A Power From Beyond Time

BEYOND TIME IS THE phrase that I have used to describe this leg of my journey because it was then that I think I first began to have a pale version of the experience that Saint Paul describes in his letter to the Philippians. "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," he writes, "for God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." I was a long way from thinking in terms of my own salvation or anybody else's, but through the people I met like the drunken boy at the Nass and the black man at the head of the line, through the courses I happened to take and the books I happened to read, through such events as eating that muddy turnip in Alabama, through my revulsion at my own weaknesses as well as through such satisfaction as I had in my own strengths, it seems to me now that a power from beyond time was working to achieve its own aim through my aimless life in time as it works through the lives of all of us and all our times.

-Originally in The Sacred Journey

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When a Man Leaves Home

The ghost of St. Cuthbert is talking with Godric; Glythwin is a rabbit:

THE NIGHT I DIED, they waved lit torches to and fro from that high ledge behind you there to tell my monks on Lindisfarne the news. Would you believe it, though? There was not one of them awake. So Glythwin sank his teeth into the abbot's toe. You should have seen the jig he did with one foot tucked beneath him like a stork!

"You say that you were dead, and yet you saw?" I said.

"Not only saw but laughed," he said, " till tears ran down."

"Would I be right that you're a ghost then, Father, and you haunt this place?"

"Ah well, and if it comes to that," he said, "your shadow fell here long before your foot, and that's a kind of haunting too. Fame had long been calling you, I mean, before you heard at last and came."

" I heard no call, Father," I said. " I came here as a stranger, and I came by chance."

"Was it as a stranger and by chance you wept?" he said, then let me wonder at his words a while before he spoke again. "When a man leaves home, he leaves behind some scrap of his heart. Is it not so, Godric ? . . . It's the same with a place a man is going to. Only then he sends a scrap of his heart ahead."

-Originally published in Godric

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The Need to Praise

THE NEXT WINTER I sat in Army fatigues somewhere near Anniston, Alabama, eating my supper out of a mess kit. The infantry training battalion that I had been assigned to was on bivouac. There was a cold drizzle of rain, and everything was mud. The sun had gone down. I was still hungry when I finished and noticed that a man nearby had something left over that he was not going to eat. It was a turnip, and when I asked him if I could have it, he tossed it over to me. I missed the catch, the turnip fell to the ground, but I wanted it so badly that I picked it up and started eating it anyway, mud and all. And then, as I ate it, time deepened and slowed down again. With a lurch of the heart that is real to me still, I saw suddenly, almost as if from beyond time altogether, that not only was the turnip good, but the mud was good too, even the drizzle and cold were good, even the Army that I had dreaded for months. Sitting there in the Alabama winter with my mouth full of cold turnip and mud, I could see at least for a moment how if you ever took truly to heart the ultimate goodness and joy of things, even at their bleakest, the need to praise someone or something for it would be so great that you might even have to go out and speak of it to the birds of the air.

-Originally published in The Sacred Journey

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A Wider World

WITHIN THE CENTER of my ring / I found myself, and that was everything," the poem says. Whatever my twenty-year-old self was, it was the pivot on which the circle of my life revolved. I do not think that I was a more selfish person than most. Through such unhappiness as I had known myself, I had a feeling for the unhappiness of others, and at least to those I liked I had it in me to be a good friend. But I was, as I have said, centered on myself. The tree, the cloud, the sun I knew there was a wider world beyond myself and my small circle: the world that Saint Francis praised God for, the world that had marked with such sadness and pity and weariness the face of Jesus in Da Vinci's study. And I knew that somewhere out there, or deep beneath, there might well be God for all I knew. But all of that seemed very remote, mysterious and unreal compared with the immediate and absorbing reality of myself. And though I think I knew even then that finding that self and being that self and protecting and nurturing and enjoying that self was not the "everything" I called it in the poem, by and large it was everything that, to me, really mattered. That, in any event, was the surface I floated on and in many ways float on still as to one degree or another we all of us both do and must lest otherwise we get lost or drown in the depths. But to lose track of those depths to the extent that I was inclined to—to lose track of the deep needs beyond our own needs and those of our closest friends; to lose track of the deep mystery beyond or at the heart of the mystery of our separate selves—is to lose track also of what our journey is a journey toward and of the sacredness and high adventure of our journey. Nor, if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open at all, does life allow us to lose track of the depths for long.

-Originally published in The Sacred Journey

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So Much to Read

Buechner is remembering his Princeton school years:


I TOOK GERMAN LIKE medicine, hoping that it might land me in Intelligence when my time came instead of the Infantry, and almost flunked it despite artful cribbing from Rainer Maria Rilke in my German compositions. I took medieval history, I no longer remember why, and out of it all, the one thing that stuck by me was Saint Francis of Assisi and his Canticle to the Sun. "Laudato sie, misigniore," he sang—praise to thee, misigniore, for Brother Sun, for Sister Moon, and though there was much in it that reminded me of the creaking baritone in the Tryon church where I sometimes went with Naya, there was a passion to it that was new to me and a mystery too because it was not just Brother Sun and Sister Moon that he was giving praise for in his canticle but Sister Death too, of all things, death no less than life as sister and friend. I had heard before of praising God, but the madness of Saint Francis' praise was new to me, the madness of throwing away everything he ever had or ever hoped to have for love of the creation no less than of the creator, of making a marvelous and holy fool of himself by tramping out into the fields to tell swallows and skylarks and red-winged blackbirds that they ought to praise God too for the air that bore them up and for their nests in the high trees.

I took creative writing, too—wondering, as I still do, what other kind of writing there is—and wrote poems about Saint Francis, about flying kites in Bermuda on Good Friday, about war and love, but in all of them I think my chief interest was less in trying to tell some kind of truth, if only a truth about myself or what I had seen, than in trying to make an effect. "You have a way with words," my instructor, the critic R. P. Blackmur, told me, and although at the time it was like getting the Pulitzer Prize, it seems to me now that there was also a barb to his remark. I wrote poems with punch lines, had a way of making words ring out and dance a little, but there was little if any of my life's blood in my poems. I was writing for my teachers, for glory. I had not yet started trying to write either out of myself very much or for myself, partly, of course, because I had only a very dim sense of who that self was, and what with both the war and my eighteenth birthday bearing down on me hard, there was precious little time to find out. We had the sense—all of us, I think—that our time was running out, and that was why we tried to fill it as full as we did with whatever came to hand, why in the face of death it was a time with so much life in it. There was so much to do, so much to be, so much to read. John Donne I read especially, and William Blake, and T. S. Eliot, more carried away with the sound of their voices than with what they said—the stammering intensity of Donne, the toying, crazy innocence of Blake, and Eliot so weary and civilized and under control, the wisest old possum of them all.

-Originally published in The Sacred Journey

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