act on those deep feelings. How rare a view of love is that compared to the world we live in now where such restraint would be very unusual. It also appears that that love and devotion impacted his own life for the better.

    This week I have done two posts that contain quotes from our guide (Jayber) in this journey. Here are the links: http://pamecrement.com/2017/10/18/have-we-missed-it/; http://pamecrement.com/2017/10/16/dont-forget-to-say-it/


    1. Yes, I am also impacted by the strength of resolve that would keep a fairly young man, single, lonely, and not necessarily principled in other ways, from acting impulsively. Thanks, Pam, for persevering in this journey with Jayber. I love the way each reader is noticing different details.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hey michelle! I’m at a writers conference this weekend and can’t seem to log in to your blog from my phone. I’ll post my comments later this weekend and am looking forward to reading what everyone has to say Christy


  10. Your post is filled with so much wisdom and knowledge, that I read it several times. It’s like when we re-watch a movie/re-read a book and glean something new with each reading. Thank you for sharing!


  11. What a wonderful post! I work with patients that I have been with for 24 years and watching them move into this chapter in their lives can be both wonderful and incredibly sad all at the same time. Thank you for sharing your words and reminding me to take a little more time with them as it’ll all pass entirely too soon!


    1. I have so much respect for those who are called to work day after day with the elderly. Thank you for living that out for – wow – 24 years. I’m sure you are a gift to your patients. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.


  12. This was a very interesting read Michele, and looking back is often the best thing for older people to do and those who sit with them. My father is in a care facility and it is very difficult at times to see him slipping away. Thanks for sharing at the Blogger’s Pit Stop. Debbie


    1. We went through this hard season with my mum recently, and even though she has been in heaven for nearly six months, I still have moments when I experience a jolt of “I have to go visit Mum!” because I forget for half a second that she’s gone. Thanks for sharing your heart, Debbie. Sometimes the biggest gift we can give to our aging parents is remembering the past along with them.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve never had an intimate relationship with someone at the stage of your friend’ life; I greatly appreciate her observation. I wonder if that is why as people age they seem to share more of the memories of the “good” old days. Maybe the good old days is when they were more able to make those memories instead of just remembering them…

    I still cannot say that I have found my fondness for Jayber returning yet. In the beginning of the book his recollection of Mattie was sweet; that was before I realized how old he was and how young she was. At this point it creeps me out. I’ve wondered if they’ve even ever really spoken more than a hello, or if he’s admired her from afar; like a high school crush between the nerdy geek and the captain of the cheerleading squad. It seems as if he let this love for Mattie change him in a similar way to how the gospel should change people? (p.194).

    As the chapters pass, Jayber reminds me more of the crusty old fellow sitting at the end of the bar than an endearing barber or the “pastor of Port William.” Yes, I want a pastor that has human qualities and not one high and holy, but Jayber is a bit too human for my want and a little lacking on biblical theology. This relationship he has with his Clydie appears inappropriate and goes along with the lifestyle he seems to have chosen outside the boundaries of Port William. With several chapters left, I’m hoping I’ll find myself in a position of admiration again before it’s over because I really want to find the redemptive quality in him.

    I wonder if I’m missing something that the rest of you are seeing?

    I saw Mattie in the cemetery more as a distraught mother overwhelmed with grief. The mound of fresh dirt tells us that her “baby” daughter was not long dead. Her body cold and lifeless buried beneath and Mattie laying over her overwhelmed with the grief and pain of loosing a child whose life had hardly begun. I can’t imagine that she would be thinking about anything or anyone else but only her grief and maybe the loneliness because her husband was preoccupied and distant–she would certainly not be thinking of an old bachelor & caretaker of the cemetery. I see Jayber’s calling to her in that place no different than one with caring compassion for humanity. If Troy had been lying across the grave, I believe he would have been able to do no different than he did with Mattie.

    I do love how Athey and Della found their way back to a little plot of land so they could live out their days with peace and able to farm the old, simple way they enjoyed instead of being overrun by Troy and his technological advancements.

    As a mother of children that look nothing like myself, I was almost on my feet to cheer Athey when Hiram spoke ugly and Athey quietly and firmly put him in his place. Berry once again leaves me astounded with his last sentence zing. “It might prove out to be, that if we can’t live together we can’t live atall. Did you ever think about that?”

    I fear our current society could use a little more of Athey’s reminder that humanity is more about character and respect than the color of one’s skin.


    1. I enjoy Berry’s portrayal of Jayber “warts and all” — maybe because I’m so painfully aware of my own shortcomings. And I also really appreciated his portrayal of Athey through Jayber’s eyes. So often those quiet farmer types have living wisdom that catches us by surprise. In fact, I’m re-reading The Great Divorce and thought of Athey when I read Lewis’s description of George MacDonald: ” . . . here was an old weather-beaten man, one who might have been a shepherd — such a man as tourists think simple because he is honest and neighbors think “deep” for the same reason.”
      You’ll appreciate in the next section how Jayber dips into his store of Athey wisdom to make a timely retort to a different inappropriate comment in his barber shop.


  14. My dad’s health is declining steadily. My mom is 85. “looking back is so much more satisfying and encouraging than looking ahead.” your words here are powerful. Thats why right now is so important… and that we need to strive to ‘redeem the time… for the days are evil.’ thanks for the reminder.


    1. Wow, yes, and I feel for you in this hard place of watching your folks struggle. It’s hard to see them decline and to see them realize that they have declined — and that there’s no happy ending in sight, at least on this planet. Thanks be to God that we have a future with Him to anticipate.


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