A blog for Catholic men that seeks to encourage virtue, the pursuit of holiness and the art of true masculinity.
What Jayber Crow Can Teach Us About the Priesthood and Celibacy
April 4, 2019
As someone who sees perennial bachelorhood as a societal sickness, recommending Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry might seem counterproductive. Jayber, Berry’s main character in the novel, is a small-town barber that finds himself an “ineligible bachelor,” as he puts it. He never marries, never has kids, and in that way is “free” of the burdens of family. However, Jayber’s life unfolds in a priestly and sacrificial way, celibacy included. As a husband following Jayber’s story, I found myself cherishing my own marriage and seeing the gravity of my role more clearly, and valuing more the priesthood associated with masculinity.
Jayber is orphaned at a young age and finds himself in
intuitions that are clearly dehumanizing – first he’s in an orphanage and then
a seminary. Both places he sees in
contrast to the countryside and its river-based economy of his youth. He especially hates men in authority talking
over desks to subordinates. Jayber
develops an instinctual trust for organic cultural realities like small towns,
agriculture, and families, and a mistrust of powerful, self-referential, and
overconfident “authorities” like financiers, agri-businessmen, and
politicians. He operates a barbershop
for decades but retires to a small cabin on the river after a government
inspector informs him that his source of hot water (a kettle on a woodstove) is
not considered “running hot water,” as stated by some barber-code Jayber’s
never read. His trade continues, though,
when he and his community work out an arrangement wherein he gives out free
haircuts in his bathroom-less cabin and they give him donations. It’s an example of the spontaneous yet organic
ability of real people to work out economic sanity. This backwoods barbershop rebellion is but a
continuation of Jayber’s refusal to play the games of the expert and the
Jayber Crow is
frequently compared to Dante’s Inferno,
because the story is drawn forward by his love for a woman – Mattie Chatham –
that he never possesses, as Dante is pulled toward heaven by the beauty of
Beatrice. But I think the priestliness of Jayber is
also an apt image that helps us understand the power of the story. Jayber’s priesthood, first of all, is through
the fact that he takes in the workworn men of his town and sends them back out,
“baptized” in a fresh cut and shave. He
speaks of his love for them, and willingly fulfills the “position” of a barber,
a real vocation, as one customer puts it contrasting that word with a “line of
work”. On the other end of life, he also
is the local gravedigger for the town church.
As with barbering, this is an eminently practical way to love his
community in the sacramentality that Wendell Berry sees in common life. Jayber even at one point has a mystical
experience in the church (which, institutionally speaking, he is somewhat
distant from) wherein he sees his community – dead and alive – raptured in song
But Jayber can also be compared to a priest when he embraces
celibacy out of love for Mattie Chatham, the love he never possesses. He even makes a vow, which he is inspired to
do after he was on a date with his next-town-over girlfriend (he was not
celibate before the vow). During that
date he sees Troy, Mattie’s husband, with another woman. As Troy catches Jayber’s eye he gives a sign
of comradery, almost seeming to brag that he’s with another woman in a freedom
like Jayber’s. Jayber knew Mattie to be
one of the purest signs of beauty and goodness in the world, so Troy’s
infidelity, his assault on the truth of Mattie, repulses him so much that he
flees the party by climbing out of the bathroom window, sells his car, and
roots himself completely in his own town and in the place of his work. He never parties in the next town again. During this conversion – literally on the
drunken walk home – he makes a solemn vow, which he keeps for life, of being
“faithful” to Mattie to, in a way, set right the imbalance of unfaithfulness
that Troy’s cheating creates. He’s a
bachelor for life, but he has given up the false freedom that comes with that
and gives himself totally to a love he will likely never enjoy, in an earthly
way, in this life.
Jayber never “makes a move” on Mattie, and never explicitly
reveals the vow he has taken. He simply
transforms his bachelorhood into a sacrificial celibacy, not because he does
not believe in marriage, but because he does.
And by embracing this self-gift, Jayber finds himself finally and fully
rooted in his place, able to grow old and wise in the company of his people. (How many priests, shuffled every few years
to new places, never get to feel such things.)
Before the vow he was a bachelor, one foot in his town and another in
the next (where the women-for-bachelors were), but by his vow he grows up and
gives himself totally to his vocation, which, although unique, is real and
Wendell Berry’s novels are not kitsch small-town clichés,
like Norman Rockwell in print. Rather,
they reveal the truth behind modernity’s love-affair with autonomy and false
freedom. Marriage points to the future reality
of man’s union with God, and it does so by directing our freedom away from
self-love toward sacrificial love.
Priestly celibacy points us to the same reality, by living that full,
sacrificial union with God in this life.
Jayber Crow not only pulls the
veil on the false freedom of chosen bachelorhood, but displays the mystery of
love and sacrifice that, like Dante’s love for Beatrice, is more than just
being able to physically embrace one’s love, but to give our total life without
the expectation of reward.
This article was
originally printed in the quarterly magazine for men, Sword and Spade, which is edited by Jason Craig.
particular good essay is Anthony Esolen’s “If Dante Were a Kentucky Barber” in The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, published
by ISI Books, Wilmington, DE
Jason Craig works and writes from St. Joseph’s Farm in rural North Carolina with his wife Katie and their five kids. Jason is the author of Leaving Boyhood Behind and Director of Program and Training for Fraternus, a mentoring program for young men, and holds a masters degree from the Augustine Institute. He is known to staunchly defend his family’s claim to have invented bourbon.
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