Though he was a political intellectual of the first rank, Hammarskjöld’s expression of questions, ponderings, prayers, and poetic musings is arguably his greatest legacy. Most English‑speaking people who were born after his death may not recognize his name or his place in global history, but yet his book Markings continues to sell at a rate and with such an avid following that booksellers have rated it as one of the best spiritual books of the past 100 years.(1) With forthright humility Hammarskjöld understood his writing simply as “the only true ‘profile’ concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God,”(2) but his masterful ruminations continue to have a universal resonance in each new generation.
[During the current COVID-19 crisis, each Wednesday (or thereabouts) I’m posting musings, meditations, poems, and wonderings as potential sources of hope, encouragement, and resolve. Imbibe, use, and/or share the postings as you see fit. (I won’t be tagging colleagues or friends, but if you choose to do that, that’s fine.) Here’s WEDNESDAY WORD #16.]
Grace is central to the experience of faith. Grace is central, as well, to the experience of a blistering summer. For what but grace can help us endure scorching days and smoldering nights? May we all have grace enough and more to keep cool and calm during record high-temperature days, so that we can still perceive the presence of the holy in the minutiae and the magnificence of our lives. As we bear the burden of the heat, may we take time to receive these graces:
The grace of an old friendship renewed, across time and trouble and geography.
The grace of a poem well-wrought and ennobling to the human spirit.
The twin graces of a beautiful sunrise and a breath-taking sunset. (The sun may not be that much of a friend during the rest of the day, but it still glows with wonder before its heat magnifies. What may be hot to the touch is still a beautiful flame.)
The grace of a plentiful water supply. Even the most calloused international tourist who disdains the intricacies of foreign politics returns home with a new appreciation of the wonder of water.
The grace of an evening trip to your favorite frozen yogurt shop.
The grace of a new-born baby cradled in your arms.
The grace of garden surprises and the daily harvest therefrom.
The grace of retirement pleasures.
The cascading graces of song and art and dance and photography and sculpture and the inner vision to call such creations into being.
The grace of pets you love.
The grace of literacy and doors to unknown worlds which language opens.
The grand graces of the heritage and traditions and worship, all of which help earnest seekers to find God in their midst.
– Bob Hill
(From LOVE ALL WAYS, Caroline Street Press, forthcoming late 2020/early 2021.)
[During the current COVID-19 crisis, each Wednesday (or thereabouts) I’m posting musings, meditations, poems, and wonderings as potential sources of hope, encouragement, and resolve. Imbibe, use, and/or share the postings as you see fit. (I won’t be tagging colleagues or friends, but if you choose to do that, that’s fine.) Here’s WEDNESDAY WORD #15.]
WORDS OF RESPONSE AT THE END OF THE DAY
When the sun arcs to its restful place on the other side of the horizon and darkness comforts us with a blissful forgetting of all conquests and omissions in our daytime hours, when we review the day’s victories and its attainments, its joys and its adventures, its banalities and its sorrows, its hurts and its hoopla, there, at the tail end of the day, there remain so many questions and assessments:
Have I prayed enough today?
Did I serve enough today?
Was I merciful enough today?
Was there laughter enough (for my beloved and for others) today?
Did we get enough glimpses of truth today?
Did I comfort enough today?
Have I shown compassion enough today?
If or when we are bluntly honest with ourselves and respond with clarified souls, of course all of our responses to these and other summary sorts of questions must naturally be “No.” Perhaps, though, in the mere, stark honesty of asking, peace can begin to infuse our hearts and minds, and we then can sleep without anguish and possibly even with soothing, hopeful breathing. And if we can ever say an affirmation of “Yes” to these and other similar kinds of queries, then peace should cover us caringly, like a blanket of consolation, and we then will sleep the sleep of the angels.
This recent meditation has guided me with strength and much grace. Consistently, my answer to the challenging list of questions, as you surely should suspect, is “No.” But, I work toward that rarified moment when I might possibly say, as untold numbers of seekers and strivers have said and continue to say each day, “Yes, Oh Yes.”
I invite you to join me in saying another word, a word of response for those precious gems in our midst who gleam with the wisdom of the ages and shine with great daring and courage. Obviously, the word is “Thanks.”
– Bob Hill
(From LOVE ALL WAYS, Caroline Street Press, forthcoming in 2021.)
MONDAY MEDS (Meditations)
[During the current COVID-19 crisis, each Monday I’m posting chapters from a manuscript (“GREAT SOULS,GREAT PRAYERS”) as a potential source of hope, encouragement, and resolve. Partake, use, and/or share the postings as you see fit, as a resource for prayer, meditation, and/or contemplation. Each posting contains a week’s worth of suggestions for use. Follow the suggestions or the leadings of your own creativity. Here’s MONDAY MED #15.]
For nearly seventy years, Frederick Buechner’s writing and thinking, especially as they pertain to issues of faith and religion, have found a glad resonance among mainstream Protestants, burned out Anglicans, renewal‑focused Catholics, mega‑church evangelicals, emergent church experimenters, orthodoxy adherents and base‑line new‑age seekers.
Buechner’s combination of common sense experience, abiding respect for salt‑of‑the‑earth people, incessant celebration of humor, and sense of the mystical are the reasons the majority of his books is still in print. Sometimes hailed as “America’s C.S. Lewis” or “a latter day G.K. Chesterton,” Buechner really has created his own category.
The rudiments of Buechner’s compelling spirituality include:
* The Sacredness of Ordinary Human Experience
* Constant Affirmation in the Meaningfulness of the Seeming Randomness of Life
* Understanding the Resurrection as the Belief that the Worst Thing is Never the Last Thing
* Understanding Faith as a Search to be Known, Forgiven, and Healed
* Proclaiming that All of Creation, including the Obscene and the Ridiculous, is Redeemable
* Receiving Comedy and Laughter as Blessed, Saving Graces
* Knowing that Doubt and Certainty are Two Sides of Faith’s coin
* A Belief that We Always Do More Than We Know
For Buechner, prayer possesses a universal character. He would echo the adage Carl Jung had inscribed above the entrance to his home and on his tomb: Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit. (“Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”) Which doesn’t mean one is not to make an effort. Indeed, like the importunate widow of Luke’s gospel(1), persistent searching holds the best potential for connecting with God.
Being prepared to encounter God – through vitalized expectation and heightened anticipation – can lead to answered prayers. Or, if not answered in the way we want, expectancy can lead to something more important: God’s very presence felt and realized in our midst.
Buechner’s public prayers from his days as school minister at Phillips Exeter are characterized by great reverence toward a transcendent Creator. To reflect this reverence, Buechner consistently opts for his generation’s use of “Thee/Thou” language. His prayers show him to be empathic about human affairs and trusting in God’s radical immanence in the human predicament. Like his writing style – fiction and nonfiction – his prayers can be long but without being long‑winded, urgently earnest but without being boring or morosely entangled in their own rhetoric.
Like many clergy, Buechner uses brief, closing prayers at the conclusion of his sermons. Like his seminary professors did before him, he employs brief opening prayers before beginning a class or church‑related, religious‑oriented lecture.(2)
Buechner would always want religious adherents to be sure to listen to the spaces and the silences between what we say and pray.(3) Listening and speaking are the “inspiration” and “expiration” of prayer.
A key feature of Buechner’s prayers, novels, sermons, indeed his entire adult life, is the belief that the stunningly wondrous, grace‑filled life we each have been given by God trumps all setbacks, mishaps, mistakes, sins, and degradations, if we will but have eyes, ears, hearts, minds, and souls to take in such a gift. When Bob Abernathy interviewed Buechner for PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly in 2006, Buechner quoted the title character from his novel Godric: “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was set next to life would scarcely fill a cup.”(4) This, he said, is what he wants inscribed on his tombstone.
TWO PUBLIC PRAYERS
“Lord, Catch us off guard today. Surprise us with some moment of beauty or pain so that for at least a moment we may be startled into seeing that you are with us here in all your splendor, always and everywhere, barely hidden, beneath, beyond, within this life we breathe….”(5)
“Almighty and everlasting God, Only speak to us that we may hear thee. Then speak to us again and yet again so that when in our hearts we answer thee by saying No, we may at least know well to whom we say it, and what it costs us to say it, and what it costs our brothers, and what it costs thee.”(6)
PRAYING WITH FREDERICK BUECHNER:
SUGGESTIONS FOR USE
Day 1 To emphasize the sacredness of everyday life, pray today by first making a list of the events, happenings, people, and places that you are likely to encounter. Now, presuming that God has a hand in all of life, read the list out loud and say the phrase, “O God, You are holy!” after each item.
Day 2 Pray today by simply sitting still and beholding the world. Breathe in, breathe out, listen to the grand overtures of grace God is uttering in your life, see the portrait of love God is revealing all around you.
Day 3 Pray today with a focus on the resurrection, Christ’s, that experienced by others and your own. Recall when you have gone through crucifixion and how you came out on the other side of it. Now say this prayer: “I give You thanks, O God, that the worst thing is never the last thing. Amen.”
Day 4 In your prayers today, give thanks for your favorite writers, who like Buechner, are constantly at the task of rendering in linguistic form something of the splendor and honorableness of the human experience.
Day 5 Do not use words today in your prayers, if you can at all help it. Simply sit quietly for 15 minutes or more, if you can manage it. Listen. Look. Imagine. Ponder. Feel the rhythms of your own pulse, your own breathing. Watch whatever happens before you. Abide.
Day 6 Pray today by using the two public prayers above which are from Buechner’s The Hungering Dark.
Day 7 Pray today by recalling the hopeful declaration by Buechner’s character Godric: “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” Remember that this is what Buechner wants inscribed on his tombstone. Now ask yourself: “What do I want inscribed on my tombstone?” In one sentence give a summation of your fundamental beliefs about God and humanity and your faith journey. This summation may be a wisdom adage, a portion of Scripture, a remembrance of an insight, or anything else. Now share this summation with the God of your life.
BIOGRAPHY TIMELINE: July 11, 1926, born Carl Frederick Buechner in New York City, New York, the oldest of two children of Katherine Kuhn and Carl Frederick Buechner, Sr., in a context of family wealth and social status; 1936, father, unlucky in business and personally despairing, commits suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning; family moves to Bermuda; maternal grandparents in Pittsburgh and paternal grandparents in New York provide stability; family spends early teen years in Tryon, North Carolina, where he is perfunctorily baptized in local Episcopal church; 1941, attends Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and decides he want to be a writer; meets poet James Merrill, with whom he will have a lifelong friendship; 1943, graduates from Lawrenceville School; attends Princeton University; 1944‑46, education is interrupted by tour of duty in Army; 1948, graduates from Princeton with B.A. degree; returns to Lawrenceville school to teach in English Department; 1950, publishes first novel, A Long Day’s Dying, which is a best‑seller, with his writing compared to Henry James and Marcel Proust; travels in Europe; 1952, second novel, The Season’s Difference meets with significantly less acclaim; 1953, resigns his teaching position and moves to New York City to be a full‑time writer; begins to go to church, Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church; in response to George A. Buttrick’s preaching, has a dramatic experience of conversion “among confession, and tears, and great laughter;” 1954, enters Union Theological Seminary on a Rockefeller Fellowship and studies with teachers James Muilenburg, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Robert McAfee Brown, and John Knox; 1955, takes a sabbatical year to travel; writes third novel The Return of Ansel Gibbs, which receives Rosenthal Award; falls in love with Judith Fredericke Merck; 1956, marries Merck with whom he will have three daughters, Katherine, Dinah, and Sharman; 1958, graduates with Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union; June 1, 1958, ordained at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church,as an “evangelist”/minister of the Presbyterian Church; 1958‑1960, serves as teacher, school minister, and chair of religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy (John Irving being among his students), in Exeter, New Hampshire; 1960‑1967, school minister, Phillips Exeter Academy; 1966, several of his chapel sermons are collected and published as The Magnificent Defeat; publishes novel The Final Beast; 1967, he and family move to Wind Gap Farm, RUpert, Vermont, as he becomes full‑time writer; 1968, publishes second collection of sermons, The Hungering Dark; 1969, publishes The Alphabet of Grace (William Belden Noble Lectures, Harvard); 1971‑1977, Bebb novels, 1977, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale (Beecher Lectures, Yale); 1982, publishes first installment of his religious autobiography, The Sacred Journey; receives American Academy of Arts and Letters award; archives established at Wheaton College; 1983, publishes second installment of his religious autobiography, Now and Then; 1985, Wheaton College (holder of C.S. Lewis’ literary effects, as well) becomes repository for Buechner’s manuscripts and collected papers; 1991, third installment of religious autobiography, Telling Secrets; 1992, publishes Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner; 1999, publishes fourth installment of religious autobiography, The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found; April 5, 2006, is honored at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in an event entitled “The Art of The Sermon: a Tribute to Frederick Buechner;” January 28, 2008, Buechner Institute is inaugurated at King College, Bristol, Tennessee; recipient of numerous honorary doctorate degrees; 2014, The Frederick Buechner Center and Princeton Theological Seminary begins offering “Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop;” July 2016, releases Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner; continues to write, with 43 books published thus far, most of which are still in print, and an active presence on Facebook, Twitter; now very sparingly, if ever, offers lectures; he and his wife divide their time between Vermont and Florida.
1 Luke 18:1‑5.
2 See Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets (New York: Harper Collins, 1991)
3 Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1992).
4 Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, PROFILE: Frederick Buechner, May 5, 2006, Episode no. 936 (http://www.pbs.org/w…/religionandethics/week936/profile.html). See Frederick Buechner, Godric (New York: Atheneum, 1980), p. 96.
5 Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (New York: The Seabury Press, 1969), pp. 88‑89.6 Ibid, p. 69.
FOR FURTHER READING, STUDY, AND REFLECTION
Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace (New York: The Seabury Press, 1970)
Frederick Buechner, The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1999)
Frederick Buechner, Godric (New York: Atheneum, 1980).
Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (New York: The Seabury Press, 1969)
Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1992)
Frederick Buechner, Now and Then (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983)
Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982)
Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006)
Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets (New York: Harper Collins, 1991)
Frederick Buechner, The Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)
© 2020, Robert Lee Hill