Frederick Buechner‘s The Sacred Journey is a spiritual autobiography in the tradition that runs through English literature from John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, and it is not an unworthy addition to the genre. Like all the best examples of this tradition, its narrative is reflective and anecdotal, never fearing to take a philosophical or meditative aside, and it is in these asides that its most significant moments are found.
For example, after describing a particularly memorable summer from his childhood, Buechner begins to reflect on the nature of things that have been but no longer are. “Summers end, to be sure,” he says, “and when the sun finally burns out like a match, they will end permanently; but be that as it may, it can never be otherwise than that there was a time when summers were.” Buechner is suggesting here that there is something unique and irreplaceable about the things that have been, even though they no longer are, something that is defined precisely by having been. Though things must certainly pass away from the present and from being, they thereby pass into a state of having been, a state that can never pass away. He articulates this idea more explicitly a little further on, saying, “Once a moment has come into being, its having-beeness is beyond any power in heaven or earth, in life or death, to touch,” and he argues that “everything that ever was will continue eternally to be what has been – a part of the wholeness and truth of eternity itself.”
This sense of what has been as irreplaceable reminds me very strongly of G. K. Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill, where Adam Wayne, the protagonist, defends his love for Notting Hill in much the same terms. “Notting Hill has fallen,” he says, “Notting Hill has died. But that is not the tremendous issue. Notting Hill has lived.” “There has never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill. There will never be anything quite like it to the crack of doom. I cannot believe anything but that God loved it as much as he must surely love anything that is itself and irreplaceable. But even for that I do not care. If God, with all His thunders, hated it, I loved it.”
Both Chesterton and Buechner are suggesting something quite profound here, I think: that the past is valuable, not merely because it has formed the present, and not merely because it may keep us from repeating our mistakes in the future, but simply because it was what it was and is therefore an inextricable part, as Buechner says, of the wholeness and truth of eternity. This moment now, which will soon have been, is irreplaceable. It will have been for all eternity what it is now, and this perhaps changes how we should live it, how we should experience it.
Perhaps this idea also changes how we should read Buechner’s very text, how we should understand his entire project. Perhaps we need to understand it, not as a spiritual autobiography at all, not properly speaking, but as a recollection of the things that were, as a recollection of the things that will always have been, for and through Buechner, a part of the wholeness and truth of eternity.