Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Thus begins my new reading challenge for 2018: Year of Reading Buechner, in which I read one book per month of American author Frederick Buechner.

For my first book in this series I decided to start with Buechner’s newest, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (Zondervan, 2017). I started here because, unlike some of Buechner’s other works, it was relatively easy to find. I also wanted something that was new, not just a rehash of some of his other works, but something that would nevertheless give me an introduction to some of his ideas and themes.

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This book succeeded in those goals, for the most part. It was a good introduction to Buechner’s work, but I wouldn’t say it is completely new material. It is based on a series of unpublished lectures given in 1987 and 1990, and in those lectures he tells some of the same familiar stories about his childhood, people he’s met, etc. that I have heard other places. And because it’s based on a series of lectures, the style is perhaps less formal than it would be if he had published these as essays. Or maybe not. Perhaps this is the way he writes, too. I’ve only read snippets of his non-fiction amd just one novel, so I don’t have a huge base of comparison.

At any rate, setting those minor caveats aside, I did enjoy this book. The casual style is very easy to read, but that’s not to say that the thoughts expressed are simple ones. In many ways Buechner reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who can take very complicated subjects, especially in the realm of theology, and make them easy to understand. In Remarkable Ordinary, Buechner’s theme is that God speaks through our ordinary lives, through the people we meet and the events of our day, and it is up to us to take the time to pay attention, to stop, look and listen, as the tag line of the book says.

The book is divided up into three sections: Part 1: Stop, Look, and Listen for God, Part 2: Listening for God in the Stories We Tell, and Part 3: Telling the Truth. 

In the first section Buechner talks about how art, whether it is a painting, or a story, or music, can be  valuable to us because it forces us out of our own thoughts and into a place where we are forced to notice something completely different.  Literature, he says, forces us to stop.

 Stop thinking. Stop expecting. Stop living in the past. Stop living in the future. Stop doing anything and just pay attention to this. To this boy and this black man floating down the Mississippi River on a raft, this old king going crazy on a heath because two of his three daughters have done terrible things to him, pay attention to this young woman named Anna Karenina who is about to drop in front of a train because her love has failed her. Literature, before it is saying anything else, is saying, Be mindful.

In the same way, an visual artist is saying Look.

Look at each other’s faces the way Rembrandt looked at the old woman’s face. Or look at your own face, maybe that’s the hardest of all, in the mirror the way that Rembrandt looked at the old woman’s face, which is to say  look at it not just for the wrinkles and the sunken upper lip and the white fluff, but look for what lies within the face, for the life that makes the face the way it is.

And music, of course, invites us to Listen. Interestingly, Buechner postulates that the medium of music is time, in that one note follows another the way one moment follows another moment.

…I think that what the musician is trying to do is to say, Listen to time, pay attention to time, pay attention to the sounds and the silences of time. Experience the richness of time.

…It is also saying, Listen to the sounds, listen to the music of your own  life.

This book is full of little moments like that, sentences that invite you to Stop, Look, and Listen. Woven throughout the book is the encouragement to take that idea one step further and specifically to stop, look, and listen to God in your life. Buechner has spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about this idea, and you can tell. This concept soaks through his words, the notion that God is always speaking to us, and that we need to train ourselves to pay attention.

So much of life is showing up and paying attention, and that is doubly true of the life of faith. The beautiful story of Elijah in the Old Testament (1 Kings 19:9-14) shows us that often God often speaks to us not just through the fire, wind, or earthquakes in our lives, not just through the dramatic moments, but with a still, small voice, in the quiet moments when we may not be expecting to hear Him.

Last week I posted on the blog about how the Celtic Christians see the world, as one in which God speaks to us through everything  so in that sense, everything means something. But to pay attention in this way is hard. We get used to looking ahead to our next thing, and forget to pay attention to the present. Or we are consumed with guilt or worry from past actions, and are blind to the present moment of grace being offered to us.

All of this reminds me from this wonderful scene from the film, Bruce Almighty, starring Jim Carrey:

Too often we are so caught up in our own troubles, or we fail to acknowledge that God might be speaking to us in a way we don’t recognize, so we miss what He is clearly saying.

This book was a good reminder to slow down and pay attention. A good way to begin a new year!

Everything Means Something, or How To Think Like a 7th Century Celtic Christian

I’m off on a winter holiday, so I thought I would look back in the vaults again and share another post from my first year of blogging. It didn’t get a lot of looks, but it’s one I’m fond of!


I sat on my chair, reading, the afternoon sun pouring through the windows. My dog, a big goof of a Labrador/Newfoundland mix, came into the living room and I watched as he walked around the room, sniffing at things. I had to watch him carefully; at this stage in our lives together he was known to not stop at sniffing, but to take the next step of grabbing some treasure in the hopes of inducing a mad chase around the house as I attempted to get the treasure back. But no, he was content to wander and sniff this time, circling the coffee table a few times as he did so. I watched him carefully, seeing that he was circling the table counter-clockwise, and he did it three times, before settling down, and I thought about “widdershins” – circling counter-clockwise – and the number three. I wondered the deeper meaning of this, what sign could I read in it?  Three is the sign of the Trinity, true. The movements of Creation, in this case my dog, often held deeper meanings than the obvious, so why counter-clockwise? What did it all mean?

It was a brief thought, fleeting, only, and in the next split second I snapped back to my more modern-day mindset. But I treasure that small split-second, because it gave me just a tiny glimpse into the worldview of a Celtic Christian back in the 7th century.

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A Celtic Cross in Knock, Ireland. Photo from Wikicommons

At that point I had been studying the Celts and their unique take on Christianity for a couple of years, on and off, all part of my research for my Traveller’s Path trilogy. I had also started writing the book (which turned into three, and now maybe back into two), and had come smack up against one of the great difficulties of writing historical fiction: how do I, as a 21st century novelist, truly represent the worldview of a 7th century person?

The short answer is, I can’t. Not really. If you think about the gulf that exists between here and then, the changes in the world, the history that lies behind us which the 7th century people could not even imagine, it becomes pretty clear that to write with the “true” point of view of someone from that time and place is nearly impossible. However, I believe that this element of historical fiction is often where the “bad” is separated from the “good”, and the “good” from the “excellent”. When I finish a historical novel, do I feel like I have truly visited that time and place, or do I feel like the characters reacted in a far too “modern” fashion to the events of the day? Writers come their work with lots of ideas about religion, equality, wealth, democracy, etc that, for most people in most of the world’s history, would be utterly incomprehensible. If they are not careful, those ideas can leak through into a story in inappropriate places.

So what is a historical novelist to do? How do you step into the mind and worldview of a time so far removed from your own?

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Well, I don’t want to speak for all historical novelists, as I’m sure every one has a different method, but I can tell you what I did.

First of all, I cheated. Hah. I knew from the outset that I couldn’t do justice to the time and place in a way that I would be satisfied if I tried to make my POV character someone from that time. And besides, the type of novel I  love to read is the portal fantasy, in which a person from our time/place is somehow transported into another. Think of the Pevensies going through the Wardrobe, or even Harry Potter entering Hogwarts. So I decided that my main POV (point of view) character would be from our time, who, on Halloween, has an unfortunate encounter with demons and ends up in the 7th century.

This enabled me to write about the 7th century from a modern mindset, and allowed me to insert some explanations of events or culture that the person native to that time and place wouldn’t think twice about. And I could do that without too much difficulty or awkwardness in the narration.

After I got going, I did some writing from the POV of some of the characters in the book, just to help me get into their heads, so to speak. Some of those made it into the book, eventually. Hopefully they will “sound” realistic to the readers!

Secondly, research. Which goes without saying, of course. I found this fascinating, but also harder than I expected. For example, one of the best ways a historical novelist can learn about the mindset of people who actually lived in the time they are writing about is to read documents and letters actually written during that time period. There isn’t much of that available for 7th century Northumbria. This wasn’t an especially literate age. So while you can extrapolate a certain amount of things, in the end a lot of what the scholars have to say about the lives of ordinary people is speculation. So at times I felt like I was skating on thin ice as I wrote, but I consoled myself with the fact that, hey, this is fiction, after all, not a strict historical survey of the times.

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Well, yes, Google is helpful! But I promise I also did research that involved actual books…

Immersing myself into the people and times of the book, and imagining in fictional form what life was like from their point of view brought me to that day as I watched my dog wander around the living room.

The Celts practiced a polytheistic religion, worshipping many gods which controlled many different aspects of life, especially nature. When they converted to Christianity, this sensitivity to the natural world was enhanced, for now they recognized God Himself, the Creator, as being responsible for everything around them.The pagan Celts would see significance in the direction a crow would fly, so too would the Christian Celt, but in a slightly different way. God created all and directs all, they reasoned, and since God is a loving, intelligent, all-powerful Being, it is obvious that everything that happened was directed by Him to happen. Christians today still believe this of course, but the Celtic Christians took this very seriously. So, in their view, if my dog was circling around the table counter-clockwise three times, he was prompted by God to do so, and therefore there was divine significance in it, and if I would meditate on this, and prayerfully ponder it, the message might become clear.

To live as a Celtic Christian was to live in a world that was hyper-saturated with God’s presence, where the natural world was a form of revelation to us in a way we find hard to understand today. It takes a certain form of seeing which we dismiss now as superstitious, but in reality was far from it. As the title of this post say, basically Everything Means Something, and not just “something”, but in particular, Everything is a message from the God of Creation to us, if we would but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Which is why, that day in my living room, when I got a tiny flash of what it would mean to live in a world like that, I was profoundly grateful. It was a very small link to some of my ancestors in the faith, and it gave me a glimpse of a world drenched in meaning and haunted with God’s presence in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

I don’t have the ability to stay in that world for too long. My mind has inherited the Enlightenment and the Age of Rationality and Materialism and all the other schools of thought between that time and our own.

But that’s why historical fiction is so much fun. For a short time we can leave our time behind and enter another one, and get a taste of what it was like “back then.” And for the writer, this is both a terrifying challenge and a deeply satisfying exercise, if your words come out just right.


Photo credit: Celtic Cross, St. Patrick’s, Drumbeg, by Albert Bridge

2017: The Year That Was

Before I forge on into this New Year, I had one more task I wanted to do here on the blog. I thought it would be interesting to examine my stats (helpfully supplied by WordPress) on how I am doing here.

It’s a bit humbling, to be honest, but ho hum. The truth hurts! The good news is the number of views per post is finally starting to go up a bit.I’ve had a few posts get over 100 views this year, so that’s a nice change.

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Here’s the details, in unforgiving black and white:

  1. Most popular post on the blog – the post that has been viewed the most (239 times) is my review of “The Last Kingdom”, the Netflix miniseries about the Dark Age warrior Uthred,  based on the Saxon books by Bernard Cornwall. This appeared on the blog in 2016, so it doesn’t count as the most popular of 2017, but it’s tops over all, so I thought I should mention it.
  2. Most popular post in 2017 – my recent post on Kings and Queens of Anglo-Saxon England got the most views in 2017, with  196 views. That was up on the blog in December and was my last post this year on Anglo-Saxon people and culture. I’m glad to see this topic resonating with readers.
  3. Second and third most popular in 2017 – those go to Penda: King of Mercia (165 views, from February) and What They Wore: Clothing in the 7th Century (110 views, from August). Again, I’m happy that these posts are generating some interest.
  4. Least favourite from 2017  – the dubious honour for this goes to my Year of Fun Reading: Wrap Up (10 views). But that’s probably because that was only a week ago and it was posted in the week between Christmas and New Year. So I’m not sure the lack of views means that people weren’t interested.

It’s interesting to have a look at the numbers, but I find it hard to do any kind of useful analysis on them. It’s probably (hopefully) not true to say that a post is no good judging by the amount of views it gets. Lots of other variables factor in, including time of day you post, and how many people share the post (thank you SO much to those who have done this!). But in general I will say a few things strike me as I look at these stats.

  • The number of views are generally increasing. So, I will take that as a positive.
  • People are liking the posts on Early Middle Ages people and culture. These tend to be the most popular posts on the blog.
  • Book reviews, such as my “Year of” reading challenges and other reviews, are fairly popular, and posts about writing, are slightly less popular that those. And less popular than both those are the posts with my original fiction. That’s not so great for this aspiring writer!

I have tried to do a better job of promoting my blog on social media, mainly via Twitter. I have used Hootsuite to schedule posts so that there is more from me on Twitter but this is something I could definitely improve upon. So I will try to be a little more intentional about that this year and see if I can get my readership continuing to grow.

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The whole spectre of marketing my work is a huge area that I know I can improve upon. There is reams of advice out there for bloggers on how to do that, so I will take some time to work on this in 2018.

However, there is a delicate balance here that I find tricky. I really enjoy writing here on the blog, and I try to do a decent job of crafting interesting posts. Each post probably takes from two to four hours to write. Depending on the topic and the amount of research I have to do, it might be longer.

But I’m also trying to get a novel published. Definitely my writing here detracts from that, just because time spent here is time I’m not spending on my book.  I really enjoy posting here, and the connections I have made through my blog are wonderful, so I don’t want to give it up. And I can see that WHEN I get my book published, it will be good to have this space as a place to connect with readers. So I have to be careful with time management for it all to work.

Last year I developed a writing schedule that I managed to stick to fairly well, but I will spend some time this month revisiting that. I find that setting goals really helps me. I really want to be able to publish in 2018, so I need to get my ducks in a row. And I need to do some serious work on figuring out strategies for effective book launches, and marketing of said book, etc.

There’s lots to look forward to in 2018! Thank you to all my faithful readers, and double thanks to those who take the time to comment or share my posts. You all are a great encouragement and blessing to me, and I look forward to continuing to connect with you here on The Traveller’s Path in the year to come.

Onward and upward!!


Feature photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

So…here we are in 2018!

A brand new year is an opportunity for reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future, and in this case, I’m going to do the latter and reveal my new reading challenge for 2018: The Year of Reading Buechner.

First of all, a brief explanatory note. I started doing a reading challenge two years ago, with my Year of Reading Lewis, in which once a month I read a book by C.S. Lewis and blogged about it here. I truly enjoyed that series, and will definitely do a Year of Reading Lewis, Pt. 2, one year, because there are many more Lewis books I want to re-read and others I want to discover.

Last year I embarked on the Year of Fun Reading Challenge, inspired by the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog, and had a great time! But this year I wanted to return to something a little more meaty. I almost decided on doing my Lewis Pt. 2 series again, but in the end decided to branch out a bit and try someone different; an author into whose works I have been wanting to delve more deeply.

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Frederick Buechner. Photo from frederickbuechner.com

Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) is one of America’s greatest living writers, still active today, in his nineties. He has earned many awards, including the O. Henry Award, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, finalist for the National Book Award, Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize, Critics’ Choice Book Award, and others. His honorary degrees include ones from Yale and Virginia Theological Seminary.

Buechner is both an author and a ordained Presbyterian minister, and his writing runs the gamut from poetry, essays, fiction, sermons, and autobiography. He has published over 30 books, which gives me a lot to choose from!

I am not completely new to Frederick Buechner. A couple of years ago I read The Son of Laughter, his book about the biblical patriarch Jacob. I found it so startling and compelling I have been eager to read more of his work ever since. Aside from that, though, I chose Frederick Buechner for my focus this year for a couple of reasons.

First of all, he is someone who writes about the intersection of faith, culture, and art, and that is something I am very interested in. I’m looking forward to his thoughts on this, and to examining how he does that in his own writing.

Blechner also has a couple of fiction books on medieval saints. Godric (published in 1980) was the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year, and Brendan (1987), is about one of my favourite characters from the Early Middle Ages, Brendan the Navigator. So I will be able to tie at least some of his writing into my Dark Ages focus here on the blog.

Finally, I have been intrigued by the many quotes and excerpts I have read by Buechner.  And in October, when I read this post over at A Pilgrim in Narnia, I was sold. Buechner it would be for 2018!

Probably his most famous quote is one that is good for us all to ponder, especially as we head into this new year:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

– Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation.

I hope you will join me as I journey into the writing of Frederick Buechner. As in previous years, I will be reading one book a month for this series and will blog about it on the last Friday of the month. The series will start at the end of January with one of Frederick Buechner’s newest: The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Your Life. 


Featured Image from Quotesvalley.com

The Lindisfarne Gospels

In looking back through the vaults, I see that this post didn’t get too many looks the first time it was published, back in 2015. So I thought I would share it again. Hope you enjoy this bonus post! New content coming tomorrow…


 

There are many seeds that an author can point to that lead to an idea for a book. Looking back I can identify quite a few that led to my fantasy trilogy, The Traveller’s Path. Without a doubt one of those was planted on a summer’s day in 1987 when I saw the Lindisfarne Gospels in person for the first time.

My husband and I were spending a glorious summer travelling through Europe. We began our travels in Britain – I have relatives there whom I had not seen for over a decade, who live in Wales. But before we got there we spent three or four days in London (which is truly one of my most favourite cities in the world). One of our first stops was the British Museum. We are both history buffs and we couldn’t wait to see the treasures there. And indeed we found treasures galore, too many to mention here, but I could write tomes about them all. A happy, happy place for us!

Towards the end of the day, after we had wandered through the Egyptian exhibits (mummies! Book of the Dead!) and the Ancient Cultures (Nebuchanezzer! Treasures from Ur!!) and the Greek rooms (Pantheon Friezes!) we saw that there was a section of the museum called the British Library (this is housed in its own building now, separate from the Museum, but at that time it was part of the Museum itself). Being book lovers as well as history buffs we figured we should go have a quick look around.

Walking into the exhibit rooms the first thing we saw displayed was a large glass cabinet, with a big book open inside: the Lindisfarne Gospels.

I had never heard of this book before, but I was immediately captured by the sheer beauty of the thing. It was the first illuminated manuscript I had seen in person, and the details and exquisite craftsmanship absolutely stunned me.

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew, consisting of the first sentence (in Latin):

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew, consisting of the first sentence (in Latin): “Liber generationis Iesu Christi filii David filii Abraham” (The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.) The letters on the side are the Old English translation, added 250 years after the Gospels were finished.

Just spend a moment pondering that page. I can assure you that the impact is magnified ten-fold when you see it in person; the colours are much more vibrant, and you can really get close and see the details. Here’s a close up of part of another page:

A detail from the second initial page from St. Matthew's Gospel.

A detail from the second initial page from St. Matthew’s Gospel.

Not every page were illuminated like this, of course. The main body of the book was written in the beautiful “uncial” style of writing, developed in Britain at this time. Here’s an example:

A page from This is one of the very few pages on which Eadfrith's original 7th century script can be admired almost entirely free of the gloss added by Aldred in the 10th century. Clear and black, very assured and regular in form, this script, designed for formal use, is known technically as insular majuscule. The page gives details of particular passages in St John which are to be read on specific feast days.

You can see Aldred’s gloss of Old English up at the top, the rest of the page is one of the few places in the Gospels where you can see Eadfrith’s script free of the gloss and admire the beauty of his lettering. The page consists of instructions on which passages of the Gospel of St. John should be read on specific feast days.

There are reams and reams of scholarship available on the Gospels, I can’t begin to go into the depths of detail about this wonderful book that it really deserves, but let me give you just a few quick details:

  • Best guess for when the book was finished is 698 AD, as part of the celebrations at Lindisfarne of the translation of St. Cuthbert’s relics to the high altar of Lindisfarne. Cuthbert was one of Lindisfarne’s most famous abbots. Other scholars place the date of completion around 710-720 AD.
  • it is a compilation of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), in Latin, from the Latin Vulgate. It was written on vellum, the very finest calfskin available, and it would have taken 300 cattle to make the book. The pigments used were from local sources (ores, lead, etc) but possibly also some lapis lazuli from the foothills of the Himalayas.
  • The translation of the Latin into Old English (Anglo-Saxon) was done by Aldred, a priest, 250 years after its creation. Aldred also added a colophon in which he gives some of the history of the book’s creation.
  • The artist/scribe used lead point (the forerunner of the pencil) to do preliminary drawings on the back of the page, using compasses and dividers as well, and then backlit the pages in some way, perhaps using a transparent horn desk found in the Islamic territories. He then traced the design on the front and painted it.  In some cases he deviated from the design he originally drew, obviously struck by inspiration as he worked.
  • It was bound together and given a jewelled cover; the original was lost, unfortunately, but it was given a new cover in 1852.
  • It was taken by the monks from Lindisfarne during the era of the Viking attacks, and preserved by them until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1500s. It’s history is murky after that, but somehow it ends up in the collections of Sir Robert Cotton in the 1800s, who collected many early Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and whose collection formed the basis of the British Library.
  • It is the work of one man, likely Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne at the time.

Go back and look at the second image for a moment, and think of Eadfirith, in the scriptorium at Lindisfarne, likely cold and drafty with its open windows to let in the light. He is the Bishop, busy with the administration of this monastery, and aside from his duties as Bishop, like all the monks he participates in the rhythm of monastery life: eight times during the day and night to drop everything to attend the services of the Divine Office, plus doing the work of the monastery such as tending the livestock, brewing ale, etc, plus time for study and contemplation. Think of the concentration necessary to do such fine, detailed work, and the planning that was needed to develop the designs. Other Gospel books, such as the Book of Kells, were the work of a team of scribes. Eadfrith was the lone creator of this one, a fact attested to by Aldred’s colophon as well as careful analysis of the writing and art contained within it.

It is estimated that someone today, working two years full time with electric light and heating, could make something similar, but not up to the standard displayed here. It likely took Eadfrith approximately ten years to complete the Gospels.

It’s an incredible, unbelievable achievement. Eadfrith would have begun each session dedicating his work to God, for this was truly an Opus Dei, a work of God. He would have seen every stroke as part of a prayer he was offering on his behalf and on the behalf of the community at large, each word a “wound on Satan’s body”, according to the Roman monastic founder Cassiodorius, whose works would have been very familiar to the monks at Lindisfarne.

Looking at the Gospels I was struck by the devotion and dedication of this man, and I began to wonder what it was like to create this, what spurred him on to do it, how he accomplished it. Those questions lay buried in my mind for twenty years until a few other seeds came together and began to take root and grow into Wilding, Book One of The Traveller’s Path.

I knew that I had to include Lindisfarne, and those monks, in my book. As it turned out Eadfrith himself isn’t in the book, as Wilding takes place (mainly) in 642 AD, but his incredible workmanship displayed in the Lindisfarne Gospels was a huge creative inspiration to me as well as a spiritual one.

Eadfrith died in 721 AD. If you accept the later date of the Gospel’s completion, it would mean he died shortly before it was finished. And indeed, there are places in the book where the drawings are unfinished, where paint was obviously meant to be added but was left undone. I can’t imagine Eadfrith not finishing it if he was at all able to do so, so I can see that the reason why it was left undone was that he died before he could complete it.

It was his life’s work, the Word made word, done to the glory of God. It’s a challenge to us to make our lives count for more than ourselves, and a reminder that dedication and single-mindedness can help you achieve something glorious. And that every brush stoke of our lives can be dedicated to God as a prayer, trusting in faith that something of it will survive for His glory.