Advent is an expectant season when we are poised for what Frederick Buechner calls “the extraordinary moment.” He employs, among others, the image of an orchestra conductor at the moment before the first notes are played.
I have in my mind’s eye Leonard Bernstein, who was a regular visitor to Tanglewood, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra has their summer home just down the road from here. I recall how he would stride out of the wings (even at the end of his life when he needed oxygen between pieces) to thunderous applause. Before he dropped the baton he would gather the full attention of both the players and the audience. There was that moment before the extraordinary moment that Buechner describes:
“The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton. In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart . . . The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.” (Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, pp. 2-3)
Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article “Is There a Right Way to Pray?” (by Zev Chafets) stresses the dizzying diversity of practices among different religious traditions. But even within all this diversity there seems to be a common felt need.
This raises the question of whether the impulse to pray is a universal human experience, an example of what my tradition calls “common grace.” Could it be that we are “hard-wired” to speak our deepest needs, hopes and fears to the Other who transcends us.
Author Frederick Buechner suggests as much when he writes: “Everybody prays whether you think of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad. The ah-h-h-h! that sometimes floats up out of you as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the sky-rocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy. Whatever words or sounds you use for sighing with over your own life. These are all prayers in their way.”
These are all prayers because in some sense they are addressed not merely to oneself but to an(other.) To use the language of Martin Buber, prayer in any form is an “I-Thou” relationship, where our address, even when it starts as interior monologue, finds the unseen conversation partner. The “I” finds a “Thou.”
My friend and former colleague Rabbi Dennis Ross and I used to talk about this from the perspectives of our respective traditions. He uses this language of “I-Thou” from Buber to explore all our relationships, including the primal relationship with God, in his fine and accessible book God in Our Relationships. Like Beuchner, Rabbi Ross (who is also a social worker) finds prayer not by looking inward to special spiritual states, but by paying attention to one’s relationships. It is here, in the shared quotidian activities of ordinary life that God may be discerned and known. Rabbi Ross says, “The I-Thou relationship comes easily and often, over breakfast or at work, in the classroom or at the gym as well as in turning points of life.”
Author and minister Frederick Buechner has been an inspiration to me since the first book of his I read, The Alphabet of Grace, a description of one day in his life. His Yale Lyman Beecher Lecture, published as Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, is among the best things ever written on the art of preaching, right up there with Forsyth’s Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind.
His many novels are a treasure with richly developed characters, from the ancient Celtic saint Godric in Godric to the good hearted charleton Leo Bebb in the Book of Bebb triology. Their are no heroes in Buechner, although people sometimes do rise to heroic acts. Godric is a saint who is a sinner, and Bebb a sinner, who may be a saint. Buechner doesn’t explain simul justis et peccator, he describes it with carefully crafted words through character and plot.
Here is an excerpt from a sermon entitled A Room Called Remember from a book of the same name, where he talks of the interplay between memory and hope: ““Remember the wonderful works that he has done,’ goes David’s song—remember what he has done in the lives of each of us, and beyond that remember what he has done in the life of the world; remember what he has done above all in Christ—remember those moments in our own lives when with only the dullest understanding but with the sharpest longing we have glimpsed that Christ’s kind of life is the only life that matters and that all other kinds of life are riddled with death; remember those moments in our lives when Christ came to us in countless disguises through people who one way or another strengthened us, comforted us, healed us, judged us, by the power of Christ within them. All that is the past. All that is what there is to remember. And because that is the past, because we remember, we have this high and holy hope: that what he has done, he will continue to do, that what he has begun in us and our world, he will in unimaginable ways bring to fullness and fruition . . . The past and the future. Memory and expectation. Remember and hope. Remember and wait. Wait for him whose face we all of us know because somewhere in the past we have faintly seen it, whose life we all of us thirst for because somewhere in the past we have seen it lived, have maybe even had moments of living it ourselves. Remember him who himself remembers us as he promised to remember the thief who died beside him. To have faith is to remember and wait, and to wait in hope is to have what we hope for already begin to come true in us through our hoping. Praise him.” (A Room Called Remember, Harper and Row, 1984)