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: Brendan, A Novel

I have really been enjoying the non-fiction books I have read so far in my Year of Reading Buechner, but this month I turned my eye to one of Buechner’s fiction books. I have been eager to read Brendan: A Novel, for a couple of reasons. One, because a few years ago I read and really enjoyed Son of Laughter, his fictional account of the life of the Biblical patriarch, Jacob; and secondly, because this book was all about one of my favourite people from the Early Middle Ages: Brendan the Navigator.

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Brendan was published in 1987, and won the Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize that year. As I mentioned, it is the fictional account of the life of the 6th century Irish saint, Brendan the Navigator, whose story of adventures and miracles encountered during a sea voyage with fellow monks was one of the most popular stories in medieval times.

The tale is told from the point of view of Finn, Brendan’s companion and best friend, and is set in a realistically dark and dirty sixth century Ireland. Brendan is no polished saint in this book, in fact far from it. Finn is a nominal Christian at best, and he casts a skeptical eye on some of Brendan’s tales, because he knows how much Brendan loves to embellish the truth. But there are times when Finn sees Bren performing a miracle himself, and is unable to explain away the occurrence except as a miracle.

There is a great tension in this book between truth and lies; faith and doubt. Brendan himself struggles between these dichotomies. He makes his way with great self-confidence at times, but at others he is racked by doubts. This novel does not allow you to think of him as a saint in the way we normally think of them, as people who are so advanced in holiness that they have left us behind in the dust.

I love the way Buechner portrays the people of sixth century Ireland in this book. They feel like real people. And I appreciate they way he shows how Christianity met and mixed with the old religions that the Irish Celts practiced.  Even Brendan himself, when sent to pray in a cave overnight as penance by the Abbot Jarlath, also turns to the Celtic god Dagda.

He knew it was the one and only true God he was supposed to call on for mercy but he thought it would do no harm to call on the Dagda as well. He only whispered his name in his heart instead of speaking it out loud though. The last thing in the world he wanted was for the Dagda to turn up there in the cave lugging his terrible great club and his brass cauldron. All the boy was after from him was a bit of luck. 

And when Brendan sets off on his voyage, he does so in order to reach Tir-na-nog, a kind of earthly Paradise, the land of the young, where the gods of the Irish Celts lived. It eventually morphed into the idea of the Otherworld, the land of the Elves. These tales  abounded in Celtic folklore, but it is not exactly a kosher concept from a Christian point of view.

But this was an age where the old beliefs were meeting head-on with the new, so this juxtaposition of pagan and Christian is very realistic for the times.The Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, says that Brendan was trying to reach the Promised Land of the Saints. The idea is of an earthly Paradise, such as the Garden of Eden. The stories of Tir-na-nog could certainly have been meshed with that idea, in the minds of Celts who are new to the faith. So I like this insertion into the book, although it is not strictly true to the stories of Brendan.

There is also quite a bit of comedy in this book. The “holy fool” is a theme you find often in Buechner’s writings, and in this book Brendan takes on that role. He is a braggart, full of wild tales and exaggerations; and odd-looking, with his mis-matched teeth, pointy head, and large derrière. He stumbles through this book, at times serenely performing miracles and at others cowering in unbelief and doubt. And so in this way Buechner makes a larger-than-life saint a person we can relate to.

Other characters also have their comedic moments. Finn himself is cheated out of going on Brendan’s first voyage because as they set sail a sudden squall comes up and he falls out of the boat, the others not noticing in the dark.

In the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, the saint only takes one voyage, but in Buechner’s book, he divides it into two. Finn accompanies Brendan on the second voyage, and finds both miracles and heartache along the way. In the end, we are again left with uncertainty about exactly what they encountered, and where, and how much was truth, and how much exaggeration.

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An illustration from the Navigatio from a 14th century manuscript. It shows one of the stories in the tale, of Brendan and his monks staying on an island which they later discover is actually the great whale Jasconius. Image from Wikicommons.


Many of the other famous people from this time appear in this book, such as Saint Brigid, and Saint Malo. I particularly like the appearance of Gildas in this book, near the end, after Brendan is back from his voyages and goes away to Wales to escape his fame.  Gildas is a sour and bitter monk, which actually kind of fits the work for which he is best known today, called De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), in which he details the many sins and failing of kings and churchmen alike.

As Finn says,

He spent his days in his hut with a quill in his hand scratching out on his parchment the nastiness of his times. 

But through Gildas, Brendan gets to meet the great king, Artor, an old man now, still serving as king at Caerlon. Brendan and Finn go to meet him, as Brendan wants to bring him God’s peace after he hears the tale of the betrayal of his queen Gwenhwyfar and the child Artor had with his half-sister. Finn doesn’t hear what Brendan says to Artor, but Artor is grateful for his visit. As they leave Caerlon, the small, wizened figure of the king stands at the battlements, his hands raised over his head in farewell.

Finn says,

I pictured him standing there all the rest of the day and the night as well with his arms in the air and his beard blowing. If I went back in a thousand years it wouldn’t surprise me to find him standing there yet if there’s anything left standing by then in the world. 

I love this picture of King Arthur, watching over Britain throughout the ages.

During a conversation with Gildas, as Brendan reflects on this voyages and expresses the fear that perhaps he had missed the point of what God had called him to do, it comes out in the conversation that the old monk only has one leg.

“I’m crippled as the dark world,” Gildas said.

“If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear?” Brendan said.

Gildas with but one leg.  Brendan sure he’d misspent his whole life entirely.  Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy.  The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths.  We was cripples all of us.  For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

“To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said.  “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.”

This book comes at you sideways. It is a window into the life and times of Brendan, well-researched and imaginative. But it’s more than that, too. Brendan’s voyages, both physical and spiritual, mirror our own voyages through life, with their ups and downs, their triumphs and tragedies. The book contains many treasures, but not all of them are ones that you find along the surface. It forces you to dig deep and ponder a little bit. Not a bad thing, nowadays.

The New York Times Book Review called Brendan: A Novel, “Strikingly convincing…sinewy and lyrical.” I agree.  There is a lot that is earthy in this novel, but at times it will take your breath away. It reminds me a lot of Son of Laughter in that way.  It  took me a few chapters to get into it, but by the end I knew it was one I would have to read again.


Other posts in my Year of Reading Buechner series can be found here:

 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: 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!