SERENDIPITY, IN MY EXPERIENCE, is the whimsical cousin of joy. The surprising connections the cosmos throws our way generate a distinct kind of delight because they arrive as gifts and so have the feel of grace. If you’re religiously inclined, serendipity is sort of the “cool aunt” version of Providence. When the dots connect, you feel a pulse of intentionality in a universe that seems to be putting on this show just for you.
I wonder if those of us who dwell in books are especially susceptible to such delights. I offer a recent week of reading as a case study.
It began with A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill. Somewhere I read an excerpt and realized that Merrill, in addition to being one of his generation’s most enduring poets, was one of its great letter writers. Only a few pages in, I encountered a jarring, this-is-crazy-but-I-love-it intersection of worlds: a letter to Frederick Buechner. It turns out it was Buechner, a high school classmate of Merrill, who gave Merrill the Ouija board that proved pivotal for his most celebrated collection, The Changing Light at Sandover. How strange that the beloved author of Godric and The Sacred Journey passed along this occult device.
The first letter is from 1941; one of the last is dated May 28, 1994, in which Merrill thanks “Freddy” for passing along “Annie D’s book” which, judging from Merrill’s description, must have been Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “she seems to be speaking as a member of another species, on better terms with light and water, insects and islands, than with her fellow humans. I felt her terrible eyes on me as I read.” Battling cancer at this point, Merrill confides in Buechner about his longtime partner, Peter Hooten: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt such love before, and I see it as a kind of miracle.” Volatile and misunderstood, Merrill is protective of Hooten and worried about him: “Nothing much has helped, neither AA or psychotherapy—until the Church came along (first that Cistercian monastery outside of Atlanta, now a funny little Episcopalian affair in Lyme Rock, CT…) and caught his imagination. As an actor he throws himself into genuflecting, kissing the chalice he mustn’t drink from; but I see it, with fingers crossed, as the role of a lifetime and only hope he will play it through to the end.” (Isn’t the whole of the Christian life a matter of faking it till we make it?) But Merrill is worried about Peter after the cancer finishes its terrible task, so he asks of Buechner: “Just now and then let him know he’s in your prayers and that you will always bless him for the sweetness and vividness he brought to (already!) these past ten years.”
This cameo by Buechner in an unexpected quadrant of the literary universe—a Presbyterian minister among the poets—was a strange sort of encouragement to me. It felt like an unexpected affirmation of the work we’re trying to do here at Image. The abiding friendship between Buechner and Merrill felt like a parable of the ongoing mutual exchange between faith and literature, theology and poetry. The give and take, the openness and reception, the way poetry itself can be a kind of prayer.
It was precisely this intersection that led me to pick up Spenser Reece’s new memoir, The Secret Gospel of Mark, the same week. Reece, a poet who is also an Episcopal priest, has written a work of profound if tortured beauty that I am going to shelve alongside Augustine’s Confessions and Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. As you’d expect from a poet, his prose gains power from restraint. Derailed by addiction to the brink of suicide, Reece at last found a way out of self-destruction from repressed self-loathing via the twin rails of poetry and Christianity. “I didn’t come out,” he says. “I came in. I came into focus. I came into myself after being long outside myself. I came into AA. I came into my body. I came into the Church.” Reece’s story of his journey to Jesus is not about believing but belonging (“I was welcomed,” he keeps emphasizing); it’s not about making a claim but rather being claimed, loved, known.
And where does this story begin? “When I arrived at Bread Loaf a woman stood in the lobby—blonde, tall, young, smart—a Piero della Francesca angel, attentive, listening, glittering with a golden aura. Most of the writers were older. This girl was mischievous and welcoming. Her eyes said: Get over here. I found her irresistible. I introduced myself. She said her name was Katherine Buechner.” Indeed, Frederick’s daughter.
It would be the younger Buechner who modeled hard-won sobriety for Reece. And when, soiled and ashamed one morning, he is finally ready to consider AA, his first call is to Katherine. These poets keep turning to Buechners who are steadfast witnesses to welcome.
As Reece takes his first steps into recovery, he also begins immersing himself in George Herbert. The unconditional love he experienced in AA was an echo of the Love to which Herbert testified. Herbert gave him language for what was welling up within him. When he read “Prayer (I),” the line “‘the soul in paraphrase’ caught my attention. That aptly described my turn to share in AA meetings. I was weekly paraphrasing my soul. I was searching for ‘something understood.’ Prayer was ‘a kind of tune.’ Could I be understood? What kind of tune would that make?” When Reece asks Katherine about her experience at Harvard Divinity School, he’s hiding something: “The unsayable preposterous idea beneath these prompts that I couldn’t bring myself to share then was that I wanted to be Herbert.”
Many years later, Reece became that poet-priest. This memoir is partly a chronicle of the priestly hospitality he offers to poet friends. He is especially attuned to the way some of his favorites—Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Strand—seem to reach poetically through suffering for what we might call transcendence. Musing on a final poem of Strand’s, Reece concludes that “[t]he precipice where Christ hung is where the bramble of poetry thrives.” His vocation crystallizes: “Poetry and Christianity, once close in the time of Herbert, then divided in the time of Plath, Bishop, and Merrill, might come together again. In me. Poets got me to Christ. Rhyme evangelized me.”
Merrill figures prominently in Reece’s narrative, but there’s another serendipitous node in the cosmos here. It’s Annie Dillard again, Reece’s teacher at Wesleyan. “I was amazed by this woman,” he recalls. “We all were. She radiated intelligence like an electrical storm. Gave off wisdom like heat. Her wit whipped around that room like a cyclone. We held our notebooks down.” In this context, Reece cites a spellbinding quote from For the Time Being:
It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time—or even knew selflessness or courage or literature—but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.
Retroactively (I love how God can fold time), this gem of insight from Dillard turned out to be the perfect frame to understand a book I read the same week.
Christine Smallwood’s debut novel, The Life of the Mind, is smart, funny, and engrossing. The protagonist, Dorothy (the echo of Middlemarch can’t be an accident), is consigned to academic limbo, toiling as an adjunct lecturer, wondering, like Dante, if she’ll be able to climb out of this purgatory to the paradiso of the tenure track. When we meet her, she has just suffered a miscarriage, which Smallwood evokes with writing that is tactile, viscous, and unabashedly bodily. One might even say incarnational.
The novel is a profound meditation on endings; or how we know when something has come to an end; or, perhaps better, whether we’re willing to face what we know is the end. How to let go. How to say goodbye to an ambition. How to live with loss. “She lived in an epilogue of wants.” Which, perhaps, is just to say that this is a novel of middle age (“Dorothy was at the age where choices revealed themselves as errors, increasingly acquiring the patina of irrevocability”). But it’s hard to resist allegorical readings of the American experiment, for example, or the university as we know it. Will we recognize the end if we are living it?
This brings me back to Dillard’s remark and the somewhat surprising, matter-of-fact presence of religion in Smallwood’s novel. Dorothy is teaching a course called “Writing Apocalypse,” which is an occasion to revisit Jonathan Edwards and the Book of Revelation, and to try to discern the difference between the “texture of kairos” and “the gruesome slog of chronos.” In fact, this question of the understanding of time governs the novel’s narrative: Dorothy is always noting different kinds of time, like “pet time” or “airplane time.” She’s waiting for the unveiling. It turns out you have to endure a lot of chronos before you know it’s kairos o’clock—that the end has arrived. On the other hand, just as Dillard suggested, any moment is susceptible to irruption: kairos attends chronos as an ever-present possibility.
“It’s hard to know when something ends,” Dorothy says late in the novel. But maybe this isn’t just because of our own myopic inability to recognize the end; maybe it’s because, with kairos hovering over everything, you never know when an ending isn’t the end. When the dead are raised, not even death is the end. The question isn’t “What time is it?” but “Which time is it?” The absolute is available to everyone in every age. That means any blip of chronos holds the possibility of being kairos, a moment pregnant with possibility. As Daniel Weidner has said, speaking about the theologian Paul Tillich, kairos means “every moment might be the small gate through which the messiah will enter.” It might even mean that those moments of serendipity aren’t random coincidences but gifts, a sign that someone is whispering just to you.