Richard Lischer has long known that in the middle of life’s complexities, in processing suffering or yearning, few things speak like personal narrative. Over the years, as he pursued a scholarly career as a divinity school preaching professor, stories kept nudging their way in. His memoir Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery (2001) braids comic and tragic anecdotes from his ministry in a rural and small-town parish. A second memoir, Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son (2013), chronicles the fatal cancer of his son, Adam, who died in 2005.
Lischer may be best known, however, as the James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School, where he taught for decades. He has given both Yale’s prestigious Lyman Beecher Lectures and Princeton Seminary’s MacLeod Lectures and is also the author of The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America (1995, 2020) and The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (2005, 2008).
His most recent book, Our Hearts Are Restless: The Art of Spiritual Memoir (2023), is a collection of essays engaging twenty-one writers including Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Emily Dickinson, Thérèse of Lisieux, Dorothy Day, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, James Baldwin, and Anne Lamott.
He was interviewed by Timothy Jones in 2023 in person in Durham, North Carolina, and over email.
Image: Given how important memoir has been in your life, I find it interesting that you seemed to fall into the genre. What accounts for your decades-long fascination?
Richard Lischer: Most memoirists write at an inflection point in their lives—which is, of course, a remembered inflection point—from which they date some new understanding of themselves. The poet and preacher John Donne pointedly wrote, “I date my life from my ministry.” I completed two memoirs about my own inflection points before developing a scholarly interest in the genre. I had no institutional purpose in writing them other than the need to tell—nothing to defend, no axe to grind, no score to settle.
In the case of Open Secrets, it was the discovery of the hidden dramas of ministry in an out-of-the-way place that moved me to write. That book is a bildungsroman, a novelistic memoir of a young man’s education in ministry, in which the narrator (me) discovers what the Germans call Amtsgnade, “office grace.” By which they meant, what matters is not the recent graduate’s spectacular gifts for ministry, but what the office will teach him.
In both parishes I served, I noticed that whenever I, the new curate, called on my parishioners, one thing happened almost without fail. Just before the kaffekuchen was brought out, someone in the family would tell me the story of the worst thing that had ever happened to them. The year we lost the farm. The day our boy didn’t come home from Vietnam. The day our granddaughter drowned in the family pond. It was their way of saying, “How can we go on together if you don’t know this about us?” It’s the sort of question the memoirist asks the reader, and vice versa.
Open Secrets began as a series of scenes jotted on a legal pad. Twenty-eight years had passed, but if the scene still moved me, I judged it to be alive and kept it. All that was lacking was a plot. Eventually, I began to see the outlines of a young pastor’s hubris, followed by instruction, self-recognition, a deepening love, Amtsgnade (as the Germans promised), and, inevitably, the sadness of leaving. That’s a plot.
When that book appeared, more than one reader asked, “How did you remember all this from so long ago?” I think they meant details—how did you keep track of them? (or did you make them up?): It was a peacoat a teenage girl opened to reveal her blooming midriff; the gnarled hands and enormous knuckles of the men who served the sacrament; the way a man named Leonard no longer smelled like the fields after a day’s work in the steel mills.
Anyway, there is more to memory than the incidentals. Memory is an old house with many rooms, Proustian back passages, and a Freudian basement. In book 10 of the Confessions, Augustine marvels that he can remember moods and emotional atmospherics. He can even remember “forgetfulness”! He can remember how he felt and reproduce that feeling in writing, even though he no longer feels that way.
To answer the persistent question about my memory: you write what you can’t forget. That’s all. Because what you can’t forget has become a part of you. You have no choice.
I can’t forget the feeling of claustrophobia in the open spaces of middle America; I will never forget how the endless fields of corn and soybeans became my saving ocean.
I can’t forget how my wife and I learned to love burning the garbage in a metal barrel out where the gravel parking lot met the field. How cold it was. How bright the stars were.
I can’t forget a candlelit dinner of roast lamb in our country kitchen after the Tenebrae service; how my wife brought out the best we had and put candelabras on the washer and dryer; how pleased we were, and how lonely she was.
In writing about the death of our son in Stations of the Heart, I was moved by the first line of poet William Stafford’s “A Memorial: Son Bret”: “In the way you went you were important.” A true statement if ever there was one, and a wrenching understatement if ever there was one. In Stations of the Heart, plot was not the issue. The plot was already there waiting for me. I think of that book as a liturgical memoir; the character of sacred time touches everything and everyone with significance.
What followed after my own attempts at memoir was predictable immersion in the genre—books, theory, theology, and twenty years of seminars. If I had begun with theories rather than my need to tell, I might never have put pen to paper.
Image: In Stations of the Heart, near the end, you beautifully describe a twilight slow dance with your wife and granddaughter to a velvet-voiced Cass Elliott song. The picture interweaves sadness and loss with the possibility of some kind of reconnecting hope. How have the accounts of others helped you find a voice for your own writing?
RL: That scene was born of a moment in time that feels like more than a moment. It was a moment that feels eternal. Everything conspired: the twilight, Cass Elliott’s voice, the child, the love, and the dance. Always the dance. All are deeply cherished symbolic elements that the actors are not considering at the time. They come to consciousness later, when one of the actors turns to writing.
Are there literary resources that help pry the language out of you? Yes, but for me, they are not memoirs. Oddly, when writing memoir, I can’t read the memoirs of others. Maybe it’s because the stories of their experiences make mine feel secondhand or not so special after all. I think the memoirist must write as if he or she is the
only person in the world to have experienced the dance, the sunset, a newly bathed child in her PJs, a loving partner in your arms. In both my memoirs, I occasionally pretended to myself that I was telling stories the world had never heard before, the way every morning, according to G.K. Chesterton, God says, “Do it again,” and the world is created anew. (The comparison is a bit extreme, I know.)
I tend to rely on fiction to stimulate my writing. To help me with first-person narration I remember rereading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Knowles’s elegiac A Separate Peace, one of my great favorites. The pacing and retrospective tone of these stories, if not their plots, were helpful to me as I worked my way through my son’s life and death in Stations of the Heart. Most helpful to me, however, was my continuing bond with him that felt like his permission to keep living and to keep writing.
Much earlier, when I began working on Open Secrets, The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos reminded me of the gravity of my calling to a country church. Unlike The Diary, my book has its funny moments, because my ministry had its funny moments. I’m happy to say I never descended to the level of sadness in Ingmar Bergman’s classic Winter Light, with its depressive Lutheran pastor, or that film’s recent knockoff, First Reformed. I tried to avoid Reinhold Niebuhr’s Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, even though it’s a classic, because, well, it sounds too much like Niebuhr and not like me. Most of the scenes in my memoirs emerged from where scenes are supposed to come from: events and conversations as they actually took place.
Image: Patricia Hampl called memoir the “signature genre” of our age. Why, when so many great novels and short stories exist, do people again and again turn to stories of a particular somebody’s life? Especially when we are talking about people whose names we would never know save for their writing their own stories?
RL: The late Martin Amis catches our cultural mood in his memoir Experience: “Nothing, for now, can compete with experience—so unanswerably authentic, and so liberally and democratically dispensed.” Of course, today everyone’s experience is accessible, annoyingly so, which means we have countless mirrors held up to our own lives. We are constantly measuring ourselves against the lives of “influencers” and total strangers. It’s unhealthy.
The popularity of memoir surpasses that of the most realistic novels because readers still believe in the old-fashioned covenant of trust between memoirist and reader. The author of the book and the narrator in the book must be one person if we are to say with any assurance, “This really happened.” Which, according to critic Sven Birkerts, is the genre’s “baseline.” When memoirists are caught in a lie, it’s big news, because, usually, it’s not an errant detail that’s at stake but a falsification of the writer/narrator’s character.
Image: I’ve been wondering lately if our bleak loneliness as a society, our thin associations through social media, our deepening polarization, all make us more prone to want to connect to real human stories of the kind found in autobiographical writing. Does memoir help us connect more deeply with others?
RL: I believe memoir is the most intimate of genres and, for that reason, an excellent literary response to loneliness. The memoirist comes with a gift for you. Not a cup of soup, but a story—the way Emily Dickinson sent her neighbors poems wrapped in flowers from her garden. The dying Thérèse of Lisieux opens The Story of a Soul with an offer of unparalleled generosity: “I am going to entrust the story of my soul to you.”
Memoir begins in vulnerability; it ends in intimacy, which is not the same as self-expression. Self-expression is as advertised: a solitary writer bares his or her soul. Intimacy, on the other hand, is the achievement of writer and reader in communion. If you’ve ever visited a shut-in or a lonely resident of a nursing home, you know that the best you have to offer is the gift of listening. But how to write as if listening? I wish I could say.
A spiritual memoir makes an implicit offer. It says to the reader, “This is the path I followed, and—God help me—these are the mistakes I made. The path (and the mistakes) are open to you too, but first you have to close my book and open your own.” That is the transactional gospel of memoir.
Image: In Just Tell the Truth, you write that “Covid-19 created a universal field of suffering and anxiety to such an extent that it was impossible to think or write about anything else.” How has that collective global catastrophe affected the ways we communicate insights that derive from a religious tradition?
RL: I’m afraid Covid severely wounded religious communication in important ways. As the rector of a church, Tim, you would know this better than I. Most obviously, it violated the communal, bodily, and performative character of Christianity itself. We’re not made to worship via Zoom or to partake of the Eucharist in our Toyotas. Basically, Covid robbed us of our truest nature, and we haven’t fully recovered.
On the plus side, Covid demanded resilience and innovation of every church. It reminded us that there are such people as “neighbors” in the broadest sense, who must be looked in on, treated with covered casseroles, and cared for. In some ways, the controversies over masking, distancing, vaccinations, and school closures opened the eyes of the smallest parishes to what Catholic teaching calls “the common good.” What is it? How can our little community serve it? Churches were forced to distinguish between their parochial instincts and the health of the wider community and nation.
My book on memoir has a section titled “The Stripping of the Altar.” The title refers to the Maundy Thursday practice of removing the linens and paraments from the altar, as well as the sacred vessels and adornments, until it stands there in bare stone or wood. As naked as the Lord was when he was stripped and crucified. As naked as we are made to be in so many ways.
This section deals with those who write from the touchstone of loss and disappointment: the grieving, the wounded, the persecuted, the ruined, who, forsaking the “additive” benefits of faith (say, happiness), find something better. I’m thinking of Dorothy Day, who momentarily lost her vocation in the influenza pandemic of 1918–20. Also of such figures as C.S. Lewis, Reynolds Price, and Etty Hillesum, who wrote movingly at the point when everything had been taken away from them. Unexpectedly, each discovered a connection to strength, which produced a distinctive eloquence.
Image: You have concentrated on two genres of communication: sermon and memoir. In what ways do memoir and sermons embody the reality of our everyday humanity? In what ways do both point to transcendent truths?
RL: I’ll begin with something obvious about the sermon and the memoir: each knows its limits. The shape of each dictates a type of speech. Most sermons last about fifteen minutes. And a memoir, too, is but a lancet window into a life. It narrows experience and, at the same time, deepens it to capture the possibilities of holiness.
Sermon-time is not built for extended autobiographical stories. In my view, the narrative theology of the 1970s was both a corrective and an overcorrection. It came as a breath of fresh air to parishioners who had grown weary with pronouncements from on high. But it also opened the door to the preacher’s pet issues. (Full disclosure: I taught preaching in those days and perhaps listened to a few too many student sermons.) Personal narrative can deflect preachers from their privilege to speak directly as prophets and pastors. The preacher has the advantage of a real voice, and not merely a literary one. The physical voice breaks the silence of whatever need is present in the room. It finds that need and speaks directly to it.
The memoirist has much more time and a different set of tools than the preacher. She has in her employ all the tricks of fiction—plot, characterization, mood, memory, voice, dialogue. She has plenty of time to be reflective.
My chapter “Autobiography as Exorcism” includes James Baldwin’s description of his days as a boy preacher in Harlem. (And what a preacher he was!) In The Fire Next Time, he remembers, “Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, ‘the Word’—when the church and I were one.” In The Preacher King I tried to show how Dr. King moved the nation the way a preacher moves a church.
As a boy, I came to the Word via the medium of preaching. So, it was natural for me to dive into years of research on King’s preaching and, later, to resonate with Baldwin’s vivid memories of bearing the Word. I’ve always been drawn to writers like Flannery O’Connor, Colm Tóibín, and Baldwin himself, who know how to transform the power of the spoken Word into a powerful good story.
Image: Much of the Bible is, of course, narrative. In what ways does memoir owe its instincts to biblical precedent? How about other religious traditions?
RL: The early Christian father Justin Martyr famously described the four Gospels as the apostles’ memoirs, that is, products of the community’s memory of Jesus. And yet, the Gospels provide little information about Jesus that we moderns would consider essential to life-writing—his looks, sexuality, his inner life. Still, by the time you finish the Gospel of Mark, you feel like you know him. In fact, you know him so well that the centurion’s confession makes perfect narrative sense: “Surely, this man was the son of God.”
Broadly speaking, the Gospels’ story of Jesus and the Old Testament’s saga of Israel’s vocation in the world provide the templates for many works of fiction and nonfiction. The Bible also enriches its own narratives with other forms of language: the poetry of the Psalms, Wisdom, and, of course, the passion of the prophets. In worship, Christians have always struck a balance between the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Paul doesn’t shy away from a word much beloved by memoirists: the Greek word ego. “It is no longer ego (I) who live,” he wrote, “but Christ who lives in me.” One might conceive of spiritual memoir as a meditation on this old and new ego in all its permutations.
In The End of Words (2005) I made the obvious point that the language of sermons follows the genres chosen by the church. The preacher operates with two essential forms of speech: narrative and what I called “decisive speech.” Decisive speech is direct address that sunders the teller from the artifice of the tale. To be sure, God’s forgiveness comes with a narrative. But in daily life—and in the liturgy—we compress that narrative into a single sentence from God: “I forgive you.”
Or is it the other way around? Which is the originating action, the act of forgiveness itself or its narrative exposition? To paraphrase Joan Didion, maybe we tell ourselves stories because we live.
Image: Social media gives us a barrage of mini-narratives and short-take stories. But something in us wants a bigger plotline. We try to find a pattern or a shape to what happens to us that goes beyond simply charting one sensation after another. How do the stories of the twenty-one writers you profiled in Our Hearts Are Restless help us find a bigger frame?
RL: The serial restlessness of life is realistically captured in the Confessions by
Augustine’s portrait of himself as a young man. One of the best commentaries on Augustine’s scattered life came thirteen hundred years later in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions. He remembers how as a young man he burned with love but, like Augustine, had no suitable object for it. Somewhat unoriginally, he says, “I was restless.”
Twitter, TikTok, and all the rest tend to reduce human interactions to an unending series of one-liners and amateur videos. With the result that a serious person, let alone a religious believer, is forever on guard against the very air we breathe and the noise in our ears.
Of course, this problem is not solved by spiritual memoir, but a good memoir does have length and depth. It offers a framework for the human experience of love, suffering, hope, and death, all of it realistically and honestly conceived. For example, when C.S. Lewis writes about his wife’s death, or Reynolds Price reflects on his paraplegia, or Etty Hillesum considers life in a concentration camp, you are in for a good hard read, one that will recenter your view of God and the world. The stories I love will act as a compass, or depth-finder, for your own life.
Image: You’ve given two chapters of your book to Augustine—the only writer to get that much ink. How come?
RL: Had Augustine never written the Confessions, I believe something like spiritual memoir would have emerged as a practice of the church. The raw material of Christian memoir is the everyday language of believers: prayer, confession, praise, lament, and testimony, all of it reshaped and returned to the reader in heightened literary form. That’s why Catholics and Puritans make the best memoirists: they have so much practice in the confessional or on the anxious bench!
The very first page of the Confessions is laced with domines (Lord), laudares (praise), invocares (invoke). This is not Prince Harry’s Spare. It is the language of liturgy. Thus it makes perfect sense that Augustine’s story is not a memoir but a confession addressed to God. He isn’t the first writer to invoke a muse or deity; it’s how he does it, with what reverence, playfulness, confidence, and irony that makes his work a delightful exercise in overhearing.
We tend to ascribe Augustine’s greatness as an autobiographer to the literary qualities we currently admire. His Confessions is a literary streaming device coming to us in real time. Patricia Hampl is right to observe, “Augustine does not present us with the result of thought in a bundled package; he confronts us with the passionate nature of the pursuit of meaning as it courses through a life.” We have come to expect this kind of writing, with its psychic probing and unguarded disclosures. So, when he describes himself as “exposed,” or when he ruefully admits “I have become a problem to myself,” we are on board. He is refreshingly honest about his needs, sexual desires, ambitions, and his misuse of women. He is willing to try anything.
But that’s only half the story. Who exactly is the Author of this restlessness? Here Augustine parts company with any notion of memoir as a mere vehicle of human agency. Young Augustine is not merely pushing—or rotating—against the various stimuli that brush against his soul. No, by these same means God is pulling him and guiding him toward something better. There’s more to reading the Confessions than identifying with the narrator. The reader must decide if there is a God or not.
I needed at least two chapters for Augustine because his autobiography does everything. In the Confessions he crafts the two puzzles by which he is equally fascinated—God and his own remarkable life—into a double helix, not as two chapters but as one profoundly tangled mystery. Prayer tangled in poetry; friendships tinged with ambition; Catholic faith amid popular quackery; spirit tangled in sex; love perfected in ecstasy.
Every time I read him, I get caught up in that flow.
Image: “Since Augustine,” you write, “no one has traced the journey of faith with such exquisite beauty as Thomas Merton.” You’ve described Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain as the finest spiritual autobiography of the twentieth century. It’s also wildly popular, which is in some ways surprising, given the storyline: an artsy hedonist joins a strict monastic order. What’s the appeal?
RL: In general, I think I’m most taken with the works I can’t explain. Why is it that millions of readers have identified with an intellectually minded monk named Thomas Merton? No answer here.
I’m not a fan of the Catholic triumphalism on display in the second half of The Seven Storey Mountain—it disappears in Merton’s later writings and his journals. But I am moved by the honesty with which he interrogates himself and his vocation. When you read Merton, you are watching a man make up his life, then unmake it, then make it up in a new way.
I love the beauty with which he captures the world around him: the ruins of French monasteries, the rhythms of Manhattan, the gray-green mountains of Kentucky. His father, Owen Merton, was an accomplished painter, and he bequeathed to his son the gift of narrating the external world as a series of pictures in a museum.
The Seven Storey Mountain begins and ends with the image of a furnace: the furnace in which the narrator’s mom is cremated, and the furnace in which the saints—and Merton himself—are melted down and made new. At the close of the book, I am uncertain whether Thomas Merton is a triumphant or tragic figure, because it doesn’t matter anymore. He has transcended such categories and now finds himself in the company of those he calls “the burnt men.”
Image: I’m intrigued by the way you’ve structured Our Hearts Are Restless, by putting writers in conversation, sometimes across centuries. For instance, you’ve paired Julian of Norwich and Emily Dickinson: “Their rooms,” you write, “are their private viewing stands from which they observe the world and the unseen realms of God. Emily Dickinson is more than an interesting analogy to Julian; she is an antiphon from another room.” Why did you put those two together? What other unlikely linkings did you find intriguing?
RL: My plan in writing Our Hearts Are Restless was to listen for echoes and antiphons among the writers I engaged, and to try, as best I could, to take part in the conversation. Just as there are typological relationships throughout Scripture, I believed the same would be true of spiritual memoirists. From the beginning, Julian and Emily exemplified this belief for me. I treated them as roommates. They both used their literal rooms as viewing stands from which they surveyed the majesty of nature and the created world. They both needed rooms of their own in which to practice their art. They both clothe the mystery of God in poetic, nontraditional, and often obscure language. As persons as well as artists, they remain enigmas, to say the least.
I tried not to be heavy-handed about the correspondences among the writers. But I couldn’t miss the economic determinism in the spiritual lives of John Bunyan (the tinker) and Dennis Covington’s Appalachian snake handlers (I know it sounds strange). They labor at the bottom of the economic system; they rely only on God and sometimes test God because they have no alternatives in the world. No one looks up to a tinker. No one looks up to a snake handler. It is only God who justifies.
Speaking of Bunyan, I also make the unlikely comparison of his religious experience in Grace Abounding with young James Baldwin’s in The Fire Next Time and Go Tell It on the Mountain. Both are shattered by the new birth as a “coming through” via violent religious conversions. Both are desperately poor and dream of escaping to a mountaintop and a better community.
There are others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Etty Hillesum, for example, a Christian and a Jew who both practiced a spirituality of being human in the inhumane hell of the concentration camp. They both decide to be God’s helpers in the camps. In both, the words “Just be” carry a settled finality.
Or Thérèse of Lisieux and her namesake Teresa of Calcutta, both of whom transformed the faith-world while toiling behind the veil of God’s absence in their private lives. Thérèse’s dryness; Teresa’s darkness. Jesus “is asleep in my little boat,” Thérèse complains in a letter.
Finally, I wanted to make this book as interactive as possible, more like a present-tense conversation than an essay. In a few chapters, it felt comfortable to join the conversation; for example, I speak with C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Julian of Norwich on the nature of grief and hope.
In grieving his father’s struggle with terminal cancer, Merton writes, “Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them…. My father was in a fight with this tumor. It was making him great.” These words came to me with great power. In my book I replied, “If Merton had written nothing other than these sentences—no other meditations, books, or spiritual reflections—it would have been enough…. It is the artist’s, or saint’s, power to unveil in an ordinary image a reality one senses incoherently but is unable to express.”
Sometimes a writer or a reader simply wants to say thank you. I know I did.
Timothy Jones has been a visiting scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary and an Episcopal priest at congregations small and large. The author of several books on prayer, he blogs at revtimothyjones.com and is working on a book on the Trinity.
Image courtesy of Kelly Moon, via Unsplash.