A brand new Frederick Buechner book that isn’t just a hodgepodge of previously published materials? Yes please. The Remarkable Ordinary was born from material of Buechner’s, unearthed from a 1987 Norton lecture, and 1990 lecture from Laity Lodge, edited by John Sloan. Here, Buechner reflects on the sacredness of ordinary life, calling us to stop, look and listen to life. While this book was not prepared for publication by Buechner himself, these are very much his words and sensibility.
The chapters are arranged in three sections. In part one, Buechner invites us to “stop, look and listen for God.” In chapter 1, the title chapter—The Remarkable Ordinary, Buechner invites us to see the sacred within our ordinary life. Travelling through the arts, Buechner stopswith the haiku of Matsuo Basho, listens to time with music and sees through the lens of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield (Catcher & the Rye) and Franny and Zooey. In chapter 2, Buechner turns to sacred writ, exploring how the Bible calls us to pay attention, to see God and our neighbor through the attentive eyes of love:
Jesus says the greatest commandment is loving God and loving our neighbors. I don’t know what it means to love God—really, I’m all that good at it—but one of the things it means is, just as in the case of loving anybody else, you stop and watch and wait. Listen for God, stop and watch and wait for him. To love God means to pay attention, be mindful, be open to the possibility that God is with you in ways that, unless you have your eyes open, you may never glimpse. He speaks words that, unless you have ears open, you may never hear. Draw near to him as best you can. (36-37).
To love your neighbor is to see your neighbor. To see somebody, really see somebody the way Rembrandt saw the old lady, not just the face that comes to you the way dry leaves blow at you down the path like other dry leaves, but in a way that you realize the face is something the likes of which you have never seen before and will never see again. To love somebody we must see the person’s face, and once in a while we do. Usually its because something jolts us into seeing it. (39)
In Part 2, Buechner describes how to listen to God through the stories we tell. In chapter 3, he describes an Episcopalian conference on “story” he didn’t want to speak at, but agreed anyway to come and share his story. His co-speaker was Maya Angelou. While the details of their personal narratives are different, when Angelou got up to speak, she said, “I have the same story to tell as Fredrick Buechner”(53). Buechner reflects:
And I think what she meant is that at a certain level we do, all of us, with all our differences, we do have the same story. When it comes to the business of how you become a human being, how do you manage to believe, how do you have faith in a world that gives 14,000 reasons every week not to believe, how do you survive—especially surviving our own childhoods as Maya survived hers and we’ve all survived ours—at that level we all have the same story, and therefore anyone’s story can illuminate our own. (53).
And this gives us the justification for each us to tell our own story and to find ourselves in the stories of others. In chapter four, The Subterranean Grace of God or Why Stories Matter, he reflects further on the meaning in our story:
I think that a part of what to tell one’s own story in the religious sense means is to affirm that there is a plot to one’s life. It’s not just incident following incident without any particular direction or purpose, but things are happening in order to take you somewhere. Just the way a story begins and has a middle and an end. Things are somehow wrapped up at the end, and everything in some fashion can be seen to have led to this inevitable conclusion and to have had its own place, however circumstantial and odd and out-of-the-way some of those things that happened may have been. They had their purpose in the overall shape and texture and reality of one’s story. (59-60)
The “subterranean Grace of God” that shows up in our lives are exemplified as we spy the whiskey priest in Graham Green’s The Power and the Glory, or in Buechner’s own Leo Bebb novels (62, 64-67).
In Part 3, Buechner reflects deeper on his own story, traversing familiar ground to those familiar with his autobiographical works, his father’s suicide and learning to face the pain, vocation and the journey toward wholeness, the presence of peace, and hope.
What makes Buechner such a good writer, is how honestly he is able to cross-examine his own spiritual experience, without resorting to trite platitudes and Christian cliché. His call to us to attend to the remarkable ordinary, rests on the conviction that God and his subterranean grace haunt our lives—the mundane, the significant, the quotidian and the grotesque—and we will see and hear a Presence it if only we can stop, wait and listen. Art and literature, and telling one’s story help us to pause and take notice. “So, art is saying Stop. It helps us to stop by putting a frame around something and makes us see it in a way we would never have seen it under the normal circumstances of living, as so much of us do, on sort of automatic pilot, going through the world without really seeing much of anything” (23). This is what Buecher’s novels and memoirs accomplish. They frame reality, so if for a moment, we can see.
Having read a good number of them, I wouldn’t say this is my favorite of Buechner’s books. But it very good and had all the elements and insight I’ve come to appreciate from the nonagenarian Presbyterian. It is a short book and well worth your time. I give it four stars. – ★★★★
Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from HandleBar Media in exchange for my honest review.