#10: Frederick Buechner 1992
God’s Thumbprint, April 14, 2017
This 1992 recording is the oldest in our Festival archives. In it, Frederick Beuchner—writer of novels, essays, sermons, and more over a distinguished career now spanning seven decades—meditates on writing and art as essential expressions of the human spirit. Drawing examples from literature, music, and visual art, Buechner celebrates the power of the arts to frame a moment and invite us into the discipline of paying attention. This attention becomes the means through which we love God, neighbor, and the world. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing Jennifer Holberg.
- Gerard Manley Hopkins,
- “The Windhover”
- “Felix Randal”
- Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation”
- Matsuo Bashō
- J.D. Salinger,
- The Catcher in the Rye
- Franny and Zooey
- C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we've celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode, you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
We've got something special for you on today's episode of Rewrite Radio: the oldest recording in our festival archives: Frederick Buechner, speaking at our gathering in 1992. Buechner's books -- fiction, essays, sermons, and more -- have been translated into 27 languages, and he has often been praised for his ability to inspire readers to see the grace in their daily lives. The London Free Press called him one of our greatest novelists because he is one of our finest religious writers. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and he has been awarded 8 honorary degrees from institutions including Yale University and the Virginia Theological Seminary. In addition, Buechner has been the recipient of the O. Henry Award, the Rosenthal Award, the Christianity and Literature Bell Letters Prize, and has been recognized by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Joining me to talk about his night here in 1992, his first of two appearances at Calvin, is Jennifer Holberg, who, along with Jane Zwart, codirects the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing. Jennifer is senior faculty in the English department at Calvin, and editor of Shouts and Whispers: 21 Writers Speak About Their Writing and Their Faith, a collection of interviews and essays gleaned from past festivals. She was introduced to Buechner's work through her good friend, colleague, and former festival director, Dale Brown.
Lisa: We have a tradition of starting off these interviews with a question of where did I catch you today? So, where did I catch you today? [laughs]
Jennifer Holberg: Well, what's interesting is, our offices are next door to each other, and so I got to walk next door, into a different office. See the parking lot at Calvin College from a different vantage point.
Lisa: Exactly, I caught you in my office, basically.
Jennifer: It's so true. I think caught is probably a little strong, but I came in, definitely, cause I really love chatting with y'all. So it's a pleasure to be here today, and I'm excited to talk about this particular session.
Lisa: Yeah, so today we're going to listen to one of our earliest recordings from the archives of the Festival of Faith and Writing, and this one features Frederick Buechner in 1992. Do you know what room he was speaking in, where this was recorded? Do you remember?
Jennifer: Yeah, it was in the fine arts center auditorium. and what's so great about this is, as we have this new Center for Faith and Writing that the festival is part of now, you know, it's given us a chance kind of to think back at our really rich heritage, and to think about the very first festival that they had in 1990, which was called Contemporary Writers and their Community. And that was sort of a small 150-people gathering, and then in 1992, the department started to think about, well who else would we maybe want to have?
And Dale Brown, who many people will know was a real scholar of Buechner's work, he'd written his dissertation on Buechner, and so he invited Fred to come and to everyone's surprise it was a standing room only crowd. It was really a moment when I think folks in the department started to say, hey, this is something that people have a real hunger for. There's a lot of folks out there that really want to participate in this conversation about the intersections of faith and writing.
And so after that then, in 94, is the first time we actually sort of have a festival.
But Buechner really is kind of the roots of what we're trying to do here, I think. As the title of one of his books says, the gospel is tragedy, but it's also comedy, and it's also fairy tale. It's these weird surprising moments of joy, but it's also this brokenness. You know, in one of his books he talks about how, you know, all's lost, all's found. Or, that, human beings are amazing and we should be paying attention to God's work in their lives, but also, nothing human's not a broth of false or true. Right? So that he, he really wants to sort of have that complexity. And I think that we've always at the festival tried to have writers who are really thinking about faith in complex ways. You know, it's been said of Buechner that he says, "I believe, but tremblingly. I want it to be true. I want there to be sort of joy, this hope, but I also want to acknowledge the dark. I want to acknowledge the doubt."
Lisa: [00:05:15] Yeah, I think you're right. You can look all the way back to 1992, and I'm sure probably 90 if we had some recordings there, and really just see the roots of what has grown into the festival really deeply there. And then in this session specifically he talks a lot about attention, I think it's one of the things that is a primary theme. I know you have a book here actually, Dale's book on Buechner, in which he actually talks about this night. So I wonder if you could read this part for us, where Dale kind of recounts what happened that night.
Jennifer: Yeah, so in Dale's book The Book of Buechner, he describes the night and this is a quote from the book: “When Buechner came to Calvin College in 1992, on the evening of what turned out to be an infamous night of rioting in Los Angeles, I introduced him via translation of Samuel Johnson's judgement of Oliver Goldsmith. Praising Goldsmith's range, Johnson concluded that Goldsmith quote ‘touched nothing he did not adorn.’ Toiling in so many areas Buechner has demonstrated a similar gift. He spoke that night about paying attention. I found him at the television set the next morning weeping as he watched the reports of chaos in Los Angeles. There, as in the books, I learned something about the cost of that attentiveness.”
I think that's a lovely kind of moment to think about him being here. That packed night the night before, he talks about as he opens this session, about feeling like a rockstar, this huge session of people come out. That sort of surprises him, you can hear that in his voice. And then Dale coming to see him to next morning to take him back to the airport and he's weeping. So that, that wonderfulness of paying attention and celebrating that, and yet understanding the great brokenness of the world. And how do we sort of move together through that? And I think that the community of the festival that this sort of kicks off is really one of the ways we do that. We come together, we find mentors, like Dale for me, who helped me find this great author that then has influenced my life, but that we walked together to find these things and try to struggle against the darkness that we see all around us.
Lisa: Well, on that note, thanks so much for helping to introduce this recording, and yeah, thanks so much for all the work you're doing with the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing and with the Festival for all these many years
Jennifer: Yup, thank you Lisa, you guys are awesome, and I hope everyone enjoys hearing it. And hopefully, we'll have more from the archive for you soon.
Lisa: And now, Frederick Buechner, here at Calvin College in 1992, introduced by Dale Brown.
Dale Brown: [00:08:09] We are quite pleased and surprised to see so many of you here tonight for this tribute to Stanley Wiersma. And I suspect that for many of you your presence here is something of a testimonial to our speaker, Frederick Buechner. I know that some of you, no doubt, were dragged in here forcefully by a Buechner zealot. [laughter] Kicking and screaming. But I suspect the gathering is for most of you, for many of us, a way of saying thank you. A way of expressing our gratitude for the books that we've read over the years that have helped us, and moved us. We could wish that the phrase "thank you" still had more of its zip left, but we do thank you.
For the novels, I don't know, maybe for you it was 1965 The Final Beast, when we heard the worst thing isn't the last thing about the world, it's the next to last. Or maybe the 1970's books, the Beb books. Where you perhaps identified with Antonio, longing for fortissimo, he says, and finding it. In that raincoat-wearing shyster, Leo Beb, of all places. Or maybe it was the 1980 book, Godric, of which Stan Wiersma said in March of 1981, "Buechner has managed to give us a book about sainthood without being sentimental on the one hand, or cynical on the other. It is a book too good to miss." And if you've read that book, surely you can't help but recall that rumbling old saint's words, "Nothing human's not a broth of false and true." And we're grateful for the so-called non-fiction.
Maybe it was Telling the Truth: the Gospel in Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. Where we heard, not for the first time, but in remarkably fresh ways, of the overwhelming of darkness by light, of the story too good not to be true. Or Wishful Thinking, a Theological ABC, where we got a new slant on theology. Theology, Buechner says, "Is the study of God and his ways. For all we know, dung beetles may study our ways and call it humanology. If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.”
And there's the autobiographies of course, The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, and more recently, Telling Secrets. Where we heard, “If God speaks anywhere, it is into our lives that he speaks.”
Frederick Buechner has managed in unique ways to make his journey a reflection of our own. For more than forty years now, he's been calling us to pay attention. To pay attention to the possibilities of our lives, the possibilities for joy beneath the long known tide of human woe. As Samuel Johnson says of Oliver Goldsmith, "everything he touches, he adorns." and we're grateful. Please welcome Frederick Buechner.
Frederick Buechner: [00:12:07] You make me feel like a rockstar. I can only assume there's nothing good showing at the movies. I've never seen such a crowd. From the very beginning, I've had the warmest possible welcome here in Grand Rapids, I was met at the airport today by Professor Brown and his wife. And also by their daughter Anne, who presented me with a bouquet of flowers, one of which I have in my buttonhole, making me feel just like the Pope or even H. Ross Perot. [audience laughter]
But I'm delighted to be here and to see so many of you here tonight. My subject is, the title is a vary grandiose one, “Art and Literature,” and I sort of apologize for it, the lecture is not grandiose at all. It stems, the idea for the lecture, out of the dilemma I always run into when I move around the world and find myself at places where nobody knows or gives a hoot who I am or what I do and they say what do you do? And I always say I am a minister, first and foremost, and they say where is your church and I say I don't have a church. And you can always see a film appear over their eyes at that.
The next question is well then, what do you do? And I say, well, I write books. And then they begin to ease themselves toward the door and that's the end of the conversation. Because it seems such an anomalous putting-together of professions because ministers are supposed to have churches and writers are supposed to write books and life is complicated enough as it is without confusing the issue and having the two overlap.
But it seems to me that needn't be the case, and isn't the case. That there are certain features that art and religion have very much in common, which make it possible to somehow stand with a foot in each, without feeling that you're split up the middle by it. And that's what I want to talk about tonight, and there's nothing very complicated about what I have to say, but about art and about religion and in what ways they are sort of twin, I think, expressions of the human spirit.
Starting off with, the one art that I know anything about at all, which is the art of writing, or the art of words. I spend my life, my working life, which is a large part of my life, moving words around the page. The more I deal with them, the more I marvel at them. As I say, it's what my life has been for many many years, and I often think if I get as Saint Peter's gate and he says what have you done with your life, all I can say is I've written a lot of books. I've moved a lot of words around, and if that's not enough, I've had it. That's what my life has been.
But they're wonderful things, these words, these sounds you make with your lips, these marks you scratch in the page, and there's so much they can do. And I’ve thought to myself, what are the basic things that words do, and it almost seems to me that one of the most basic ones is simply be beautiful. Just in themselves. Quite apart from meaning, the beauty of words. And I think when I think of that I think of my favorite poet, certainly one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the 19th century Jesuit poet, writing something like in perhaps his most famous poem,“I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding of the rolling level steady underneath him air.”
Who cares what that means? [laughter] Or the other one I always love to quote because it has almost my favorite line in English poetry in it, the poem that Hopkins wrote, Felix Randal, the blacksmith, the farrier, whom he brought the Eucharist to on his deathbed and looking at the body of this dying man, remembered his youth and says,
How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!
I'll give that to you again, it's so beautiful, “didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse, his bright and battering sandal.” It's the music; sheer beauty of those words. So that's one of the certainly most basic things that words can be is beautiful.
[00:16:50] They can also tell stories. I often think maybe that's the way they began. Just the lure of the narrative. This happened and then that happened. I can see cavemen gathered around and they're saying, one of them, I went out this morning and there was this dinosaur and I took up this stick and this rock and all of a sudden this happened and all the other cavemen and cavewomen hanging on his words, because of the lure of a story, what happened next? The power of words to enchant us with narrative. I think of my beloved Anthony Trollope. No great stylist, no characters with the kind of panache and color that Dickens' have, but just telling us these stories of ordinary people, with the verbal power to keep us fascinated by them.
And then meaning, of course, words as bearers of meaning, and I mean not just meaning that you can look up in the dictionary, what does it mean, you look it up under G and that's what it is and that's what it is, but I mean the meaning that words can imply beyond what they say. I've been reading a lot of Flannery O'Connor lately; she's become one of my great loves. And the way she can tell a story, as she does in a marvelous story, do you read Flannery O'Connor, I hope you do at Calvin College, don't know why you shouldn't.
A story she wrote called “Revelation” where there's a scene in a doctor's office waiting room. All of a sudden this sort of unattractive girl disfigured with acne can't bear the sound of this pious woman going on and on about how God made white people and black people and how lucky she is to be a white person not a black person, all of a sudden the girl can't stand it anymore and wings a book at her and catches the old fool on the side of the head.
And the sense in which you feel this was a moment of grace for that old woman, if her soul is to be saved, it was saved because grace struck like lightning at her freakishness at that moment. And this wonderful vision she has at the end of the story where she goes back and she sees this vision like she's looking at a sunset the saints are marching into heaven and the good people like her are way at the end of the procession. All the people she thought were the riffraff are at the front and she realizes in the end, to enter Paradise, she says even our virtues will have to be burned away.
The implication of meaning is sort of, resonance of meaning beyond what the dictionary meaning of words is, and then the power of words to move us, it always seems such a magical thing. That I can laugh myself silly over Mark Twain who told his last joke in 1910. Or Peter Finley Dunne if you know the Dooley Papers, or you name it. Or to be moved to tears, very likely, almost, by things written years ago, long since the tears of the person who wrote the book have dried up. These are the basic things I think, that words do. They are beautiful, the convey meaning, they tell stories, they move us.
[00:20:12] But it seems to me that, now I’m getting to my major point, they do something even more basic still. Before they do all those other things, they do something else. And to illustrate that, I wanted to recite for you a haiku. A bona fide haiku is a little 17 syllable Japanese poem. That, when I was teaching school in Exeter, were tremendously popular. All the kids, didn't like lots of other things, loved haiku because they were easy to read and remember, and easy to write. Anybody can write a haiku. And the most famous one of all, or so I'm told, is by a, I think 18th century, Japanese poet named Basho, and here is the haiku. I'm going to read it twice, it's only 17 syllables long.
And it goes this way, “An old, silent, pond. Into the pond, a frog jumps. Splash! silence again.” I'll recite it again, close your eyes this time. “An old silent pond. Into the pond a frog jumps. Splash! silence again.” And now you can open your eyes. It's obvious that none of the things that I said words most basically do are being done in that poem, the language isn't beautiful, it could hardly have been more commonplace, the words are almost all monosyllabic, not flowery, not poetic. They don't mean anything.
The whole point of a haiku is not to mean anything at all, not to be the bearer of anything other than what it is talking about directly. There's no idea of symbolism in a haiku, the frog isn't supposed to stand for one thing, the pond for another thing. It doesn't move us, there's nothing moving particularly about that scene, there's no narrative, all of these things that we usually associate with word are not present in that particular form.
What it does do, this is what I'm suggesting is the most basic thing perhaps, that literature does, it puts a frame, a frame around a moment. This most pedestrian mode, we picture Basho wherever he was walking along the edge of the old silent pond, startling a frog who leaps into the water, makes this splash, catches his attention for a moment, and then as the sound died out, silence again.
He simply enables us to participate in a moment that, without him, without the frame, we would very likely have missed. At least, I would very likely have missed it, perhaps I shouldn't foist this on you. Either I wouldn't have noticed it at all, this moment, I would have been lost in thought. Lost is a good word to hang onto. Lost in thought. Or else, I would have noticed it, and I would have verbalized it, I would have said, well that was just a frog jumping into a pond as if that's all it was. and I would have dismissed it. Or I would have thought about it. I would have thought about it.
Singly, the frog the sound, the splash, maybe it would have made me think of other things that carry me a million miles away from the moment itself, what the haiku it seems to me is doing, what literature, the art of writing at its most basic is trying to do is saying, Stop all of that! Stop thinking, stop verbalizing, stop departing from the moment to other parts of your interior life and simply see this moment, like the frog jumping into the pond, in all its shimmering immediacy. Its suchness, this moment, that otherwise would have been lost forever, but for the frame. And it seems to me that what's true of the haiku is true of even the most complex literary forms, whether you're thinking of plays, or novels, great long complicated novels, or poetry. They're all saying basically: pay attention.
Pay attention to the black man and the boy floating down the river on a raft, pay attention to the Grecian urn, pay attention to the ruined Abbey, Tintern, pay attention to the young woman who’s about to throw herself under a railroad train because her romance has fallen apart. Pay attention to this that we are framing for you.
[00:24:50] And the magic of the art of words I think is not only that it asks us to pay attention, but it enables us to pay attention. To put aside all the things that are going through our head and our stomachs and our hearts, most of the time and simply participate in the present with that which is on the printed page. Be present in this book, be present in a way it’s saying, I think, be present in your own skin, be present in your own life.
I’ve been reading a lot lately, of a Vietnamese Buddhist named Thích Nhất Hạnh, I wonder if that means anything to anybody?, who lectures about mindfulness and meditation, says a lot of things that other people have said, though he says them very well. But one of the things he does in his lectures when he's trying to explain things and every once in awhile he causes a bell to be rung, he says, you never say you strike a bell cause that’s too crude and cruel, you say you ask the bell to speak, and when the bell strikes, everybody stops thinking and simply, he says, now everybody should be together and breathe and enjoy being alive. And that's somehow not altogether divorced from what I'm talking about.
Literature saying pay attention, be alive, put everything else to the side. When it comes to painting, a sister art, obviously, a frame, a real frame, used in very much the same way. I think of the great French Impressionist, Claude Monet, I don't know how you feel about him, but he would be my favorite if I had to pick one of them. And extraordinary paintings he did of very homely things, again and again.
There was a series of the water lilies are the ones that everybody knows, but I'm thinking particularly of a series he did on a haystack, some little French, funny-looking sort of haystack near where he lived in Giverny in France. Painted in the light of dawn, painted in autumn, painted with a little bit of dusting of snow on it. Painted by rainlight, painted in the spring. What could be more commonplace, what could be less remarkable than a haystack. But because of his framing it, because of his looking at it, and appropriating it, it becomes unforgettable. It becomes itself. It becomes gripping, it becomes real. It becomes somehow a vehicle for truth. The truth of the haystack.
And even more obviously, I think, the case of the great portraits, I don't know who you think of as the great portraitist, I always think of Rembrandt, when I was a child I used to go up with a cousin of mine to the great Metropolitan Museum in New York with our little sketchpads, we thought we wanted to be painters and we would copy paintings that were hanging on the walls and Rembrandt was the one I used to go back to and there was one portrait I remember especially of an old woman, and old Dutch woman, appropriately enough for this audience, with a tight-fitting black dress and a sort of white starched cap. Her upper teeth have gone and her lip is puckered and she has a kind of waxy pallor to her face. The kind of a face that if you saw it advancing on you up the aisle of the supermarket wheeling a cart or sitting across the aisle from you on a train or something, you'd never notice it. An absolutely unremarkable face, but it has been so remarkably studied, has been so remarkably seen by Rembrandt, that one sees it remarkably.
One sees somehow, in this face all faces. On all faces you see you see a face somewhat like that. So if the writer is saying, stop, pay attention, the painter is saying stop and look. Look. At the faces you pass. Look at your own face. Do we ever look at our own faces? Look at the world and see them as Rembrandt saw that old woman. See with more than your eyes, see beneath the surface in a way, to the suchness, the richness, the holiness, the specialness of that face. See that even though it's commonplace, is rich. See that to look at faces is less than human. Which is the way I think we look at them most of the time, when you walk down a street in a city, it's like dead leaves blowing in the wind, you don't look at those faces. To look at faces as less than human, is somehow to become less than human. Look at them as human beings, says the painter.
[00:29:54] In music, it seems to me, the artist is not dealing in space of course the way the painter does, with a haystack here and a green field here and the blue sky up there. The musician is working in time. Where one note follows another note in time the way tock follows tick. The sounds and silences, the beat of the stick and the drum head, the sound of the breath through the reed of the oboe, whatever it happens to be.
The musician works in the medium of time, enabling us to listen to time, to listen to the passage of time, to listen to the silences and sounds of time. Especially, to listen to the quality of time, not just the passage of time, you remember that wonderful Greek distinction they make between chronos time, qualitative time, the time a clock keeps track of or a calendar, passage of time, time like an ever-flowing stream bears all our sons away. And then they also have the word kairos, the quality of time, a good time, a bad time, a sad time, a lucky time.
It seems to me, what the musician is doing is saying stop and listen! Listen to the quality of time. What kind of, what is time like? Not just the passage of it, and it seems to me, each musician, each great composer, is almost drawing our attention to some particular quality of time and it's only because I’m a word person that I have to put it into words, because, of course, the genius of the musician is he doesn't have to use words, he uses sounds, but you think of Bach, there's great plumes and paragraphs and explosions of sound, gorgeous sound. As if he's drawing our attention to the grandeur of time, the stateliness of time, the heroism of time.
Or you think of Mozart, what does he want us to hear about time? It's hard to pinpoint it, but I couldn't be less musical than I am, but there's one theme in Mozart I always hear, no matter what it is, if it's an opera or a symphony or a sonata this little da da da dadum, ba ba ba badum, as if he's saying, above all, to me at least, listen to the poignance of time. To the quality of time. to times I say not as rush and surface, but time the sense of depth the way the stream of time is an ever-flowing stream when that stream meets a bend, or deep place, just as when time reaches a wedding or a commencement or a funeral or whatever, it slows down. And one can see down beneath the sort of frothing whitewater surface into the depths of time.
I think that's part of what the musician is doing. Stop and listen to time. Keep time. That's a sort of haunting phrase, by which I mean not keep time in a sense of keeping to the beat, but keep time in a sense of keep in touch with time. Keep in touch with your own time. And never come back again. Flow of time. Listen to time. Listen to the music of your own life. Listen to the sounds of the voices of the people you love, or don't find it possible to love. Listen to your own voice, listen to the sound of the feet coming up the path, listen to the swing of the door, listen to the turning on of the water in the tap. Listen to the wind in the trees. Because that is your life, that is the music your life makes. Listen to the sounds of home, listen to the sound of your own breath.
[00:34:37] In other words, without wanting to labor it anymore, the arts generally, it seems to me, frame our lives, frame moments out of life whether with words or with a literal frame or with the first note and the last note. So that we ourselves can become lookers and listeners and attention-payers. Instead of moving, as so much of the time I think we do, move through our lives on sort of automatic pilot. On cruise control, not seeing much of anything, not listening to much of anything, not paying attention to much of anything.
I mustn't foist all my own foibles on you but I will venture to say that everybody will recognize this experience which I've had so many times as the nearest big town, which isn't very big, to where I live in Vermont is a town called Rutland and on the ways to Rutland from where I live you pass the one much smaller town called Wallingford and again and again, as I have made that trip, I've asked myself, have I been through Wallingford or not? And it's only when I see some landmark that I can say yes, I have, no I haven't. and everybody always laughs at that and it is sort of funny, but if anybody had taken a picture, a photograph, of me, driving through Wallingford, Vermont, they'd have taken a photograph of a human being who was not present in his life. Not present in his skin. I was lost in thought.
I think art, the arts, are saying don't do that. Don't do that, anymore than you have to anyway. Don't get lost in thought, pay attention. Listen. See. [pause] See with a sort of x-ray eye, see not just what you have to see to get a round, not bump into people, not run your car off the road, see the way Rembrandt sees, see the way I was first I think, made aware of as a young man in the works of J.D. Salinger. I don't know how much you read J.D. Salinger still, but he introduced me I think to this notion of the x-ray eye.
The x-ray eye of Holden Caulfield and The Catcher in the Rye. You read that book still? He runs into all these slobs and phonies, the sort of pimp bellboy of the hotel and the sort of phony black piano player who knows he's good and therefore isn't good in a natural way anymore. But at the end of the book somewhere Holden says I missed them, I missed them, I missed old sanzo. He missed them because he saw beneath the slobbiness or the phoniness at the heart of it something precious and to be missed.
[00:37:37] Of course, the famous scene in the stories of I think it was Zooey, Franny and Zooey. You remember where the Glass children were all taking part in a quiz show, I think it's called Wise Child and they sit behind sort of a desk, questions are fired at them, like quiz kids. And the oldest brother, Seymour, says now to his younger brothers and sister who are on this program, you must always shine your shoes, and they say well why should we shine our shoes we're sitting behind a desk, nobody can see our shoes. And Seymour says, well, polish them for the fat lady. And they say who is the fat lady? And he says everybody's the fat lady.
And he said the way I picture the fat lady is a fat lady sitting on a porch, it's hot, she's swatting flies, she's got varicose veins, she has cancer. Shine them for the fat lady. And then, this tremendous moment of revelation where he says, Seymour Glass says, don't you realize, Jesus Christ is the fat lady. Everybody's the fat lady, Jesus Christ is the fat lady. When I was hungry, you fed me, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was sick and in prison you visited me, when I was the fat lady you shined your shoes for me.
Art, inviting us to see like that, to see with those kinds of eyes, I think also of C.S. Lewis, in that little book, I think called Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, where he speaks of Lewis and himself met a European pastor and he heard that the European pastor had actually with his own eyes seen Adolf Hitler. So Lewis asked the question what did Hitler look like? What did he look like? And the pastor said, like Jesus, of course.
It's devastating. As if insofar as we bear God's thumbprint deep within us, that's what we have been made to be. And whatever the world has done to us to deflect us from that, to distort that, to destroy it, whatever. That is at the heart of the reality of who we potentially are and that pastor saw it. [shouting] What does Saddam Hussein look like? Jesus of course, Jesus of course.
The question is how do you move through the world if the arts are saying stop, look, pay attention, listen, hear, how do you do it? People always ask that. People are so practical. I don't know how you do it, I'm probably not much better at it than you are, but one way to do it, I think, is to take time to do it. Think of all the dumb things we spend our time doing. Why not take time to be alive in the world and to look and to think of each day as a kind of a treasure hunt. You can be sure that in every day, no matter how humdrum, no matter how dreary, no matter how frightening, let alone how joyous, in every day you can be sure there is buried a treasure.
[00:41:12] If it's only a face, or a sound or whatever. Be mindful. Be mindful. Well, I don't think it takes much effort to draw the parallel between that vision of life as something to pay attention to and the religious vision. The biblical, the religious vision's thinking now, biblically, in Hinduism and Buddhism, the creation is of no particular importance, you get the sense that the creation, whatever it is, the ten thousand worlds are a kind of dream that ultimate reality dreams, Brahmanachman dreams or a kind of game, Leela is the word they use for it, a kind of game that the ineffable plays like blowing thistledown through the air.
It has no real reality and the whole purpose as you know, of Hinduism and Buddhism ultimately, is to escape, what we in our mistaken way think of as the reality of the world. The whole point of Hinduism, Buddhism is to escape it, to escape the wheel of rebirth which only leads to suffering and death and another birth, round and round the wheel. And to enter what they call nirvana, which is another level of reality altogether, it has nothing to do with the creation as we know it.
But, not so biblical faith. Which of course takes the creation so seriously. Because God made it. It wasn't a game, it wasn't a dream, he made the world, He made creation. He made what is to be. And gave us our lives in it. And himself acted in it. Entered it, through his people Israel, through the great events of the exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land and so on. Because he ended it finally as the Christ. Died in it, rose in it.
Pay attention to it, says biblical faith, pay attention to the world, pay attention to creation, pay attention to your lives in the world because souls are lost and saved there. Including of course, our own souls. I think all biblical faith is ringing changes on that pay attention to creation, the prophets, saying pay attention to the headlines of history. Pay attention to the fall of the temple in 586.
What word of judgement is God speaking through that? Amos saying, pay attention to the fact that in this country where the presidents of corporations are paid millions of dollars a year there are the homeless piling up on the streets of this kinder, gentler America. Pay attention to that! Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Pay attention to the headlines, pay attention to what's going on in the world of history. Look and listen. See. Stop. Pay attention.
[00:44:26] In the Psalms, saying pay attention, now not to the headlines, but to the tiny little print. The tiny little mighty acts which happen in our own lives. No bigger than that, and yet for us as big as mountains. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Each one of those you feel for the Psalmist was a small moment of grace, by the still waters and the green pastures, which paid attention to, became enormously important, saving moments. Pay attention to those, says the Psalmist. And of course, Jesus, too.
Emily Dickinson in a letter to a friend, I've always meant to look it up and quote it exactly, but in some letter to some friend, she said, it's a most endearing thing for Emily Dickinson to have said. She said, only one commandment I have never broken. It's very touching, can you imagine Emily Dickinson breaking any commandment? Though I suppose in her heart like the rest of us, she'd broken them all. There is only one commandment that I have never broken said Emily Dickinson, that is this: consider the lilies. Consider the lilies. How they toil not, neither do they spin, yet Solomon in all his glory ... that's her little joke. She of course was a great considerer of the lilies.
But it's not altogether a joke because it seems to me that Jesus again and again is saying, consider the lilies, consider the return of the prodigal son. Consider the feast that everybody was invited to but nobody came to, consider what it's like when you find that thing you lost and have been looking for for years and all of a sudden there it is, consider that one pearl which is worth, as if he's saying oh, life is a parable. Pay attention to it. Listen to it. And love it. [pause]
[00:46:45] Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself. From these two hang all the law, says Jesus. And how to love God, it seems to me, whatever that means, is not unlike loving anything. To love is to look for, to wait for, to watch for, to listen for. You love God, you wait for him, you watch for him you listen for him. You smell the scent of him. And we're so busy, doing other things. I am so busy doing other things. That I forget to do that.
Except once in a while, always by grace, I think, rather than by taking pains, it happens. And the time it's most vivid to me when it happened, was one Christmas eve in Vermont, when my children were still little, and my brother and his wife were there and he and his wife and my wife and I did all the things you do with children on Christmas eve, we helped them hang their stockings, we left a little cup of cider and cookie for Santa Claus and when they went to bed, we lugged all the presents down from the attic and stuck them under the tree and just about to fall exhausted into bed when I realized that our neighbor, down the hill, not very far, had gone off for Christmas and he said before he left, will you feed my sheep for me? He had a dozen sheep or more.
It was snowing quite heavily, but I said that I would do it, so my brother and I put on our boots and we slogged down the hill, in the dark with the snow up to our knees and went into the hay barn and got a couple of bales each and carried them into the shed where the sheep were, and broke the strings and shook the hay dust out of it and put them in the manger, the 40 watt bulb we turned on, and the sheep came bumbling up to the manger there, sort of foolish, holy, faces and the snow was coming down, and the smell of the hay and it was Christmas Eve, and I suddenly realized where I was. But only by luck.
I might so easily not have known where I was. That the world is a manger. The world is a manger in which God is continually being born. In one form or another. But we're so apt to be lost in thought. Looking somewhere else. Love God, pay attention, watch, listen, wait for, and love each other, Jesus says. Love your neighbor. You have to see them to love them. You have to see them to love them. It's hard to love somebody you can't see. See their faces. See the way they walk down the street. See the way their shoulders slump when they're tired, then maybe you can love them. And then the reverse, almost, it is in loving them that we come really to see them. And so often we don't see people very well. Until something happens that makes us see them.
[00:50:18] I was one winter, again in Vermont, I filled a Baptist pulpit that had fallen vacant for the winter season, and at the end of one sermon, the usual people streaming out, lovely message and all that kind of stuff, and there was one old lady who came out, sort of sallow and bent, and sort of gray, and I said how are you? And she said about as well as can be expected. And that was such an unexpected thing for her to say that I looked at her, and I thought even though my only responsibility to this church was to preach on Sundays and they were supposed to do their own pastoral calling, I thought even I once in a while have got to love my neighbor.
So I went to see the old lady, cause I'd seen her, I saw her for a moment, she made it possible for me to see her because she said the unexpected thing. I went full of dread that she was going to have a long tale of woe and I would be bored and depressed. None of that happened. She became an enormous friend and I used to go to see her not for her sake but for my sake for about 7 or 8 years ‘til she finally died one Saint Valentine's Day. I happened to see her. I might not have seen her.
And listen, listen, if you love your neighbor than listen to your neighbor. Listen not just to what your neighbor says, listen to what your neighbor doesn’t say. Listen to the silences of your neighbor. Listen to the silences of the people who are closest to you, listen to the voices of the people closest to you, which are the hardest sometimes to hear, listen. And sometimes we don't because we can't, sometimes we don't because we don't want to listen, we're afraid of what we'll hear.
Going into an office to get a job of printing done and the man who was the job printer, I knew was having all sorts of trouble in his life, he had a drinking problem, his marriage was in bad shape, his business was in bad shape, and just as to the old woman, I said these, it's such an ironic thing to say how are you? This sort of wonderful thing how are you tell me how you are, never expecting an answer. I said how are you to this man, and for a moment he said nothing, as if he was pausing on the threshold of telling me how he was. How he was in hell. And for a moment it was as if he was almost thinking of saying that to me. And I suppose the moment only lasted a few seconds, but it seems as it lasted much longer than that, and then he answered the question by saying well I'm fine how are you. The moment passed, and I was enormously relieved. I didn't have to hear him. I didn't have to love him. Love your neighbor as yourself. Listen to them. Listen to them. And if they say they're in hell or if they don't say they're in hell and you know they're in hell maybe you hold out a hand.
[00:53:45] Talked about the x-ray eye of Rembrandt, who saw that old woman's face, the x-ray eye of Seymour Glass, I think of Jesus's x-ray eye. Looking out at a crowd just as miscellaneous as us, and saying come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. And I don't know how you hear that, but I hear that word addressed not just to the people who were obviously laboring and heavy-laden, the poor, the homeless, the dispossessed, the sick, the old, the lonely, I hear that word addressed to everyone.
The successful businesswoman. The boy on his graduation day. The bride teetering down the aisle on her French heels, marrying the boy she loves. All ye who labor and are heavy-laden. As if Jesus says, I can see down to what it is to be human, to be human is always to be laboring and heavy-laden. That's part of what it is. Come to me and I will give you rest. To see with that kind of x-ray eye. We're called to see, I think, each other like that.
It's not easy. It's not easy. Walk in a crowd, an exercise you can do, as you've passed these faces in the street, these anonymous faces, think of the words of the Eucharist. Christ died for thee. Christ died for that one, that fat, pimply boy, Christ died for that one that disagreeable woman in the mink coat, Christ died for the old fellow in the Agway cap, Christ died for thee, Christ died for thee. As a key to what it means to love them.
I think sometimes in crowds of people, anonymous faces, that every one of the those faces each one of the those faces, is or was or perhaps someday will be the most precious of all faces to somebody somewhere. If that particular face were to show up in a particular house, light would come on. To try to imagine what it would be like to see each of those faces as that face, that special face. To think of the people you meet as a way of loving them, well I'll put it another way.
A couple of years ago, I happened to be giving lectures in tandem with a remarkable black woman named Maya Angelou, and we were both there in a sense to tell our stories. I sort of told mine, and then Maya Angelou got up and the same person who introduced me introduced her and said all the things one could say about Maya Angelou. Who grew up as you probably know in the 30s, the same time I did, but in Arkansas, during the height of segregation and racism, in direst poverty, scared for her life and he said you will now hear from this Angelou who will tell a very different story from the story you just heard from Frederick Buechner. And as he was saying that, Maya Angelou shook her head back and forth.
And when she got up in front of the microphone she said, he was wrong, She said I have the same exact story to tell as Frederick Buechner. I have the same story to tell. That's deeply moving. Because in so many ways you could hardly imagine two stories more different. Man, woman, black, white, poor as dirt and by comparison rich as Croesus, and yet yes of course, the same story. Though when it comes to the business of trying to be human; when it comes to the business of trying to believe in a loving God in a world that gives us many reasons if you have your eyes open for not believing a damn thing; when it comes to the business of trying to survive, especially the shadows of childhood, we do all have the same stories. We have the same stories. The same secrets, the same fears in the night, the same joys. And to see that is a step towards loving. Love God, love your neighbor. Watch for, listen to, pay attention to. Which is what the artists are also saying.
[00:58:46] As I hear the, then finally this. Think ye of the mystery of who it is, what it is to be a human being. You can keep pushing the mystery back and back and back, the mystery most immediately of genetics, the mystery of what we inherit from our mother or father, our ancestors, and not only the way we look but the way we are inside ourselves that mystery, who can answer it?
The evolutionary mystery, the mystery of the gradual development of human being over the eons. The mystery of the creation of the universe, the big bang, whatever it was. God saying let there be light. Where space and time themselves are created, it's just recently that I've come to realize that's what people are talking about, I always thought there was this big space into which the creation was created. Not at all, apparently, Space and time themselves.
So we're made of stardust, that mystery, we're made of the same stuff the universe is made of. But you push it farther still in biblical terms and the ultimate mystery of course is not only that we're created by God as we believe, but that we're created in God's image. As I said before we have God's thumbprint upon us. Deep within us, we have this image in us. Which is what the European pastor saw when he said that Adolf Hitler looked like Jesus Christ. And I think we experience this image, this thumbprint, this holiness, in ourselves, as that deep place from which come our best prayers, our deepest intuitions, our greatest wisdom.
And I think that's where true art always comes from. It is that place, it is that holy place, that the great painting, the great music, the great work of literature, that holy place, that deep place that's God's place. And I think that the highest function of the artist is to help put us in touch with that holy place within ourselves. So that like them we too can become listeners, lookers, attention-payers to the miracle of life that we move through and that moves in us. Thank you.
Lisa: [01:01:53] Many thanks to Frederick Buechner. You can learn more about his life and work at frederickbuechner.com. Thanks also to Dr. Jennifer Holberg. You can learn about everything the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing is up to, including producing this very podcast at ccfw.calvin.edu.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College, and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Jon Brown, Sadie Burgher, Donald Hettinga, Lew Klatt, Scott Hoezee, Jennifer Holberg, Bob Hudson, Anneke Kapteyn, Carolyn Muyskens, Deb Reinstra, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.
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Also, we've got twenty-six years of Festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio. If you've been at some of these festivals and have a favorite session or two that you are especially excited to here on this podcast, just shoot me an email at email@example.com and tell me about them. Just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.
Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.