After reading Buechner’s latest book last month to start of my Year of Reading Buechner, I decided that before going any further into his works I should read his first memoir, The Sacred Journey, so as to have a sense of who he is, and of some of his story.
Buechner has written four memoirs all told. The Sacred Journey is his first, written in 1981, when he was fifty-five years old. He was at the apex of a busy and successful career as a lecturer and author, and decided that he would begin to set down the story of his life.
This first memoir covers the first part of his life, from childhood to just after the publication of his first and second novels, and includes his decision to become a Christian and to pursue the ministry.
Those few words are far too utilitarian to describe this lovely book, however. I was very glad to see that my hunch in reading last month’s book was correct. That book, The Remarkable Ordinary, was a compilation of some of his previously unpublished lectures. I found the writing style to be somewhat casual, more like a lecture than well thought out writing, but I was thought that his other books would likely have a higher writing standard.
I was not disappointed. This book captivates from the very first sentence.
How do you tell the story of your life–of how you were born, and the world you were born into, and the world that was born in you?
In Buechner’s case, he tells the story by weaving us a beautiful tale of grace-haunted moments, of sorrow and joy, of childhood and the larger-than-life characters that populate his world. And of failures and successes, and of the backdrop of his life, which was America in the 1930s to the 1960s, and how that era marked him.
I don’t want to re-tell the story of his life, because I would really love you to read it for yourself. He tells it so much better than I could.
This is a short book, only 112 pages in my paperback copy, but full of wisdom and truth. I’ve starred or underlined something every two or three pages. It’s a book that weaves a gentle, contemplative spell.
As he explains,
Deep within history, as it gets itself written down in history books and newspapers, in the letters we write and the diaries we keep, is sacred history, is God’s purpose working itself out in the apparent purposelessness of human history and of our separate histories, is the history, in short, of the saving and losing of souls, including our own.
It is this most important history that Buechner addresses in this book. God is speaking through our lives, he writes. What can the events and ordinariness of our lives tell us of what he has said, and what he is saying still?
I am reading this book in my 55th year, so I understand perhaps some of the motivation he had for writing this book. As you get older the past becomes both more significant, and less. The people who populate it, especially those who live only in your memories now, are mythic beings. The events you have lived, some epic, some ordinary, are signposts along the way. You get feeling that you want to make sense of it all, and there must be some sense to make, if you could only spend some time to figure it out.
I love that he took that yearning and turned his life story into so much more than just a story of events, although you certainly get those. But woven throughout all of it is the question of not just what happened, but what it means. And therein is an even more interesting tale.
This wider scope is what makes this book both so very intimate but also so very relevant to the reader. As he says,
My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.
Indeed, in the telling of his story Buechner invites us to look with new eyes upon our own story, to see those grace-haunted moments that we may have been oblivious to when we lived them.
This book has many, many glowing reviews, and I will confess that although I didn’t disbelieve the authors of the reviews, I couldn’t quite understand why people said it was a book they returned to again and again. Why would you want to read a memoir of someone’s life over and over? Once you had read it, wouldn’t your curiosity be satisfied?
Now I understand. This is a book that is meant to be read, and re-read, and savoured. Buechner gives you much to ponder, and a light to shine on your own path. I highly recommend it.
My rating: 5 stars. Or however many stars you would give to one of the best books you have read.