The Eyes of the Heart

Frederick Buechner, The Eyes of the Heart (HarperSanFrancisco 1999).

  • When she is in her 80s, Buechner’s mother, who generally “refused to talk about death the way she refused to talk about a great many other things,” unaccountably asked “Do you really believe anything happens after you die?” After an unsuccessful attempt at a verbal answer (exacerbated by her partial and partially willful deafness), Buechner “tried to answer the question in a letter, I wrote her I believe that what happens when you die is that, in ways I knew no more about than she did, you are given back your life again, and I said there were three reasons why I believed it First, I wrote her, I believed it because, if I were God and loved the people I created and wanted them to become at last the best they had it in them to be, I couldn’t imagine consigning them to oblivion when their time came with the job under the best of circumstances only a fraction done. Second, I said, I believed it, apart from any religious considerations, because I had a hunch it was true. I intuited it I said that if the victims and the victimizers, the wise and the foolish, the good-hearted and the heartless all end up alike in the grave and that is the end of it, then life would be a black comedy, and to me, even at its worst, life doesn’t feel like a black comedy. It feels like a mystery. It feels as though, at the innermost heart of it, there is Holiness, and that we experience all the horrors that go on both around us and within us as horrors rather than as just the way the cookie crumbles because, in our own innermost hearts, we belong to Holiness, which they are a tragic departure from. And lastly, I wrote her, I believe that what happens to us after we die is that we aren’t dead forever because Jesus said so.” p. 14-16.
  • “[My brother Jamie] never went to church except once in a while to hear me, and he didn’t want a funeral, he told me [but] he did ask me if I would write a prayer for him that he could use, and . . . he had it there on the table beside him [when he died]. ‘Dear Lord, bring me through darkness into light. Bring me through pain into peace. Bring me through death into life. Be with me wherever I go, and with everyone I love, In Christ’s name I ask it. Amen.'” p. 163.
  • “Years ago when I first started giving lectures and readings here and there, I rather dreaded the question-and-answer sessions that usually followed them, nervous that I wouldn’t know what or how to respond and that the audience would see me for the impostor I more than half suspected I was. Now, on the other hand, it is the part of such junkets that I look forward to most, and I find myself responding to people I have never set eyes on before as though they are members of my own family. The risk, of course, is that I will make a fool of myself, or worse . . . . But it has been my experience that the risks are far outweighed by the rewards, chief of which is that when you speak to strangers as though they are friends, more often than not, if only for as long as the encounter lasts, they become friends, and if in the process they also think of you as a little peculiar, who cares? In fact it seems to me that I often feel freer to be myself in the company of stranger-friends than in the company of those with whom there is such a long tradition of reserve and circumspection that it is hard to transcend it.” p. 178.
  • “I have never risked much in disclosing the little I have of the worst that I see in my mirror, and I have not been much more daring in disclosing the best, I have seen with the eyes of my heart the great hope to which he has called us, but out of some shyness or diffidence I rarely speak of it, and in my books I have tended to write about it for the most part only obliquely, hesitantly, ambiguously, for fear of losing the ear and straining the credulity of the readers to whom such hope seems just wishful thinking. For fear of overstating, I have tended especially in my nonfiction books to understate, because that seemed a more strategic way of reaching the people I would most like to reach who are the ones who more or less don’t give religion the time of day. But maybe beneath that lies the fear that if I say too much about how again and again over the years I have experienced holiness—even here I find myself drawing back from saying God or Jesus—as a living, healing, saving presence in my life, then I risk being written off as some sort of embarrassment by most of the people I know and like. For the most part it is only in my novels that I have allowed myself to speak unreservedly of what with the eyes of my heart I have seen. . . .” pp. 180-81.

The workers are few . . .

d. Paul Farmer, physician (1959-1922). from @PIH: “Partners In Health announced that its founder, Dr. Paul Farmer, unexpectedly passed away today in his sleep while in Rwanda. Dr. Farmer was 62 years old. He is survived by his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children.”

  • “Little sleep, no investment portfolio, no family around, no hot water. On an evening a few days after arriving in Cange, I wondered aloud what compensation he got for these various hardships. He told me, “If you’re making sacrifices, unless you’re automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you’re trying to lessen some psychic discomfort. So, for example, if I took steps to be a doctor for those who don’t have medical care, it could be regarded as a sacrifice, but it could also be regarded as a way to deal with ambivalence.” He went on, and his voice changed a little. He didn’t bristle, but his tone had an edge: “I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world where some can’t buy them. You can feel ambivalent about that, because you should feel ambivalent. Comma.” Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003) [Amazon].

And now the work falls to others, as it always does. Read the book if you dare.

Peggy Noonan, holdover from the Reagan Republican party (a compliment, that), invites Republicans to repair what was damaged by Mr. Trump.

  • “[A]n enduring party’s stands must reflect and address the needs and demands of its era. The pressing challenges America now faces aren’t those of 1970 or 1980. A great party must be in line with the crises of its time.”

“Republicans, Stand against Excess, Wall Street Journal (Feb. 17, 2022) [link]. I have more confidence in Alan Jacob‘s version of “Invitation and Repair” [link] which might be more significant to the One with actual authority.

But I have the most faith in those who determine to simply do the next thing with faithfulness, love and compassion:

  • “Mothering and writing are alike, I’ve found, and they are both like gardening . . . and gardening, well, it’s like all of life, isn’t it? With gardening, the essential thing is not so much to accumulate expertise, as to continue on in doing it. We do not become better and better gardeners. We are gardeners, and that is enough, for to keep the earth is to reckon every day with being yet so far away from heaven, and so the most important thing is to not lose heart.”

Sarah Willard Rowell, “February Morning,” Blind Mule Blog (Feb. 9, 2022) [link].

There is so much to be done.

On honest uncertainty at a funeral

Between the stirrup

James Boswell attributes this near quotation of William Camden (originally “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found.”) to Samuel Johnson, and goes on to report that Johnson said “Sir, we are not to judge [with certainty] the state in which a man leaves this life. He may in a moment have repented effectually, and it is possible may have been accepted of God.” James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson 543 (1830) [link].*

We can never know the depth of God’s grace or the end of his persistent pursuit of each human heart. Let us resolve to speak the gospel of grace whenever we can.


*In the novel Brighton Rock (1938), Graham Greene has his character Pinkie rely on this quotation as a basis for rejecting grace on the assumption that he will be able to repent at the last moment. But in a moment in which his death seems imminent, he finds that he has hardened himself against repentance.

Is compassion human?

As I often do, at the end of the day, I repaired to Snakes and Ladders (blog.ayjay.org), to see what Alan Jacobs was keeping up with that I had missed. (I am coming to the conclusion after many years that “Alan Jacobs” must be a consortium of at least four or five people — no way this is just one guy.)

Here’s what I saw today:

small quotes blueI admire David French because he tries to live out his Christian convictions as consistently as possible. Those convictions led him and his wife Nancy, who are white, to adopt a girl from Ethiopia . . . .

“On David French” (May 30, 2019) [link].

Frankly, I had never heard of David French (because I am obviously completely illiterate), but when I read that first line, I though of my many friends who adopted cross-racially and/or cross-culturally (the Bs, the Hs, the other Hs, the Ms, the Ps, the Ss, the Ws, the other Ws, etc.) all out of a Christian conviction that to love and care for those in need is proper work for the followers of Jesus even when it is incredibly hard, whether it is popular or not.

Read Jacobs’ post, but even more importantly, go read David French, “America Soured on My Multiracial Family,” The Atlantic (Aug, 18, 2018) [link], where you will find:

small quotes blueThere are three fundamental, complicating truths about adoption. First, every single adoption begins with profound loss. Through death, abandonment, or even loving surrender, a child suffers the loss of his or her mother and father. Second, the demographics of those in need of loving homes do not precisely match the demographics of those seeking a new child. Adoptive parents are disproportionately white. Adopted children are not. Thus, multiracial families are a natural and inevitable consequence of the adoption process. Third, American culture has long been obsessed with questions of race and identity.

Read the whole article, please.

I still don’t know anything about David French, but when Alan Jacobs says “I believe that if you could demonstrate to David French that positions he holds are inconsistent with the Christian Gospel, he would change those positions accordingly,” I hear high praise indeed.

If the salt has lost its savor . . .

current reading 2An interesting take on the expected reconstruction of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris:

small quotes blueYou can’t understand the current rebuilding project without understanding the crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III, in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day of the year 800; and Pope Gregory VII’s role [in] the Investiture Controversy, with its culmination in the humiliation of Henry IV in the snow at Canossa; and the emergence of the Cuius regio, eius religio principle in the Reformation era; and the violent dechristianizing of France during the Revolution; and the vain struggle of Pio Nono against the unification of Italy, ending in the elimination of the Papal States and the loss of all secular power for the Papacy; and the emergence of the Deutsche Christen in the Nazi era, when German pastors competed with one another to defend the celebrate the subservience of (especially but not only) the Lutherans to Hitler.

Alan Jacobs, “The building on the Île de la Cité,” Snakes and Ladders (April 17, 2019) [link].


A convert reflects on how the emptiness of secularism . . . and Christian practice:

small quotes blueI had plenty of opportunities to engage with orthodox Christians, and I sincerely wanted Christianity to be true. It was clear to me that what the authorities in my world celebrated—the collapse of family life, the slaughter of the unborn, the deterioration of high culture—were, in truth, social evils that followed from the decline of the Church. Christianity seemed the natural alternative to secularity.

Jacob Williams, “Why I became Muslim,” First Things (May 2019) [link]. Rod Dreher comments on the First Things piece in The American Conservative: “Why convert to Islam?” (April 15, 2019) [link].

Good Friday

IV

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

 T.S. Eliot, “East Coker, pt. IV,” Four Quartets (1940).

Pain and resolution

current reading 2Connor Gwin, “Things We Cannot Say,” Mockingbird (Mar. 20, 2019) [link] has a compelling take on silence, pain, and grace in the church. Any one of these would be worth your time, any two intriguing, but it is the combination which is compelling:

small quotes blueIt is almost trite to say that people are hurting. We all know it intellectually. The truth is much more startling. A majority of people are in an incredible amount of pain (emotional, spiritual, physical). No one has it all together. In fact, most people are on the verge of falling apart. People are always in a crisis, coming out of a crisis, or heading into a crisis. This is one of the only things in life that we can guarantee to be true.

He goes on from there — you should, too.


Sarah Willard, “New Things Coming On,” Blind Mule Blog (Mar. 20, 2019) [link] writes (beautifully, as always) about conflict and resolution, and how what we think of as resolution is too timid for what God is planning.

small quotes blueWhat kind of storyteller expects anyone to believe the kind of things we see in this life alone? The threads of his work aren’t tidy, and sometimes they can’t be followed and they break off in all the worst places, but in the end you see it secure and whole, and not the dishrag you imagined at all, but a tapestry filling the whole world, with every scene more beautiful than the last, where those of a cool unfriendliness meet over a hillside and listen to each other, where sad old things have passed away and you feel a pressure on your shoulders… for it’d really be wise, my friend, to sit down for the sight of all the new things coming on.

She also mentions a piece which she wrote recently for Chronic Joy, which is a blog for people who suffer chronic pain — “War Stories and White Fences” (Mar. 20, 2019) [link].

Both pieces are well worth your time.

“Faith and . . .”

“The ‘I surrender’ list,” Mockingbird (Jan. 28, 2019) [link]

small quotes blue[T]he opposite of faith is not doubt—doubt is the enduring human companion, even in faith. No, the opposite of faith is control, the need to be in the driver’s seat for every turn in the road. Just like Eric facing that silent room and that blank page, the invitation to faith also means a resignation of will, namely your will. Faith means surrendering the notion that you are the Higher Power guiding your life, and realizing instead that it might be better off in Another’s hands.

Surrender is never considered a virtue, though, especially in a culture which champions, uh, champions, those who don’t surrender. Surrendering means failing—raising the flag of defeat or incompetence. And surrender is especially dubious when the terms are chartered by some less-than-appealing Religious Authority. Faith simply isn’t worth the risk with a God Who Vindictively Punishes or God Who Is Church Lady. But with a God Who Forgives?

Wow.

Longing and love

current reading 2SW writes about our mistaken desire for permanence in this world, when it is really another country for which we long:

I loved, more than anything, and without knowing it, permanence. My six year old heart wanted to live forever. Twenty years later, it still does.

Sarah Willard, “In Ruins,” Blind Mule Blog (Oct. 2, 2018) [link].


CG reminds us that in the end it is impossible for us to overstate God’s love or to rationalize it:

We have such a hard time accepting that God’s love truly reaches out to all people, even the people we hate or disagree with, and even (especially?) to we ourselves. We insist on qualifying grace, which necessarily renders that grace null and void. We worry that if people start to believe that grace is true in all cases and that God loves people with reckless abandon all hell will break loose.

Connor Gwin, “Qualifying the Reckless Love of God,” Mockingbird (Sept. 24, 2018) [link].