Frederick Buechner Week came and went, but there was one thing I didn’t cover, due to life and other writing projects and a lack of time to read. Our esteemed FBW host Amy was gracious enough to send me a copy of The Eyes of the Heart to review! I feel like I’m late to the book club party, but still feel this is important, so here it is…
The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found, is the last book in Frederick Buechner’s cycle of memoirs and by turns a beautiful and difficult read. In this memoir of family and faith, a shadow of death seems to surround his loosely connected stories, similar to my experience reading Mailynne Robinson’s Gilead, only this is a real story of a real family, and the real heart beating behind it makes the story all the more heartbreaking and, somehow, uplifting.
In this book, Buechner invites his readers into “The Magic Kingdom,” his library, and this room is the anchor of his wandering memories, a room described in loving detail as the home of biographies, stacked boxes of family lore, and priceless treasures. He imagines giving his grandmother Naya a tour of the Kingdom, plumbing the depths of family history and musing on death and the future, love and God. Among the stories are fragmented memories of his father’s suicide (a topic that I understand greatly haunts his body of work), tales of past generations, recollections of his dear friend Jimmy and brother Jamie, and a beautiful picture of meeting his grandson for the first time.
It’s a lot of years and space to cover in such a slim book, and sometimes the stories are scattered and jump around their timeline, but the library, his love for the people in his history, and his more introspective thoughts hold it all together. It’s more like reading a journal, or the kind of natural storytelling that sidetracks and meanders but always comes back around. Be patient, listen, and trust the teller. Like Gilead, it’s a book you feel, more than logically understand.
This was my first non-anthology Buechner read, and I have to say it was, in some moments, a very difficult one to get through… not because the content was dry (some parts are) or the language too hard to comprehend. The difficulty is in the weight of the material. Sometimes, just opening the pages gripped my heart and broke it a little, not so much because it’s sad, but because his love and humanity and honesty ring so true. It’s a good break, the kind that lets the light in.
Buechner distills his doubts and fears as he probes Naya with questions about what happens after death, and the honesty in which he confronts his personal demons of fear and depression is encouraging. It’s not a lighthearted inspirational book, but it is as comforting as it is unsettling. For all of the questions and longings expressed, he comes to a peaceful conclusion:
“Trust says the crumpled green license plate that hangs in my office. Trust what? Trust that it is worth scratching on the wall that God is Love and Life because, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, it may just be true. Trust that if God is anywhere, God is here, which means that there is no telling where God may turn up next– around what sudden bend of the path if you happen to have your eyes and ears open, your wits about you, in what odd, small moments almost too foolish to tell. If God is ever, God is now, in the in and out of breathing, the sound of the footstep on the stair, the smell of the rain, the touch of a hand on your bare shoulder where you kneel at the door.” (p 97)
Trust. The key to seeing with “the eyes of the heart.” Nothing is guaranteed in life. Death surrounds yet hides in shadows. Unexplainable sadness is real. But in the end, trust that there are mysteries and tensions, that life is surprising and beautiful, and that the furious love of God is there to redeem in the end. This is the conclusion as the last page is turned:
“What is magic about the Magic Kingdom is that if you look at it through the right pair of eyes it points to a kingdom more magic still that comes down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. The one who sits upon its throne says, “Behold, I make all things new…” (p 183)
Review copy provided by My Friend Amy.