I don’t think I’ve ever been told by two respected mentors, independently of each other, to read an author. Yet, this has been true for me this year in the case of Frederick Buechner. I’ve been reflecting all summer on Buechner’s daily meditations. This is an unusual blog post, but I want to list my favorite Buechner quotes below, without much commentary. Really I want to have these for my reference, but I may as well share them. Readers of my blog are likely to benefit from them as well.
Much of Buechner’s writings can be summarized in this first quotation:
“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.”
This is elaborated below in different domains…
1. A Doorway Opens.
“At its heart, I think, religion is mystical. Moses went whith his flocks in Midian, Buddha under the Bo tree, Jesus up to his knees in the waters of the Jordan; each of them responds to something for which words like shalom, oneness, God even, are only pallid, alphabetic souvenirs. ‘I have seen things,’ Aquinas told a friend, ‘that makes all my writings seem like straw.’ Religion as institution, as ethics, as dogma, as social action – all of this comes later and in the long run maybe counts for less. Religions start, as Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat, to put it mildly, or with the bush going up in flames, the rain of flowers, the dove coming down out of the sky.”
2. Hidden Gifts.
“Which of us can look at our own religion or lack of it without seeing in it the elements of wish fulfillment? Which of us can look back at our own lives without seeing in them the role of blind chance or dumb luck? But faith, says the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, is ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,’ and looking back at those distant years I chose not to deny, either, the compelling sense of an unseen giver and a series of hidden gifts as not only another part of their reality, but the deepest part of all.”
“There must be a God because (a) since the beginning of history the most variegated majority of people have intermittently believed there was; (b) it is hard to consider the vast and complex structure of the universe in general and of the human mind in particular without considering the possibility that they issued from some ultimate source, itself vast, complex, and somehow mindful; (c) built into the very being of even the most primitive man there seems to be a profound psychophysical need or hunger for something like truth, goodness, love, and – under one alias or another – for God himself; and (d) every age and culture has produced mystics who have experienced a Reality beyond reality and have come back using different words and images but obviously and without collusion describing with awed adoration the same Indescribability.
Statements of this sort and others like them have been advanced for thousands of years as proofs of the existence of God. A twelve-year-old child can see that no one of them is watertight. And even all of them taken together won’t convince anybody unless his predisposition to be convinced outweights his predisposition not to be.
It is as impossible to prove or disprove that God exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about him as it is to prove or disprove that Goodness exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about what is good…
All-wise. All-powerful. All-loving. All-knowing. We bore both God and ourselves to death with our chatter. God cannot be expressed but only experienced.”
4. The Sound of God’s Voice.
“I believe that we know much about about God than we admit that we know, than perhaps we altogether know that we know. God speaks to us, I would say, much more often than we realize or than we choose to realize. Before the sunsets every evening, he speaks to each of us in an intensely personal and unmistakable way. His message is not written out in starlight, which in the long run would make no difference; rather it is written out for each of us in the humdrum, helter-skelter events of each day. It is a message that in the long run might just make all the difference.
Who knows what he will say to me today or to you today or into the midst of what kind of unlikely moment he will choose to say it. Not knowing is what makes today a holy mystery as every day is a holy mystery. But I believe that there are some things that by and large God is always saying to each of us. Each of us, for instance, carries around inside, I believe, a certain emptiness – a sense that something is missing, a restlessness, the deep feeling that somehow all is not right inside his skin. . . Part of the inner world of everyone is this sense of emptiness, unease, incompleteness, and I believe that this in itself is a word from God, that this is the sound that God’s voice makes in a world that has explained him away. In such a world, I suspect that maybe God speaks to us most clearly through his silence, his absence, so that we know him best through our missing him.
But he also speaks to us about ourselves, about what he wants us to do and what he wants us to become; and this is the area where I believe that we know so much more about him than we admit even to ourselves, where people hear God speak even if they do not believe in him. A face comes toward us down the street. Do we raise our eyes or do we keep them lowered, passing by in silence? Somebody says something about somebody else, and what he says happens to be not only cruel but also funny, and everybody laughs. Do we laugh, too, or do we speak the truth?. . . Sometimes when we are alone, thoughts come swarming into our heads like bees – some of them destructive, ugly, self-defeating thoughts, some of them creative and glad. Which thoughts do we choose to think then, as much as we have the choice? Will we be brave today or a coward today? Not in some big way probably but in some little foolish way, yet brave still. Will we be honest today or a liar?. . . Will we be a friend or cold as ice today?
All the absurd little meetings, decisions, inner skirmishes that go to make up our days. It all adds up to very little, and yet it all adds up to very much. Our days are full of nonsense, and yet not, because it is precisely into the nonsense of our days that God speaks to us words of great significance – not words that are written in the stars but words that are written into the raw stuff and nonsense of our days, which are not nonsense just because God speaks into the midst of them. All the words that he says, to each of us differently, are ‘be brave, be merciful, feed my lambs, press on toward the goal.'”
“It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God.
There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest.
By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.
Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”