Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Wife’s Lament

On of the poems contained within the Exeter book is one called “The Wife’s Lament”. It’s an elegy, a poem that is a melancholy lament on death or other such sorrow, In this particular poem, a wife laments her separation and exile from her husband. It is written in Old English. As the Exeter book dates back to the late 10th century, we know that this poem is at least that old.

I have given you some simple facts about this poem in that first paragraph, but actually some of them are not facts, they are conjecture. Which makes this poem very tricky to write about! Like the Franks Casket, this little poem (53 lines) is subject to many interpretations and much scholarly debate.

Before we get into the general murkiness of the poem’s meaning, I will start with the bare bones of what it is about, in the minds of most scholars. The poem begins with a woman’s general lament over the state of her life. Keeping in mind that Old English is very difficult to translate, and so there are many variations of translations available, here is one fairly easy to understand version of the first stanza:

I make this song of myself, deeply sorrowing,
my own life’s journey. I am able to tell
all the hardships I’ve suffered since I grew up,
but new or old, never worse than now –
ever I suffer the torment of my exile.

The poem then gets into the details of her “life’s journey”. She is in exile because she has married into a different tribe/kingdom, and is without friends or family. And a secondary exile seems to take place in the poem, as he husband leaves her, the reason for which is unclear. Perhaps because of a feud, or a crime, we don’t know enough to say. The upshot of this is that the woman leaves as well, to look for her husband.  She is thwarted in this by her husband’s kinsmen, and is then commanded to live in a hole in the ground. Which leads her to pen this sorrowful poem. Can’t say I blame her.

There is also a section in the poem that could be about a tryst with another lover (perhaps that’s why she is put in the hole), or could also refer to a betrayal of her love by the husband. Some say that the “hole” is actually a grave, in other words, that the woman has been killed, and this is her ghost speaking. Either way, it’s all gloomy.

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Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

So, getting back to the first paragraph of this post, here’s a little more enlightenment on the controversies surrounding this poem:

The title – It is true that the poem is found within the Exeter Book, and is written in Old English. But, like the other elegies and poems in that book, it doesn’t actually have a title in the original manuscript.  The poem simply starts with the first line.  The first person to name it, Anglo-Saxon scholar Benjamin Thorpe, actually named it “The Exile’s Lament” in 1842. It wasn’t until eight years later that the title was changed to “The Wife’s Lament”. What’s going on, here?

Well, first of all, the Old English equivalent for the word “wife” does not appear in the poem. The poem is clearly meant to be in a woman’s voice, however, because the pronouns and adjectives in the poem are written in the Old English feminine form, rather than masculine. And by the way, this is one of the first pieces of English literature written from a woman’s point of view, which makes it pretty special aside from anything else, don’t you think? This is likely why Benjamin Thorpe did not ascribe it to a woman, because there isn’t much literature from a woman’s point of view that comes from this male-dominated era. Perhaps he was just not expecting to see that, and so he didn’t. And as I said, Old English, especially poetic Old English, is very tricky to translate.

The subject of the poem is of a more domestic nature, as compared to the heroic poems such as “Beowulf”,  with its monsters, fighting, and mead-halls. This also makes “The Wife’s Lament” stand out amongst the other poems we have from this era.

Of course, just because it’s in a woman’s “voice” doesn’t mean the creator of the poem was a woman. Don’t forget, very few people could read or write at the time. These poems were meant to be spoken, performed for an audience. It is possible that there were women who created poems, but it is likely that it would only be men who performed them. We only have a few poems from this era that were captured by a scribe at some point and written down. This scribe, however, could have been male or female, as this work was done pretty much exclusively in monasteries or nunneries.

Because of the female voice of the poem’s narrator, she is assumed to be a wife of the “lord” that she is mourning over in the poem. Hence, “The Wife’s Lament”.

The style of poem – although the interpretation of the poem being an elegy is the most common one, some scholars think that this is not an elegy, but is actually a riddle. They believe this because of a lot of complicated textual analysis that I can’t claim understand well enough to write about, so I will take their word for it. The poem ends, Woe to the one who must suffer longing for a loved one. This type of epitaph is typical of Anglo-Saxon riddles, which always end with these bits of what is called “gnomic” wisdom.  It is interesting that this poem, along with “The Wanderer “and “The Seafarer”, are found in the Exeter Book, which also contains 92 other riddle poems. So, I suppose it’s possible….

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Yeah. Basically. 

We have comparatively little extant written material from the Early Middle Ages, and so each piece we have is so very important to help us understand the culture and the times in which it was written. “The Wife’s Lament”, in particular, even with it’s difficulties, puts a small spotlight on a woman’s perspective (albeit a very sad one!), and that makes it very special, indeed.


Want more? Here are the posts in my Anglo-Saxon Literature series:

The Dream of the Rood

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Wanderer

What’s In a Word?

Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Cotton Library

Cynewulf the Poet

Beowulf Basics

Cynewulf the Poet

The Exeter Book

 

Feature image of the Exeter Book from exeter-cathedral.org

Year of Reading Buechner: A Room Called Remember

Full disclosure: I haven’t finished this book. In fact, I am not even close to being done. My Kindle tells me I am at the 33% mark, so you might wonder how I can possibly review a book I haven’t even finished halfway yet.

It’s because of the kind of book this is. A Room Called Remember is a collection of essays, addresses and sermons, published in 1984. I chose this book as one of the 12 Buechner books to read during my Year of Reading Buechner series because it was one of the lesser-known of his titles, and because it contained an essay on writing and language that I was interested in reading.

So, it’s not like it’s a book that has any kind of narrative arc or central theme, it’s very much a book that can be picked up and put down. The different chapters themselves could be read in no particular order, although in general I am working my way through the book from beginning to end, with the exception that I read the essay on writing so I could include some thoughts about it in this review.

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It’s quite a long book. Which is another reason why I haven’t made it through to the end. But the main reason for my slowness of reading the book is because it’s not the kind of book you can read quickly, in big chunks here and there. Each chapter invites careful reflection by the reader. It’s just too much to keep barreling through the book without stopping to appreciate the truths and perspectives Buechner offers us here.

So, with that caveat in mind, I do think that even though I haven’t read the whole thing, I have a good sense of what the book is like. And in a word, it’s marvelous. This collection is full of profound truth and honest reflections on faith, God, and life, and as such is a wonderful opportunity for the reader to ponder these things as well. Buechner is a wise friend and mentor in these writings, coming alongside us to point us to profound insights. He is never pushy or dogmatic, but carefully, with sensitivity, pulls back the surface layers to show us deeper meanings we may have missed in the ordinary events of our lives.

The first essay, from which the book gets its title, A Room Called Remember, is a great example of Buechner at his finest. It is based on a profound dream he had, in which he searched for a hotel room he had found that was the most comfortable of all, just right for him in every way. The clerk tells him he can find the room again if he could ask for it by name, and tells him that the name of the room is Remember. Upon reflection on the dream, he concludes that,

The name of the room is Remember–the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.

The room called Remember is the place where we reflect on our lives. “Listen to your life”, as Buechner puts it, a theme that resonates through much of his writings that I have read so far. In this room we search for glimpses of what has sustained us, the hand that has led us thus far. As he says,

Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond our power to love has kept our hearts alive.

This book is full of thoughtful insights like this. Buechner is a lovely writer, using his words to challenge, delight, and comfort us. He is one of the most quotable writers I have read, and that’s saying a lot. It’s hard to go more than a page without finding something you want to underline. This is true of this book and of all the books i have read of his so far. Many of the chapters begin with Bible verses, the accompanying text (presumably sermons) a reflection on the verses, giving a richness and depth to both his words and the verses.

The essay on words, language, and writing, called “The Speaking and Writing of Words”, is where Buechner develops a theory that language developed out of humanity’s need to understand the world more deeply and to share experiences with others

He goes on to say, there is no world for us until we can name the world. In other words, the things we see and experience do not fully exist until and unless we name them, and even more profound than that, time itself has no meaning without the words to understand past, present and future.

Ultimately, he postulates that the whole purpose of language is so that humanity may speak to God, can look beyond the events of our lives and ask the question, why.

From the spoken word he moves on to writing, exploring how the written word is both like and unlike the speech, becoming more powerful by the fact of its permanence. He explains,

Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much of this power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves…not even across great distances of time and space do they ever lose their capacity for becoming incarnate. 

This is a a powerful and humbling thought for us writers. I suppose, if we are honest, its one of the reasons we attempt to write anything at all.

I am only 33% through this book, but I am not finished with it yet. Nor, I suspect, is it finished with me. I am looking forward to reading the rest of  it, and to rereading it in the years to come. It’s not a book that lets you go lightly.

In the last paragraph of “The Speaking and Writing of Words”, Buechner writes,

…a library is as holy a place as any temple is holy because through the words which are treasured in it the Word itself becomes flesh again and again and dwells among us and within us, full of grace and truth.

It’s a fitting epitaph for this book, too.


For more posts in this series, click the links below:

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

 

The Exeter Book

This post is part of an ongoing series of posts on literature from Anglo-Saxon England.

Lnks to other posts in this series can be found at the end of this post. 


 

One of the important sources of surviving literature from Anglo -Saxon England is the Exeter Book. There are only four surviving collections of Anglo-Saxon literature, and of these, the Exeter Book is the oldest, most varied, and the best preserved. I have mentioned this book before in posts on various manuscripts that are found within the book, and I will be highlighting more in the future, but I thought you might find it interesting to know more about the book as a whole.

The Exeter Book was donated to the library of Exeter Cathedral in 1072 AD by Leofric, the first Bishop of Exeter, and there it has stayed ever since. In his will, which details the sixty-seven books and other objects he wished to be donated to the then-impoverished Cathedral, Leofric describes  “a large English book of poetic works about all sorts of things,” which is believed to be what is now known as the Exeter Book, or as the Codex Exoniensis.  Scholars estimate that is was compiled somewhere between 960-990 AD, and is a collection of various works of religious and secular Anglo-Saxon poetry, including The Wanderer. In fact it contains over 1/6th of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry. It also includes over ninety Anglo-Saxon riddles. Several of the poems included in the book are much older than the tenth century compilation date; some go as far back as the seventh century. In many cases the Exeter book contains the only known source of these works. All in all it’s the largest known collection of Anglo-Saxon literature in the world, and as such was recognized by UNESCO in 2016 as one of the “world’s principal cultural artifacts.”

One of the most fascinating entries in the book is The Rhyming Poem, which dates to the tenth century. It consists of Old English rhyming couplets, which is quite different from any other Anglo-Saxon poetry, which was done in alliterative verse.

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This is an excerpt from Riddle 24 of the Exeter Book. Can you see the runes embedded in this it? They are towards the bottom.  This is an example of a riddle-within-a-riddle. In this case the answer to this riddle, which is “magpie” is spelled out by those runes. (see my post on Cynewulf the poet for another example of this). There are other riddles in the Exeter Book which also include runes as an aid for the reader who is able to read both Old English and the runes. Riddle 24 is fairly straightforward, but there are others, even with the aid of the runes, are still so obscure that the riddle has still yet to be solved. Cool, hey? If you want to read more about this, check out this fascinating article from the University of Notre Dame , which is where this image comes from. 

The book itself is visually unremarkable, however, especially compared with the beautifully illustrated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells.  It was inscribed with brown ink on vellum, likely copied from an earlier version, and has minimal decorations on a few leaves. A couple of initial letters are slightly ornamented. It has lost its original cover as well as the first original eight pages, which were replaced by others at a later date.

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One of the ornamented letters. Image from exeter-cathedral.org

It’s been used as a coaster at some point, you can see the water ring left behind. The early pages are scored through with a sharp object, so perhaps it was also used as a cutting board. The final pages bear some scorch marks. So despite the value of its contents, perhaps its ho-hum appearance was the reason that it was left behind at Exeter Cathedral when a bunch of the Cathedral’s most precious books were donated to the newly founded Bodleian Library at Oxford in 1602 AD. It was obviously not deemed very valuable.

So, it is still at Exeter Cathedral. If you go to visit, you can see it on display there, along with a bunch of other intriguing books and manuscripts, including a Shakespeare Second Folio. But of all of them, the Exeter Book is the greatest treasure.

The Exeter Book still is not recognized today as the important work of literature it is. Most people have barely heard of it, compared with the Diary of Anne Frank or the Magna Carta, both of which have also been recognized by UNESCO and entered into their Memory of the World register.

But that might change. Exeter University professor Emma Cayley began developing an app in 2016 to make the book more accessible to the  public. I checked, but it’s not available yet. I hope it is soon! I can’t help but think that Leofric would be pleased.


Links to other posts in this series:

The Dream of the Rood

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Wanderer

What’s In a Word?

Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Cotton Library

Cynewulf the Poet

Beowulf Basics


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Featured image: The Exeter Book on display at Exeter Cathedral. The book is open to The Wanderer. Image from UNR English 440A, photo credit UMD iSchool

Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

So far in my Year of Reading Buechner series I have read two of Frederick Buechner’s four memoirs: A Sacred Journey, and Now and ThenThese two books cover Buchner’s early childhood, marred by the suicide of his father, and the beginning of his career as a professor and writer.

This month it was time for the next memoir, Telling Secrets. This book was written in 1991, when Buechner was 65 years old, and in it he discusses the impact of two great secrets in his life. First, the alcoholism and suicide of his father when he was very young, and secondly, the struggle his teenage daughter had with anorexia during the time that this memoir was set.

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Once again, Buechner’s aim in writing this memoir was not only to tell the story of his life, but to tell it in such a way that the reader is brought to a reflection of their own. So, in this book, he begins in the introduction by saying,

It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are–even if we tell it only to ourselves–because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. 

The book begins with Buechner discussing the impact of his father’s suicide. This has been a theme in other writings of his, but in this book he explores how his family’s unwritten rule of keeping the secret of that death had profound implications for him. Keeping that secret in a very real way not only erased the sadness and horror of that event but also in many ways erased his father himself from Buechner’s life, such that very quickly he could not even remember what his father looked like or sounded like. Interestingly enough, it was through the writing of Godric,  reviewed here on the blog last month,  that he began to understand an important truth, namely that,

…although death ended my father, it has never ended my relationship with my father–a secret that I had never so clearly understood before. 

Godric allowed him to explore that relationship again, and to say things to his father in that fictional setting, through Godric’s relationship with his father, that he was never able to say in real life.

Another theme of this memoir is the power and role of memory in our lives. He explores how through memory we can revisit the old hurts of the past and gain healing.

It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may  have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later. 

So many of us have hurts and secrets that we run from and stuff deep inside. I love this idea of revisiting the past and having a chance for a do-over, for making peace with all those people and events  that have scarred us.

The second secret explored in the book is that of his daughter’s anorexia; her slow starvation almost to the point of death, and his utter helplessness in the face of it. On the outside, they were  a happy, prosperous family, and in many ways that label was true. But it masked the sadness, grief, and fear of this terrible illness. It forced Buechner to comes to terms with how his desire to control his children (so that no terrible thing would happen to them and cause them to leave, like his father had left) resulted in his daughter’s symbolic grasp for freedom through her illness.

It’s utterly honest and told with sensitivity and even some self-deprecating humour, which is characteristic of Buechner’s voice in these memoirs. And as always, through his writing not he only reveals his own life but takes us by the hand and encourages us to ponder our own. What secrets are we carrying around with us? How are those secrets crippling us? Can we face them, and tell them, and so be freed from their powerful hold over us?

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The Little Ease was a tiny room in the Tower of London where prisoners could neither stand up fully nor lie down properly. Buechner uses this  as a metaphor for how he spent so much time, spiritually and psychologically speaking, bound up in dark, cramped, airless rooms of his own making. He contrasts this with the Chapel of Saint John, right above the Little Ease, a place of serene silence, peace, and holiness. Telling Secrets describes his journey from the one to the other during the course of years detailed in the book. 

Telling Secrets also covers some of Buechner’s professional life as well. During these years he taught a couple of courses at Harvard University’s Divinity School, which he describes as a difficult time, given that many of the students didn’t even believe in God. He contrasts this with a joyful time teaching a course at Wheaton College in 1985, which is Billy Graham’s old alma matter, and where he found the practical and open faith seen in the students’ lives refreshing and encouraging.

Around this time, in 1987, Buechner wrote and published Brendan, to great acclaim. And around that time as well, he discovers the power of attending an Adult Children of Alcoholics Anonymous -type group, which, along with some innovative therapy, brought much healing to the wounds of his past.

This book is another wise and gentle memoir, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It gives you much to ponder long after you read the final sentence. The two memoirs I have read so far are ones that I will definitely re-read, and this one will be the same.

 

 

Book review: The Private Lives of the Saints, by Dr. Janina Ramirez

The subtitle of this book, Power, Passion and Politics in Anglo-Saxon England, is a clue to why I was attracted to it. There is not a lot of books on Anglo-Saxons out there, and even fewer on the saints of the period. I was very glad to see that someone had tackled this subject!

Dr. Ramirez is an Oxford lecturer, BBC broadcaster, researcher, and author. Her aim in this book is to widen the stories of the Anglo-Saxon saints to encompass the times in which they lived, and to show how their influence in that tumultuous time gives us clues about the culture and society of the Anglo-Saxons themselves. The book was published in 2015 by WH Allen.

Needless to say, this is a subject near and dear to my heart, so it was with great eagerness that I opened the book. I was a little afraid that Dr. Ramirez would start from the seemingly more and more popular societal view that the Christians were the source of all that is wrong in our world (ok, maybe an exaggeration but you know what i mean, don’t you?), but thankfully I did not see that bias in this book. I found it to be a fair, balanced, and ultimately fascinating view of these real people who lived so very long ago.

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I will admit to knowing nothing about Dr. Ramirez before reading this book, but I was delighted to find she is has many BBC TV specials to her name (including one on The Treasures of the Anglo Saxons) , as well as print publications both academic and mainstream. She has her PhD thesis, The Symbolic Life of Birds in Anglo-Saxon England available at her website. Cool! Plus, she does many lectures and hosts a podcast, Art Detective. Phew! Busy lady! Image from her Facebook page. 

The book begins with a short but succinct description of Anglo-Saxon England. as well as an important explanation of the word, “saint”.  Too often we take our modern definition of “saint” – an extra-holy person officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church – to frame our understanding of these early saints. However, in the Anglo-Saxon period, a person was declared a saint by the common consensus of the people, which meant that pretty much anyone with influence and high status could earn this title. And even some without those qualifiers.

The lines between secular and sacred, the worldly and the otherworldly, are incredibly hard to define in the early medieval period. A king could be a saint, and a bishop could rule like a king. The idea that someone could be declared a saint simply due to popularity is something that is hard to grasp from our twenty-first century perspective. 

Ramirez gives us a good example from modern times to help us understand how this worked. Princess Diana was a royal figure, who lived in the public eye, and who was known for her good deeds and kindness. Her death sparked worldwide mourning on an heretofore unseen scale. In Anglo-Saxon England, Diana would likely have beeen heralded as a saint (with the caveat that of course, a saint in the early medieval period would also have the added mantle of Christian piety attached). But her example gives us an understanding of the mixture of public status, power, and virtuous living that seized the imaginations of the Anglo-Saxons and prompted them to confer the title of “saint” on various people in their society.

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Princess Di, a modern-day saint? Image by John McIntyre on Flickr

The book looks at the important Anglo-Saxon saints in chronological order, starting with Alban, Britain’s first Christian martyr in the 3rd or 4th century,  and ending with Alfred the Great (died 899 AD). Along the way she covers many of the saints that I have discussed on the blog, such as Brigid, Patrick, Columba, Cuthbert, Hilda, and Bede; plus a few others that I haven’t got to  yet: Alban, Gregory, Wilfrid, and Alfred.

In each chapter Dr. Ramirez gives us a thorough understanding of the times in which the person lived, and attempts to go beyond the official hagiographic account of the saint to explore what this person was really like, as well as their impact on their society. Along the way we learn fascinating details about the Anglo-Saxons and the incredible diversity of people, religion and culture that made up the mix of life at that time.

Dr. Ramirez gives us a really good principle to follow when studying the past, and it’s one that resonated with me. It is exactly this principle that has made it easier for me, as a novelist, to tackle the sometimes daunting task of bringing an era that is so far removed from our own to life:

…it is a central premise when studying the past to remember that humanity never changes beyond recognition, and regardless of the seeming differences between people past and present, basic human interests remain largely the same. 

It is this connection to the humanity of these sometime plastic and daunting figures that makes The Private Lives of the Saints so interesting.

I was happy to see that my own ramblings on these subjects on the blog lined up fairly well with what Dr. Ramirez presents in her book. As I have said before, I am very much an amateur on these subjects – I’m a novelist, not an academic historian – but I have done careful research on the times and people of the Early Medieval period in order to present that era as accurately as I can in my novel.

Dr. Ramirez does take a different view of Brigid than I did, which is fair. She come down on the side of the theory that Brigid was not a real person, but her cult grew out of a Christianizing of the goddess Brigantia. I won’t quibble with her. I think there are compelling cases to be made for either view. And I would certainly not recommend you skip that chapter if you disagree with her on that, because if you did you would miss one of the highlights of the book for me. The chapter on Brigid contains a wonderful explanation of the history of monasticism and how the Celts looked to the early Desert Fathers for inspiration as they established their monasteries in extreme, harsh locations. This chapter is well-worth reading, even if you might not agree with her ultimate conclusion about Brigid.

I also loved that Ramirez included a couple of favourites of mine who are not officially names “saints” but whose influence cannot be denied, that being the Venerable Bede and Alfred the Great (I haven’t done a post on him yet, but I definitely will!).  They were highly important figures not only in their day but also in our own. We owe a lot to them both, and in this book you will find out why.

I highly recommend The Private Lives of the Saints. I learned a lot, but never get bogged down in dry history. Dr. Ramirez has brought these people and the era in which they lived into bright relief. I really appreciate her careful and thorough scholarship throughout, as well as her knack of making it all so very interesting.

I give this one 5 stars. Perfect for lovers of history, especially of the Anglo-Saxon era, but really for anyone who wants to understand more about these fascinating people who have shaped the world we live in today.


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Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

American writer Frederick Buechner has written four memoirs: Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (1982); Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation (1983); Telling Secrets (1991) and The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found (2000)

Throughout the course of this year’s reading series, A Year of Reading Buechner, I am working my way through the memoirs. I read the first one, A Sacred Journey, a couple of months ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and so it was with great anticipation that I settled  down on the couch to read Memoir #2, Now and Than: A Memoir of Vocation. 

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I was not disappointed. Like the first one, this second memoir is short, but full of rich meditations on life and vocation.

A Sacred Journey finished at the point where Buechner is going off to seminary to become a Presbyterian minister, and this book begins right where he left off. He details his life at college, and the beginning stages of his career as a college professor and a writer.

However, “details” is probably the wrong word. Unlike The Alphabet of Grace which took readers through one day in detail, this book is more of a bird’s-eye view of about thirty years in his life, in which he began as a student and ends as a best-selling author and successful lecturer.

The book is broken up into three sections. The first, New York, details his life as a student at Union Theological Seminary, his wrestling with the decision to give up writing to become a minister, and his marriage to his wife, Judy.

However, as it turns out, he doesn’t exactly have to make the choice between writing and the church. Shortly after his graduation, when he had resolved to set writing aside and embrace his call as a minister, and was waiting to find a church at which to serve, he received a letter from a colleague who was trying to organize a full-time religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, and asks Buechner if he would take it on. The second section of the book, called Exeter, takes place here, where Buechner and his wife move and he accepts the job as Head of the Religion Department.

It’s not exactly the same as being the minister of a local church, but he finds out it is very much like it. As well as conducting classes at the Academy, Buechner is called upon to preach at the (then mandatory) chapel services, where he encounters a congregation of young, bright, skeptical, and even hostile youth who attend services only because they are forced to be, as part of their requirement for their degrees.

And these students, who share, with all of us, the same dark doubts and wild hopes, in turn force Buechner to be on his toes. As he explains,

what little by little I learned from those years at Exeter was that unless those who proclaim the Gospel acknowledge honestly that darkness and speak bravely to the wildness of those hopes, they might as well save their breath for all the lasting difference their proclaiming will make to anybody. 

During his nine years at Exeter, as the Religion Department grew under his leadership, his family grew, too. Three daughters came along, and with them, a cosy family life. But after about four years, he takes a year off to do some writing, out of which comes a novel, The Final Beast. 

It is also during the years at Exeter that he encounters Agnes Sanford, whose teachings on healing prayer had a great influence on many Christians both then, and now. From her he learns how to pray, how to listen in prayer, and the importance of faith in prayer. And for one whose early childhood was marred by the suicide of his father, her teachings on the healing of memories must have struck a profound chord.

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Phillips Exeter Academy, where they still have a Religion Department. It includes a course called Faith and Doubt, which requires the students to read one of Buechner’ s works, The Alphabet of Grace. I think he must be pleased by that. Image by JeffL on Flickr

The final section of the book, Vermont,  is about the time after Exeter, when he left the thriving Religion Department and moved to Vermont. There, crippled by doubt that he was making the right choice, he lays aside his busy academic life and begins to write in earnest.  It is during this time that he comes face to face with a character who will engage him like none other before, Leo Bebb, who becomes the main character of The Book of Bebb, published originally in four parts (1971, 1972, 1974 and 1977) and finally bundled together and published together in 1979.

During this time Buechner’s daughters grow up and move out, and as he says,

Life went on, of course, and I managed to get around much as before, but there were times when it felt like trying to get around on broken legs, and there are times when it feels that way still. 

As one whose children have left the nest to follow their own adventures, I can very much relate.

This book is engaging and thought-provoking.  Buechner revisits the theme he explored in A Sacred Journey, that of looking at our lives as not only “what happens to us” but as how God is speaking to us through the events in our lives.

Listen to your life, he writes. All moments are key moments. He further explains,

What are the words, what is the meaning, that this living alphabet of events spells out?–not meaning in the sense of a lesson to be drawn, a moral to be appended, but meaning in the sense of what your life means to you, of what your life is telling you about yourself? 

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It’s a good reminder to stop and ponder these things, and to think about how God arranges your life, and the decisions your make and the paths you take, along with the ones not taken, and how it all becomes more than the sum of its parts.  Not a movie, but more like a stone that Joshua took from the Jordan as the Israelites passed over and set on the side of the river as a remembrance, for the Israelites to revisit and remember their great escape. There are a great many of these remembrance stones to be found along the path of our lives, if we would just look for them.

In this book Buechner also touches briefly on the craft of writing. I found a couple of good pointers.  One, to use words in your writing that are the most accurate and alive that you can find. This is great advice for any writer, whether of fiction or non-fiction.

I also like this advice:

If you have to choose between words that mean more than what you have experienced and words that mean less, choose the ones that mean less because that way you leave room for your hearers to move around in and for yourself to move around in too. 

All in all, this is a graceful, poetic, interesting memoir that is not only about Frederick Buechner and his life as a lecturer and author from the 1950s to the 1980s, but it is also about every one of us. As he says in the introduction,

If you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story. I do it also in the hope of encouraging others to do the same–at least to look back over their own lives, as I have looked back over mine, for certain themes and patterns and signals that are so easy to miss when you’re caught up in the process of living them. 

I think he succeeds, and so I highly recommend this book.

Listen to your life. You may just hear God’s voice speaking to you, too, and be surprised and delighted at what He says.


Other posts in this series:

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

 

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

In 1968, Frederick Buechner had just moved with his family to a farmhouse in Vermont, after concluding a successful stint as a the department head of the Religion department at Philip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Buechner began working on a new novel, but making the transition from writing amidst a busy career to focussing solely on writing was a challenge, and he soon found himself struggling. He writes in his memoir, Now and Then, that the writing of it…was so painful that I find it hard, even now, to see beyond the memory of the pain to whatever merit it may have.

In the midst of this struggle he received an invitation from the Chaplain at Harvard to present the Noble Lecture series in the winter of 1969, a proposal which both flattered and intimidated Buechner. Previous presenters had included luminaries such as Richard Niebuhr, and Buechner was uncertain he was up to the task.

However, the Chaplain, Charles Price, upon hearing Buechner’s concerns, wrote back, suggesting that he write something about “religion and letters”. And out of that thin sliver of inspiration, The Alphabet of Grace was born; first as the lecture series, and subsequently published as a book.

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Buechner’s idea was to write about the everyday events of life,

…as the alphabet through which God, of his grace, spells out his words, his meaning, to us. So The Alphabet of Grace was the title I hit upon, and what I set out to do was to try to describe a single representative day of my life in a way to suggest what there was of God to hear in it.

The book is broken up into three sections: Gutturarls (6:45-7:30 AM); Sibilants (7:30 -8:30 AM), and Absence of Vowels (8:30 AM – 11 PM). At the time Buechner’s family was growing up around him, and he writes of ordinary things such as getting up in the morning, having breakfast, dropping the kids off at school, and going to work–which in his case was to the nearby church where he co-opted a Sunday School room in which to write–followed by going home and finally to bed.

An ordinary day, in other words, such as is lived by many ordinary people. But don’t be fooled. Out of this ordinary day Buechner has crafted an extraordinary book, which will linger with you long after it is finished. It is a long meditation on how to see God in the midst of an ordinary life, and the difference that makes to the person living it.

The first sentence of the book is this:

At its heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. 

His point is that people understand concepts through the lenses of their own experiences, whether that be the concept of family, love, or friendship. And so it is with our understanding of God and faith. We meet Him in the daily ordinariness of our own existence, or not at all, and this is the theme that runs through this book.

Right at the beginning he quotes a passage from one of his own books (The Final Beast) in which the character, a young clergyman, lies down in the grass, praying a fervent prayer of only one word: Please. A prayer of longing, not entirely sure of what he is asking, until he clarifies it. Please come, Jesus. 

And nothing happens, at least, nothing that anyone would notice. Except for the young man, who, in the midst of an extraordinary moment of timelessness and significance, hears two branches of an apple tree strike together in the wind: clack-clack.

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Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

 

This was not just a moment in Buechner’s novel. He explains in The Alphabet of Grace that this was a moment he lifted out of his life and put in the novel. And it perfectly describes the way in which a person can be moved out of unbelief into faith, in ways that are hard to explain to anyone else but real, nonetheless.

The quote from the novel continues,

It was an agony of gladness and beauty falling wild and soft like rain. Just clack-clack, but praise him, he thought. Praise him. Maybe all his journeying, he thought, had been only to bring him here to hear two branches hit each other twice like that, to see nothing cross the threshold but to see the threshold, to hear the dry clack-clack of the world’s tongue at the approach of the approach of splendour. 

This idea, of the ordinary moment being transformed into one of transcendence, is the idea that Buechner explores throughout the book. The clack-clack of those branches are interwoven in and out of the ordinary events of his day.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Buechner is a giant of faith, who has it all figured out. Part of his great appeal is that he shows himself just as he is, doubting, confused, and weary, hanging on by the skin of his teeth, so to speak. And yet, he cannot even now turn away from the path.

Cannot is not the right word. If faith is anything, it is a choice. God comes to us with his hand outstretched, and it is up to us to take it, or not. In the moments of his day, through the interactions with his wife, his children, through the struggle of putting words down that convey exactly what he means, Buechner shows us how the choice to take that hand is presented again and again. It’s so easy to forget, in the midst of the minutes passing, that at every moment is a moment in which we can take that hand.

Doubt is not fatal to faith. In fact, doubt can strengthen faith, through an honest wrestling through the questions that plague us. Buechner writes of doubt, and the longing for a miracle that would put all the doubts to rest. But then he muses,

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. 

And so, through the ordinary day of an ordinary man, we see his journey and gain a new understanding of our own., We hear the clack-clack of the branches, signalling the approach of the approach of splendour. 

And with him we say, praise Him.