I first read Frederick Buechner when I was eighteen years old. Actually, to be exact, Frederick Buechner was first read to me when I was eighteen years old. One night in a rural village in Tanzania, my cousin Audrey read aloud excerpts of Wishful Thinking. We were both teaching at a local school at the time, and things were difficult. As I lay in my bunk, discouraged and weary, I listened to Buechner’s words, words that danced and spun, illuminating and invigorating. The next day I borrowed the book from Audrey, and by evening I had finished it. And then, caught up in the midst of life in the village, I forgot about Buechner. For a while.
That Christmas, Audrey gave me Listening to Your Life. A year later, I picked up Godric from a used bookstore, I bought Peculiar Treasures and Whistling in the Dark to round out the trio of theological handbooks. And then I discovered the memoirs. I read them slowly and lovingly, savoring the way that the words tasted. After that, it was hopeless; I read all the Buechner that I could get my hands on, and as I became immersed in Frederick Buechner’s understanding of the world, my spiritual journey was beautifully altered.
I think that from a young age, I had always known the themes that Buechner highlights: the sacred quality of the ordinary, the luster of the seemingly mundane moments of our lives, the glitter and the magic of sheer existence. As a child, I used to read and dream, and reading always made ordinary things begin to take on an otherworldly glow. I thought I was the only one.
It was the illumination of the grass, the way that the sunlight danced between the blades. It was sitting on the bridge of a stream in Ireland, watching the way that the water glittered in the air when the children splashed one another, feeling my soul lift as I noticed the eleven different shades of green. It was the painful question of will and determinism, and the way that this question was fleshed out in the drama of my own choices. It was the way that my grandmother’s home was always warm and softly-lit, the way that I felt wrapped up in blankets when I was there, safe from all danger.
It was these things. The symbols of the world. I knew that they meant something, and something important at that. But I had no idea what the symbols meant or why they were there at all. As I began to understand Buechner’s literary and theological vision, I realized that he, too, recognized that the seemingly ordinary moments of our lives are charged with significance. And that he attributed all of this to God.
“Listen to your life,” Buechner writes. “See it for the fathomless mystery that 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.” Life itself is grace. The word of God, the grace of God is fleshed out in the crises of our own experience, in the love and the suffering both. In all the boredom and pain, all the excitement and gladness. And faith requires not simply abstract propositioning, not simply dogma and theology, but touching, tasting, smelling…feeling. Faith requires living, and, in lovely circularity, life itself is grace.
I had always known that the symbols of the world meant something, and Buechner led me to understand that they are God’s metaphors. God speaks in the world through the very things I had noticed: the illumination on the grass, the laughter of the children, the numb loneliness of desertion, the cup of tea that my grandmother sets before me as we sit down to talk the afternoon away, the dusk that transforms evening to night. Through the bright and lilting melody that Buechner sang in his literature, I was guided to this realization. There were others along the way, of course. Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Shakespeare, C. S. Lewis, Plato. But Buechner, I believe, summed it up when he said, “From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.” Buechner was the first one to reveal to me that the world that I saw was, as Hopkins writes, bursting not with meaningless yet beautiful symbols, but with the very grandeur of God. It is veritably charged with it, like the crackle of lightning, like electricity, like the sun.
And so, thanks to Frederick Buechner and thanks to grace, I am learning to pay attention. The Lord knows it isn’t a lesson to master in this life, but perhaps it’s a discipline to sharpen. To notice the world and all that is within it as a miracle, to throw off the veil of familiarity and see this place, this story, as epic and dangerous, mysterious and lovely. “In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things,” Buechner writes.
And literary art, the telling of stories, is a place where we can speak to each other not only of the holy things that we see, but of the holy things that we are.
Frederick Buechner taught me that.