How to Stop, Look, & Listen to Life.
Listening For God In Stories We Tell:
The author first met Maya Angelou when the Trinity Institute brought them together to speak for a series of lectures. The Institute does this every year, and the lectures are frankly geared for burned - out Episcopal clergy - men and women who simply have had it.
The author had recently published two books, one of them called The Sacred Journey and one of them called Now and Then, in which he was about to set a sort of spiritual autobiography in the sense that he simply looked back on his life from its very beginning to listen to moments when he thought God had spoken to him.
They always have two people giving these lectures, and the other person they got was this extraordinary woman named Maya Angelou, who has told her story in not two but he think something like five volumes, the first of which is a marvelous book called I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings.
Maya Angelou was a large woman about the author height, black, beautiful, and so full of energy you can warm your hands in front of her. She was born in the South and brought up in great poverty by her grandmother in the little town of Stamps, Arkansas. Awful things happened to her. She was raped at the age of eight, not a violent rape but a sort of one-thing-leads-to-another rape by a boyfriend of her mother whom she'd gone to visit. She came back from that experience afraid to tell anybody about it, but she eventually told her little brother Bailey that this thing had happened. By a fluke, within a couple of days of the incident, word came that the man who'd raped her had died, and she was terrified that her words had killed him. So she was mute for five years - didn't say anything for five years. Well, she grew up, became a dancer, became a waitress, became a cook, and for a brief time she was a prostitute. She fell on evil times - the man whom she was with at the time said he needed some money and, if she wouldn't mind, could she entertain some of his friends, and she did for a time. Then she started to write and one thing led to another - acclaimed books, operas, films, and TV shows. She was a Renaissance woman, in other words.
Then Maya recalled the really marvelous high church Episcopal service that took place before the lectures began - there was incense and there was chanting and there were vestments, "she looked at the service, and she told the Episcopalians do it so well."
The wonderful truth of that, of course, is we act in these religious traditions and rituals as if we know what we're doing. Some of us think a church service is when we sing this, pray that, read this, and stand here and stand there.
The next day she had started her lecture reflecting on a story about racism, saying, "As I left the room yesterday, a man stood up and said, 'Here I am!'"
No sooner had these words left her lips when this small, bearded, white Episcopal clergyman suddenly stood up in their midst of a few rows behind her and walked down the aisle, up onto the platform, and put his arms around him. He was, of course, her friend who had been too embarrassed to talk to here anymore. And she cried and he cried all of them cried because they just got a glimpse of the kingdom of God. So moving. So gorgeous.
The author had given his lecture first, which was based, as he said, on his spiritual autobiography, and after he was done, he introduced Maya saying, "Ms. Angelou will now get up and tell your story, and it will be a very different story from the one that you just heard. As he said that Maya Angelou, who was sitting in the front row and shaking her head from side to side, got up, and she said he was wrong. She was very touched by that because in so many ways, what stories could be more different? I'm a man and and she's a woman, I'm white, she's black, she grew up in dire poverty while by comparison he grew up with riches, though God knows we weren't rich, and yet she said it's the same story. And she meant he think it is that at a certain level we do, all of us, with all the differences, we do all have the same story. When it comes to the business of how do you have faith in a world that gives you reasons every week not to believe, how do you survive - especially surviving our own childhoods as Maya Angelou survived hers and we've all survived ours - at that level we all have the same story, and therefore anybody's story can illuminate our own.
Better Than I Used to Be, but Far from Well:
His three daughters, his wife, and the author were living in this beautiful part of Vermont, rich, blessed, everybody healthy, very close, loving, did things together; and he always thought, This won't last, because that was what he learned in his childhood, that good things don't last, that there is always something waiting. There was a green hill as you looked out east from their house over the Green Mountains on the property of a neighbor of theirs, which had sort of a spine down one end.
Their oldest daughter, in her late teens he guess, became anorexic, a gradual process of not eating much. They would say, "Oh, for heaven's sake, you ought to have another piece of that," or "You can't go without breakfast," and so on. She went away to college, to Princeton, for a while and it got worst. Anyway, he would not go through all the details but she was married in the process of this to a boy they loved. And as it turned out, the anorexia destroyed the marriage.
You love all your children equally, I suppose, but she was his first child. She had made him a father, and he loved her as much as he had ever loved anybody. His love for her was like sort of his mother's love for him, too possessive, too much for his sake. The people who loved her right because they weren't emotionally involved were the hospital people, the psychiatrist, the one who fed her through her hose, and the people in AA because anorexia led to alcoholism as well.
She survived, and better than survived. One day she told him that she had so much help from AA that he really ought to try one of the twelve-step programs.
She said she was better than she use to be, but far from well. The journey continues; he does what he can. The great problem is to try to live in the present, not the past, not the future, but in the now.
Frederick Buechner is the author of more than 30 books and has been an important source of inspiration and learning for many readers. His books has been translated into 27 languages. He has been awarded honorary degrees from institutions including Yale University and Virginia Theological Seminary.