Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Dish of Apples (ca. 1875-77)
 Paul Cezanne

Frederick Buechner is a novelist, spiritual writer, and former minister who has wonderful gifts of insight into life, art, and other matters of ultimate importance. While perusing a collection of Buechner's writings last night, I came across a discussion of the role that art plays in our lives.  I share it with you today because I believe it will resonate with those who read this blog on a fairly regular basis.  As you read this excerpt, you will discover the relevance of the paintings I have chosen to accompany this post.  Enjoy.

Portrait of the Artist's Mother (ca. 1629)

Excerpt from Meditation for February 20
 Listening to Your Life, by Frederick Buechner
From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention.  Pay attention to the frog.  Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.
The painter does the same thing, of course.  Rembrandt puts a frame around and old woman's face.  It is seamed with wrinkles.  The upper lip is sunken in, the skin waxy and pale.  It is not a remarkable face.  You would not look twice at the old woman if you found her sitting across the aisle from you on a bus.  But it is a face so remarkably seen that it forces you to see it remarkably just as Cezanne makes you see a bowl of apples or Andrew Wyeth a muslin curtain blowing in at an open window.  It is a face unlike any other face in all the world.  All the faces in the world are in this one old face.
Unlike painters, who work with space, musicians work with time, with note following note as second follows second.  Listen!  says Vivaldi, Brahms, Stravinsky.  Listen to this time that I have framed between the first note and the last and to these sounds in time.  Listen to the way the silence is broken into uneven lengths between the sounds and the silences themselves.  Listen to the scrape of the bow against the gut, the rap of stick against the drumhead, the rush of breath through reed and wood. The sounds of the earth are like music, the old song goes, and the sounds of the music are also the sounds of the earth, which of course is where the music comes from.  Listen to the voices outside the window, the rumble of the furnace, the creak of your chair, the water running in the kitchen sink.  Learn to listen to the music of your own lengths of time, your own silences.
Literature, painting, music — the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot.  In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.

Wind from the Sea (1948)
Andrew Wyeth


  1. Hi there dear George!

    Paying attention is the first crucial component of any act of love. Love is both healing and holy. In every facet of my life, my days, my work, my relationships, I try to follow the suggestions you have shared with us here from Buechner - to 'pay attention'. It is so simple, and exquisitely enriching ... 'holy'.

  2. Oh my. This is wonderful. I absolutely love the idea that art is, "one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things." I am inspired to find out more about this man. I love what he has to say here. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. Just beautiful.

    And I love Andrew Wyeth. That is sublime.

  3. To Bonnie,

    How nice to hear from you, Bonnie. Glad that you enjoyed the Buechner meditation on art. I think he is absolutely right; artists of all types — writers, painters, photographers, musicians — put frames around things to eliminate our distractions and force us to pay attention to some part of the world we inhabit.

    I hope all is well with you and your family. Again, it's really nice to hear from you.

  4. To Teresa,

    Glad that you enjoyed this post, Teresa. I think you will find Buechner to be quite interesting. He is both an artist (novelist) and a spiritual writer and thinker. He is a gentle, unassuming man who has learned much in his journey, and who has much to teach to those who care to listen.

  5. Mindfulness enhances life in many ways. This phrase resonated with me: "a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot." Thanks for including the paintings mentioned in the piece - I liked "seeing" them! Hope you're enjoying your days at the beach, George.

  6. To Barb,

    Thanks for the nice comments, Barb. I, too, especially like the statement you quote. And I am enjoying my days here in coastal South Carolina. Thanks.

  7. George, this is a wonderful post. I had not run across Frederick Buechner before, but what he has to say here speaks very deeply to me. The arts are ever more captivating for me.

    The close relationship between love and attention has been talked about in this bloggy neighborhood recently and here it is again. I'm not sure exactly, but I think when attention is combined with well-wishing we have something really close to a holy form of love.

  8. To Dan,

    Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comments, Dan. The leitmotif of all of Buechner's writing is a call to pay attention and listen to our lives. He is a deeply spiritual man who comes from a Christian background, but he is concerned more with the deeper meaning of things than he is with doctrines and rituals. He seems to embody much of what many of us value in Eastern spiritual teachings, and he radiates a kind of Zen quality. He is not saying that we should listen to him; nor is he saying that we should listen to some anthropomorphic deity; he is saying that we can be in touch with the mystical, the sacred, and the divine by simply listening to our own lives and the world in which we live.

  9. You have connected being more mindful an aware with art and painting in such a spiritual beautiful way.

  10. Oh yes, I did so enjoy this, as you might imagine. I've come across Buechner before - in your blog, George, and others' - and I certainly must read more.

    I love Rembrandt with a passion - his portraits and self-portraits. As Buechner says so beautifully, they force us to look at and value the real, unique individual - blemishes and all - and, in this way, they are representative of each one of us. One recalls Rodin's wonderful sculpture of the older woman in yesterday's 'A Year with Rilke'.

    Gtting in touch with the holy 'by listening to our own lives and the world in which we live' - yes, if my life has a purpose, I think this may be it.

  11. To Robert,

    Yes, I thought this would resonate with you. Buechner starts this meditation with a reference to Basho's famous frog haiku, saying that Basho is doing what all artists do, i.e., he is framing a moment in time and calling us to pay attention to it. The "framing" eliminates the distractions and allow us to see, sometimes for the first time, the holy and sacred dimensions of life. I, too, loved that discussion of Rembrandt, especially that line about forcing us to see remarkably what has been remarkably seen by him. As for your life's purpose, it is one that I share. Have a great day!

  12. To Donna,

    Thanks for you generous comments, Donna. For me, art and spirit are inseparable.

  13. This is a deeply resonant post for me, George. As we go deeper into the Rilke passages paired with Pasternak, Rodin and who knows, maybe Cézanne one day soon, I am paying more attention to how images speak, and how they echo writing, and vice versa. Reading Rilke's essay-book on Rodin also is helping me understand how the two - art and writing - can be expressions of the same mystery. Music of course, something I'm learning more about, does the same.

    Yes, I've talked with Dan at his blog recently that love is paying attention, and Bonnie echoes it here, following up on Buechner's passage.

    I am especially struck by the last sentence in the first paragraph of his: . . .pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein. I don't think there is anything more important for us to do, than to take the world into ourselves, pay attention to it within ourselves, and re-express it back to the world, transformed through ourselves. This sharing and constant recommunicating of what is here -- outside and inside -- is what we do through the art of living.

    The paintings are so wonderful. As you know my current post has several paintings, and my next post does too. I can't seem to get enough of it, and so for that also I thank you!

  14. I try not to do too much bumbling, and absorb as much of the holy as possible. I thrive on it.

  15. words of goodness poured

  16. To Ruth,

    Thanks, as always. This particular meditation by Buechner was too long to include in its entirety. What Buechner spoke about at the beginning, however — using Basho's famous frog/pond/splash haiku — was that all artists, whether they be writers, painters, musicians, or whatever, are engaged in the process of framing a moment in time, not to judge it, but to call our attention to it. Stravinsky may say listen to the silent spaces between the notes, but Cezanne says "listen to these apples" and Rembrandt says "listen to my mother's wrinkled, time-honored face." That also is what you are doing with your poetry, I think; you are asking us to pay attention to something sacred or valuable to you, something that we might have otherwise missed. Art is the place we can talk about such things, perhaps even sing about them.

  17. To Tess,

    Thanks for your comment, Tess. I, too, try to avoid bumbling, but I must confess that it does occur from time to time. In the end, however, I always seem to be rescued by some form of art — a book, a poem, a painting, and sometimes a great piece of music.

  18. To Nance Marie,

    Poured by Buechner, of course, who alway makes the cup runneth over.

  19. Hello, George. Since this is a test to see if your system is rejecting comments for some unknown reason, I am going to tell you what you suggested, what we are having for dinner. Don will pick up 3 maki rolls, and some seaweed salad. Yum. You know, you and I can't seem to get enough of the sea these days!

    I followed your conversation with Robert at his blog about where you might want to settle. I wish you great communication skill and understanding in that negotiation! I know that day will come for us too, it already has here and there.

    OK, I'll send this off, and I'll send it to you in an email too. Let's hope it works.

  20. Voila! It worked! Thanks, Ruth. You were kind to do this. If I were there with you and Don, the maki rolls and seaweed salad would be on me. And thanks for your good wishes on the relocation issues.

  21. oh,
    a resounding yes to all of this.

    and art ,
    well creation,

    isn't it what started it all.
    isn't it what is the very beginning?
    it's all gift , all of it.

  22. To Deb,

    Thanks for the nice comments, Deb. I'm delighted that this resonated with you.

  23. My only contact with Buechner's words has been through your blog and I much appreciate the intro. The passage captures so much and so well of what I think is the truly sacred mission of art, that I almost feel that all I can say is "amen". It does read like a prayer for sensitive attention to the world around us and thus sounds a vibrant 2-part haromony with the songs that Rilke has been singing to us as well.

    I always feel I come away from your blog better prepared in eye and spirit and heart to truly act on these lessons and more fully embrace and appreciate the wonders around us. That strikes me as one of the richest gifts you could ever give to any one and I thank you.

  24. To Lorenzo,

    Thanks, my friend, for your thoughtful comments. Yes, I think that Buechner and Rilke would have gotten along quite well together. Each has a passion for the sacredness of everything and every moment.

    I can think of no higher compliment than your suggestion that my blog leaves you better prepared "in eye and spirit and heart." I suppose that what I have been trying to do with my on life through the years — simply trying to keep eye seeing, the spirit alive, and the heart open.

  25. Thank you, George, for creating this forum where we can speak to each other of holy things. You chose three holy paintings indeed.

    This summer, a Cezanne painting commanded my attention from across the room and I've been obsessed with him ever since. The man is a master of composition.

    Cezanne is my latest love, but Rembrandt was my first. My mother took my sisters and me to see the "Nightwatch" when we first arrived in Amsterdam and it was love at first sight. Being in the presence of this great masterpiece does feel like a holy experience.

  26. To Dutchbaby,

    Thanks for your lovely comments, Dutchbaby. I, too, love Cezanne and have spent a little time hiking around Mont St. Victoire (outside of Aix en Provence), which Cezanne painted so often. I have not been to the Rembrandt museum in Amsterdam, but would love to go there. Can you imagine a world without art? I can't.

  27. Love the whole post! I also love what you said over at the "Rilke" blog... "Embracing solitude, however, can be very liberating, and can often be a gateway to unprecedented creativity." Not loneliness, but allowing oneself to be alone. I find I crave it - and I really am a social person as well. But if one doesn't carve out time to be alone, creativity goes out the window.

  28. Yes, it does resonate, George. I enjoyed the Buechner excerpt. It is what it means to truly live. It also reminds me of the passage in "The Color Purple" when Shug says it makes God mad when we walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it. We are here to notice--to love and to appreciate.

    I knew I was a poet in third grade (no kidding), because I noticed so many details that other kids and adults didn't see. A teacher thought something was wrong with me, because I spent so much time staring at cracks in the bricks on a wall. She didn't see that there was mold growing in the cracks. It formed faces and told stories. Every day, the mold changed. It was alive.

    But a person doesn't have to be a poet to notice. Modern society can dull that wonder, so it is up to each person to take it all in.

    Thank you for another wonderful and thought provoking post, George! Have a beautiful weekend.

  29. To Margaret,

    Thanks, Margaret. Glad that this post resonated with you. I agree with you — solitude is absolutely necessary if we are to fulfill our creative potential.

  30. To Julie,

    Thanks so much for your lovely comments, Julie. I can just see you in the third grade examining the mold in the cracks between the bricks. You were obviously called to poetry from the beginning. Thanks for sharing so much of your journey with the rest of us.