My friend John Mark is profoundly trustworthy. He is a dear companion in faith and the source of many fine musical tips. He makes lovely dinners. His wife has the kind of smarts that are all too rare. His eldest son thinks I look really cool.
Basically, if Jayber says something, I listen.
But there is one great topic upon which we break company. The literary work of Frederick Buechner. Buechner is an acclaimed novelist and essayist who happens to be an ordained Presbyterian minister who has never served a day as a pastor. This allows me to scapegoat him as a representative of all those Christians who can write mighty fine words but don’t seem to have the appetite to back them up by helping the bank teller in the congregation who struggles with lust or counsel the couple before their jubilant marriage or grieve with a bullied child.
At the risk of becoming what I hate, the world spills over with lush words that fail to feed community.
So JM said, read this and be converted! See the light! Learn to love Buechner. So I did. And I didn’t.
Buechner is a smart dude. He breaks this memoir of his early days into three parts. The first, remixing Dylan Thomas, is entitled “Once Below Time” and involves lovely thoughts about what it means to be a child and to take creation as a gift in all its ‘givenness’. The second section details the tragedy that shaped his life and is called “Once Upon A Time”, tackling the Edenic loss of innocence that brought with it the temporal sensitivity. Finally, in this first volume memoir there is the journey into faith called “Beyond Time”.
There are many beautiful passages in this book. Not least the one that Jayber himself quoted a few months ago. I loved the prose behind his description of what could all too easily be called puppy love.
She was a girl going on thirteen as I was, with a mouth that turned up at the corners. If we ever spoke to each other about anything of consequence, I have long since forgotten it. I have forgotten the colour of her eyes. I have forgotten the sound of her voice. But one day at dusk we were sitting side by side on a crumbling stone wall watching the Salt Kettle ferries come and go when, no less innocently than the time I reached up to the bust of Venus under my grandfather’s raffish gaze, our bare knees happened to touch for a moment, and in that moment I was filled with such a sweet panic and anguish of longing for I had no idea what that I knew my life could never be complete until I found it. “Difference of sex no more we knew / Than our guardian angels do,” as John Donne wrote, and in the ordinary sense of the word, no love could have been less erotic, but it was the Heavenly Eros in all its glory nonetheless- there is no question about that. It was the upward-reaching and fathomlessly hungering, heart-breaking love for the beauty of the world at its most beautiful, and, beyond that, for that beauty east of the sun and west of the moon which is past the reach of all but our most desperate desiring and is finally the beauty of Beauty itself, of Being itself and what lies at the heart of Being.
That is just about as much dense and florid prose as I can manage however. I think that it is representative of Buechner’s writing, Buechner’s theology and the tone of the book. Soon after we have one of the worst sentences I have ever read. When read aloud over a breakfast table it ilicited long-lasting laughter from my friends and has since become a running joke for us. He writes with unintentional hilarity about the “rich and faintly comic sense of making do” after his prepostorously wealthy family move home from Bermuda. Nestled amongst the “sour smell of fat pine and dead leaves in the woods that surrounded our house, the dogwood and mountain laurel that blossomed in the spring, the redbud forsythia”, Buechner describes a local eatery called Missildine’s where you could get a coke at the soda fountain and where they made “grilled cheese sandwiches as heavy and limp as dead birds”.
Sandwiches. Heavy. Limp. Dead birds. Comedy gold.
Buechner’s book is filled with unnamed cast members. The slave, I mean, servant who found his father’s corpse is unnamed. The boy of another servant who was fished out of the canal unconscious remains unnamed. The cast of characters that actually take up space in his memory are the people who are like him. Perhaps I am far too critical a reader but the impression that one gets as he navel gazes decades after the fact about how he took the place of a fellow soldier at the front of his discharge ceremony since it was lacking proper decorum for a black man to lead the queue is of a man who has lost his passion for inclusion somewhere along his sacred journey.
He had an epiphany as a soldier preparing for World War II. Eating a muddy turnip revealed to him the goodness of the Earth, “the need to praise someone or something for it”. This is admirable and maps the description that JM offers me of Buechner’s work. He is noteworthy as a man who seeks the sacred in the mundane. But the faith that Buechner celebrates seems too cerebral to sustain such praise. It is a faith made up of attitudes and beliefs, not action. His father’s suicide “opened up some door in me to the pain of others” but his faith in the crucified Christ who calls us to take up the Cross and follow him does not extend for Buechner, to helping heal others of their pain. He continues, “not that I did much about the others, God knows, or have ever done much about them since because I am too lily-livered for that, too weak of faith, too self absorbed and squeamish”.
Where is the power and transformation in this sacred journey, this life of “crazy holy Grace”? What good is it to find the sacred in the secular and the holy in the turnip if we remain too squeamish or worst of all “too weak of faith”(!) to share these moments of light in word and deed with others.
There is much of great value in this first volume of Buechner’s memoirs. While the resplendent prose all too often falls hollow like a banging gong, crashing like an empty box on impact with the cold earth after its short but seemingly endless tumble from a ship container, points of light and wells of deep profundity remain. Their voice still echoes in the stillness that has descended since the last page was turned and the final word was read. Citing a speech of Caliban’s in the Tempest, Buechner calls on us to “Be not affeard” for the dream of faith. It is such a beauty that when we awake it is with tears in our eyes for what we have lost with the end of slumber. Yet how can such riches and beauty have dropped upon us if it were not to have dropped from a heaven that did exist?
My attempt at mimicry may fall on deaf ears, (but I will consider it a success because it made Clairebo want to puke) but I found even in this book substantiation for the scapegoating I have forced upon Buechner in the past. Remember, my problem with him was his happy acceptance of what seems to me a casual ordination. He then defines vocation as “as much the world that chooses you as the work you choose”. No finer words on the topic can be imagined but the work does not choose us, Rev. Buechner. The Spirit does, expressing herself through faith communities. Thus, I have wrestled with my call to ministry for many years but it is only latterly that such internalised, fraught considerations have become real as my wider church has made the call to me. After prayerful consideration, they have chosen me. I pray that choice will rest upon me like a grace, but a grace laden with responsibility until I die. I am called to ordained ministry and that means I am called to the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments in the context of a local church.
I can go off and write books if I like. But I ought to hand in my “Rev” should that be the case, or at least make my explanation of why I should keep it a topic of one of those said books. No clearer source for such a position can be found than the words of Buechner himself.
He closes by calling on us to “never question the truth of what you fail to understand, for the world is filled with wonders”. There are books of Buechners that are numbered amongst such wonders. And there are fans of Buechner that are enumerated there as well. But the part I must take seriously is my own failing to understand why he should be so highly revered. The Sacred Journey was read one bright, glorious morning in August, surrounded by close friends in a beautiful house by the ocean. No finer setting could be imagined for the reading of a book that seeks to reveal the work of God in the midst of time and space. Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1904 of how “such haphazard meetings with books sometimes present them under conditions hopelessly unfavourable”. This is not the case for my reading of the Sacred Journey.
It had the recomendation of great friends. It had a primed mind reading in the ideal setting. Yet the overwhelming impression I have is of a book filled with wordiness pretending to be profundity, a maddening aversion to specificity, the preening wealth of the author and his curious lack of moral contemplation of the suicide of his father. Ultimately, it is an anti-memoir; internalised, serving poetic passages in lieu of anecdote or story and most damningly of all, devoid of humour.
Your Correspondent, Suffers the fatal capacity to read books recommended by friends