THE GIFT OF THE ORDINARY: WRITING FAITH AND LIFE WITH FREDERICK BUECHNER
By Rosanne Hawke
It [this day] is a moment of light surrounded on all sides by darkness and oblivion. In the entire history of the universe, let alone in your own history, there has never been another just like it and there will never be another just like it again. It is the point to which all your yesterdays have been leading since the hour of your birth. It is the point from which all your tomorrows will proceed until the hour of your death. If you were aware of how precious it is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all.
- Frederick Buechner
Frederick Buechner (pronounced Beekner) is a renowned American novelist, memoirist, theologian and preacher who has written over thirty books. His work was like a gift to me as an emerging writer, but even more so now as an established one. However, to treat Buechner’s body of work in a paper of this size would be as impossible as describing a sunset in one colour, for he writes across many genres, forms and themes. Here, then, by considering his nonfiction, especially memoir, I’ve chosen to discuss a few themes from his work that have touched me the most, including: the art of listening to your life; faith and story; and the power of pain, joy and memory.
I first discovered Frederick Buechner at a time when I was struggling to integrate my life, my faith and my art. In the book Of Fiction and Faith (1997), Dale Brown interviews twelve American authors about their vision and work. The chapter on Buechner resonated powerfully with me. At the time, there were no conferences on the sacred and the arts, or Christian creative writing courses and the like – at least not here in Australia. Feeling completely at sea in trying to relate my creativity to my Christian faith, I was captivated by the way Buechner spoke, with such grace and humility, of his own experience of feeling caught between two worlds in his writing career.
Before his conversion and eventual ordination, Buechner wrote two novels – the first being the successful A Long Day’s Dying (1950). Not surprisingly, after his conversion his work took on more of a faith focus, and even though I’d never call his work propaganda, that was how many booksellers saw it at the time.
Buechner’s early frustration at being a Christian writer in an increasingly secular literary world caught my attention, as I too felt called to write for a wider audience without putting my faith to one side.
Buechner felt that becoming a minister would forever affect the sort of readership he would have, and to some extent he simply learned to accept this. However, he didn’t stop writing honestly about who he was and how he saw his own life as a committed Christian. This encouraged me to write to Buechner to share how his words had spoken to me. To my delight, he wrote back, confessing that in the (then) present literary scene, to be labelled a Christian writer was like “the kiss of death.”
Despite his concerns, Buechner’s work has been read widely and well received. He was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Lion Country (1971) and even the Pulitzer Prize for Godric (1980), the story of a medieval saint. Famed novelist and essay writer Annie Dillard wrote of Godric, “Buechner’s novel does what the finest, most appealing literature does: it displays and illuminates the seemingly unrelated mysteries of human character and ultimate ideas.”1 High praise indeed!
One of the most startling themes woven through Buechner writing, however, is that of “listening to your life”: that is, your ordinary life. “Pay attention”, Buechner often writes, inviting us to look at our lives with the eyes of our heart. This is, according to Buechner, the most basic way to experience God. I find in this kind of attention to the everyday a freedom to live each moment, to see God and his goodness in each thing we notice and do throughout the day, and to find joy in whatever happens. But Buechner also advises us to be honest with God. To avoid thinking about an event – maybe because we think it isn’t very holy or because we found it painful or difficult – will often make it fester and pop out in some unwanted way.
Following Buechner advice, I began to see my life, my art and my faith as a little like the Holy Trinity, in the sense that these things can’t be disconnected. Buechner never tries to separate any parts of his life: who he is, his ordinary day, his art, his faith. Throughout his reflections, these elements combine into one honest, wise, beautiful circle of unbreakable strands.
There is no event so commonplace, Buechner urges, but that God is present within it, always hidden, yet always leaving you room to either recognise him or fail to do so.
The temptation to disregard the ordinary as spiritually insignificant has a long history. In A Theology of the Ordinary (2017), Julie Canlis writes of the Docetists who, just a century after Christ, cast suspicion on the common humanity of the Son, trying to undermine the spiritual value of worship in the ordinary life, which they believed was beneath God. This idea still lurks in our Christian culture today. Not so for Buechner. He welcomes the humanity of Christ and the ordinary in his everyday life. Jesus, after all, embraced an ordinary life to show us the Father and to gift us with redemption. Canlis writes:
“If the Incarnation made ordinary life holy, then all things in life can and must be brought into worship … The whole world has been redeemed and ordinary life with it. Closeness to Christ is found in our ordinary physical existence, not by leaving it behind.”2
Theologian Dallas Willard seems to concur when he observes: “The well-kept secret of the ordinary is that it is made to be a receptacle of the divine, a place where the life of God flows.”3
During any given day there may be experiences that bring either joy or pain. In heart-aching honesty, Buechner writes about the universality of pain and how some shut pain away, like his mother did when his father suicided; some are trapped in it like Miss Havisham in David Copperfield; some even regard it as a personal achievement, like, “I’ve had this happen to me… and that… and that.” Some even make a joke of the indifference pain and suffering can cause. But Buechner, by contrast, adopts the idea of being a good steward of pain.
In The Clown in the Belfry (1992), Buechner relates the parable of the talents, focussing on the man who buried his talent so he wouldn’t lose it. Buechner sees the talents as the hand we are born with. The man who buried his was afraid of the master, of living with and making good use of the talent. So, he buries what he’s been given instead – and in so doing, he buries his life, his experience, his joy. Buechner goes on to say that God doesn’t sow the pain, but he does look to us to harvest treasure from the pain, to spin gold out of the straw we’ve been given. Being a good steward of your pain involves being alive to your life, in bad times and good. It involves taking the risk of being open, of reaching out, of keeping in touch with the pain as well as the joy in what happens, because it’s especially during the painful times that we live out of the depths of who we are instead of out of the shallows.4 The man with one talent didn’t make use of what had been handed him, and so the talent was taken away. If you don’t face your pain as part of the life God has given, your life shrinks. Buechner refers this back to his mother burying her sadness and the way her life was diminished as a result.
There are no easy answers, if any answers at all, in Buechner’s work. Instead, he urges his readers to think – but does so graciously – about faith, about doubt, and about both pain and joy. In Faith that Matters (2018), he asks: would an encounter with God like Job had dissolve all your questions about pain and suffering? He recounts the story from Job (42: 5-6), and how God revealed himself to Job so that he wouldn’t ask for an explanation again. Job realised it was no longer a sensible explanation that he needed because he had beheld the One who clothes all things, however small or confused or in pain, with his own splendour. And that was sufficient.5
When I first read Buechner’s memoir, Telling Secrets (1991), where he honestly and humbly tells of his own pain, I was deeply inspired. In my letter I told him how much it had helped to hear of his experience of family pain, as I was just emerging from a tunnel of grief following a spate of family deaths and mental health problems. Buechner’s description of how he loved his anorexic daughter too much to be able to help her especially resonated with me. In his return letter, he wrote that his daughter was well now – a mother of three, a minister and his role model. At the time I couldn’t say that about my son, but Buechner gave me hope and now I can. Throughout his memoir, Buechner says, yes, we may lose everything and everyone we love, and we don’t always know what will happen next. Yet:
“…if we will simply quiet ourselves and really listen into the stillness and silence, we will hear God speaking to us. In the quiet we can use our memories and imaginations to remember our stories and the lives of our lost loved ones. And then we can catch glimpses of Him who was there all along.”6
As mentioned, when I first discovered Buechner I was questioning the connection between art and faith. Buechner offers advice on this, too: “Stop, look and listen,” he writes. “I think in a sense that is what biblical faith is saying almost before it says anything else: Stop, look, and listen.”7 Not only does writing require us to stop, but it also, helpfully, enables us to stop. In this way art can become part of our spiritual engagement with the ordinary day.
Buechner also believes that of all the arts, none is more basic to the nature of biblical faith than that of storytelling. After all, that is what the Bible is – a grand narrative, albeit composed of many books. Literature does a lot of things, like moving us, instructing, and entertaining; but above all, good literature calls us to stop everything and pay attention to “this” now. Literature, Buechner says, is telling us to be mindful.
Art helps us stop by putting a frame around something and making us see it in a way we never would have under normal circumstances. Generally speaking, the arts frame our life for us so that we can experience it more fully.
In humility, Buechner writes also of faith. He says he is hesitant to push his faith in nonfiction but lets his fictional characters show their faith. He feels that it is in his novels that he allows himself to speak unreservedly of what the eyes of his heart have seen. He admits his characters often tell his own story. Our faith, he says, comes from the story that each one of us has lived in this world, not just from what we’ve heard from the pulpit, and at a certain level we all have the same story. In Telling Secrets (1991), Buechner suggests: “My story is not important because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognise that in many ways it is also yours.” He also says there are only two stories that really matter, God’s story and the human story, and we are all living out different versions of those two stories with an infinite number of variations. Buechner tries to present the stories of his fictional characters as honestly as he can – people who may be messed up by life and yet who are touched by the presence of God and his grace, whether they know it or not.
When it comes to capturing something of your faith perspective in your writing, Buechner’s advice deserves special attention. He says:
“Write about what truly matters to you, not to catch the eye of the world, but to touch the quick of the world, the way they have touched you to the quick. Then your readers will be more alive, a little wiser, a little more beautiful, a little more open and understanding, in short, a little more human.”8
I couldn’t agree more. What’s more, reading Buechner’s own writing helps me to see things differently, so that I am more aware – more alive to who I am and the humanness of others – which I trust will help me write from the depths rather than the shallows. Even now I’m getting ideas for my next novel just from re-reading Buechner. He even urges us to look carefully at our enemies – look them in the eye, see how tired they are, then, you’ll love your enemy.
It’s in looking that we are able to love. For Buechner, looking in art seems to switch to wisdom in life. For him, to see is to love, to love is to see. And to lose faith is to stop looking.
The reader may not always agree with Buechner’s point of view, but his work is such that even nonbelievers can read it and be provoked to think, without feeling pushed. I regard this aspect of Buechner’s writing as a work of grace. John Irving (author of A Prayer for the Dying and who also attended one of Buechner’s creative writing classes) once wrote of Buechner: “You don’t have to be in the habit of going to church to listen to such a literary minister; you don’t have to be a believer to be moved by Mr Buechner’s faith.” Those who read Buechner discover that he believes in a God who works in the ordinary world. He understands there are many perplexing questions, and he ponders them together with the reader and does not condemn. He seeks out God’s mystery and his power, and he discovers both in the common things and in the painful things. He writes about beauty, grace, love, hope, tragedy, and ordinary life, and sheds light on these topics in unexpected ways.
For seasoned and aspiring writers of faith, I highly recommend getting to know Frederick Buechner. If my own reflections haven’t convinced you to do so, perhaps Buechner’s own summary of his approach to faith and writing will – I hope so:
“If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. 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.”9
Rosanne Hawke has written thirty books for children & YA and taught Creative Writing at Tabor College, Adelaide. She lived in Pakistan and UAE for ten years as an aid worker and speaks at schools and festivals about culture, story, love and hope. She is a South Australian Premier’s Reading Challenge Ambassador. www.rosannehawke.com
Prefacing quote: Willard, D., Nouwen, H., Buechner, F. et al (2018). Faith that Matters: 365 devotions from Classic Christian Writers. New York: HarperOne, p. 354.
1 Dillard, A. in Buechner, F. (2017). The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look and Listen to Life. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, Frontispiece.
2 Canlis, J. (2017). A Theology of the Ordinary. Wenatchee, WA: Godspeed Press, pp. 46, 47.
3 Willard, D. (2018). The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. New York: HarperCollins, p. 14.
4 Buechner, F. (1992). The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction. New York: HarperCollins, p. 99.
5 Willard, D., Nouwen, H., Buechner, F. et al (2018). Faith that Matters: 365 devotions from Classic Christian Writers. New York: HarperOne, p. 258.
6 Buechner, F. (2017). A Crazy Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, p. 10.
7 Buechner, F. (2017). The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look and Listen to Life. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, p. 31.
8 Buechner, F. (1992). The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction. New York: HarperCollins, p. 78.
9 Willard, D., Nouwen, H., Buechner, F. et al (2018). Faith that Matters: 365 devotions from Classic Christian Writers. New York: HarperOne, p. 31.