Richard Lischer didn’t intend to write spiritual memoirs. But 28 years after he served a tiny, rural church in Illinois, he began writing down scenes in longhand on a yellow pad.
The moments he could never forget: Comforting the mother and grandmother of a toddler who had drowned. The Sunday when the chairman of the board of elders called him a liar. The “oceanic” fields on view from his pulpit. The result was “Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery.”
And, later, he wrote about the death of his son in “Stations of the Heart: Parting With a Son.”
“My interest in writing did not stem from any great knowledge of the genre of memoir or the apologetic or institutional purpose of making the church look good,” said Lischer, the James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School.
“I think anyone who writes autobiographically will say, ‘I simply had to tell.”
In his most recent book, “Our Hearts Are Restless: The Art of Spiritual Memoir,” Lischer engages with 21 writers of spiritual memoirs and autobiographies. They range from classics in the genre, such as Augustine, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, to James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson and Richard Rodriguez.
An academic and a preacher, Lischer spent his career at Duke Divinity School, where his work included teaching a course called “The Life of Faith” to divinity students and, on occasion, to prison inmates. He is the author or editor of 15 books, including the recently re-released “The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America.”
He spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about the art of spiritual memoir and his own writing practice. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Did you write this book for readers or writers?
Richard Lischer: I wrote the book for readers, but I'm finding that many of my readers are interested in writing. Reflections on writing are found in every chapter, always in connection with a particular author.
For example, I try to explain what makes Anne Lamott funny (good luck with that). Most of all, I’ve written for those who are interested in the life of faith in all its plot variations.
The people I have written about are saying (in so many words): “This is the path that I have taken. It's open to you too. If you can read my failures and my shortcomings in a trusting and hopeful way, you may find forgiveness for your life as I found it for mine. But first you must close my book and open your own.”
Thérèse of Lisieux begins “The Story of a Soul” with this open-hearted invitation: “I am going to entrust the story of my soul to you.” That’s the sort of pastoral function a Christian memoir offers. Unlike a sermon, it’s an implied offer that indirectly relates to the gospel; in memoir that gospel is often deeply hidden, but it’s a source of encouragement and hope.
F&L: Are the Gospels in some ways memoir?
RL: Funny you should ask. One of the earliest names for the Gospels comes by way of the church father, Justin Martyr. He called the Gospels the “memoirs of the apostles.” By memoir, he meant, I think, quite literally, the still-living memories of Jesus or of the people who knew Jesus.
The Gospels are like memoirs in that they don’t tell us everything we want to know about the protagonist. But by focusing on the most salutary life-giving moments in his brief ministry, they tell us what we need to know.
Narrative is the literary form of journey. The narrative takes us from Galilee to Judea with this person whose identity is gradually dawning on those who walk with him — and the narrator. Until finally it reaches the climax and the denouement of the story, which is his death and resurrection. “Surely, this was the Son of God” is where we readers are meant to be at story’s end.
F&L: What is a spiritual memoir?
RL: A spiritual memoir or a spiritual autobiography, in my view, is simply a self-told story that takes the presence of God seriously. In a spiritual memoir, we (with the writer) are living a plot in which God is a genuine factor. The writer is unwilling to narrate a world in which God is absent.
We may be defying God, we may be angry with God, we may be filled with doubt. God may be an object of desire or an attained joy. Spiritual memoir may contain every gradation of response to the reality of God, and for Christians, the reality of the Holy Spirit and the risen Christ.
St. Paul says about his own conversion and his own ministry, “It’s no longer I who live.” (Galatians 20:20) The Greek word for “I” is a popular word in memoir: ego. “It is no longer my ego that counts any more, but Christ who lives in me.” That’s a stretch for most memoirists. Spiritual memoir never stops investigating this new ego.
F&L: You've written two memoirs. Were you a lover of memoir before you wrote one?
RL: Not really. The two memoirs I wrote, I wrote because I wanted to tell about the events from which I date my life — my first ministry and the death of our son.
Memoir is a lancet window into a life. It may capture a particular time period, idea, or experience. For example, [the late writer and Duke professor] Reynolds Price wrote four autobiographies that tell about his development as a person and a writer. He wrote only one memoir, “A Whole New Life,” and that has to do with one issue and one issue only — his paraplegia.
The memoirist may not tell exactly what happened but how he or she remembers it. Sometimes, memory is not a photo but a darkroom. It is governed from the first by what one critic calls “an intuition of meaning.” One of the authors I engage with has a small disclaimer at the front of his book, “This is a book of nonfiction, but memory is an imperfect guide.”
F&L: Why is it important that a memoir is honest about messiness and even things that may be unflattering to yourself or to the church?
RL: One of the first Christian heresies was called docetism. It was not a denial of Jesus' divinity, it was a denial of his humanity. So it falls under the category of heresy to deny the humanity of the writer or to deny the humanity of the church.
There must be something about my experience in faith that connects with yours – something that will enable you to live more hopefully and more faithfully. Self-disclosure is exactly as advertised; intimacy, on the other hand, is all about what you and I discover together.
F&L: How do you go about writing a memoir?
RL: I wrote my first memoir, “Open Secrets,” about my mistakes and breakthroughs as a first-time parish pastor in an isolated, rural community. At times, I confessed to feeling like an alien. In those three years, all my experiences in ministry were first-timers.
As I began to think about writing a memoir, I realized that I conceived my ministry as a series of scenes. I took a yellow legal pad and jotted down one scene after another. If a scene still moved me, if it brought tears to my eyes or made me laugh, I judged it to be alive and worth writing about.
A reader asked me in an email, “How did you remember all this business that went on 28 years ago?” The answer any memoirist will give is, no one can remember everything; I write about the things I can’t forget.
I can't forget what a toddler named Darwin looked like after drowning in a pond in our community, laid out on a hospital bed dressed by the nurses in his pajamas with drums and sticks on them.
I can't forget what it was like to be in that room with his mother and his grandmother. Oh my God.
I can't forget what it was like one day after church when the chairman of the board of elders burst into the sacristy and his first words were, “You lied to me! You've betrayed me!”
As I compiled the scenes, I realized there was something missing in my book, and that was a plot. Great advice for all writers: it doesn’t hurt to have a plot!
I realized that in my own scenes, and in the stories of others, I could see hubris, self-realization, experience, instruction, a deepening love from my own parish, which, thanks be to God, I began to love as “my parish.” And finally, the sadness of leaving. That's a plot.
When I wrote about the death of our son, unfortunately, the plot was all too clear, and a different sort of writing was required. Today, I think of that book as a liturgical memoir, perhaps because its plot moves with the gravity of the cross and the inexorability of the church year.
F&L: I’m very sorry about the death of your son.
RL: I am grateful. I have a section in “Our Hearts Are Restless” called The Stripping of the Altar. It’s about those who write about their lives from the bottom up, from the bare wood of death, disappointment or grief.
In reading “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis, for example, one learns that it’s permissible to be angry with God. God can handle it. Lewis reminds us that grief follows its own rules. It is a shape-shifter, but it doesn’t go away. Finally, one lives through it in the presence of Christ.
F&L: Do you have a favorite among the memoirs you write about?
RL: I don’t have any one favorite, but I would say that if you’re marooned on a desert island and, of course, you want one memoir to read to pass the time, it would be Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain.” This is, in my view, the finest Christian autobiography of the 20th century.
He is unflinchingly self-aware in his journey to Christ. In Merton, you have the picture of a man who’s making up his mind, un-making it, then re-making it. He is journeying through the seven mountains of his personal purgatory.
When you close his book, you’re not sure whether he is a tragic figure or a triumphant figure because he has transcended such categories and now finds himself in the company of those he calls “the burnt men.”
F&L: Is there a memoir that powerfully affected you?
RL: Yes, more than a few. For me, Augustine’s Confessions are the gift that keeps on giving to my spiritual life. This is one of those books I go back to again and again. I’ve read it; I’ve outlined it, I’ve taught it many times. My definition of a classic is: the more you read it, the more you discover about yourself.
There is another, not exactly a memoir, but I’ve treated it as such in my book, and that is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison.” The epistolary character of the book, in which Bonhoeffer is writing to his soulmate, Eberhard Bethge, allows both his theology and his humanity to come through in a powerful way.
I explore another relationship and another set of letters that are not as well known. While in prison, he was also writing to his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer. These reveal a whole new dimension of his life, which is his discovery of romantic love. It is a tragic love. But I find that it completes the picture of Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer the martyr is also Dietrich the lover. Maria is half his age, but in many ways, she becomes his teacher.
The third person who really, really speaks to me is James Baldwin – and it’s not only because he is a fabulous writer, by far the most gifted and eloquent writer treated in this book – but he represents a different category, which I call “nomadic faith.” This is a faith that moves and changes but is still nourished by what has been left behind — and still nourishes others.
In his memoir, “The Fire Next Time,” Baldwin remembers his days as a boy preacher in Harlem when, he says, “In the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying the word when the church and I were one.”
I’m nourished by words with that sort of power, which is their capacity to bear two mysteries at the same time: the mystery of God and the mystery of human life.
No one can remember everything; I write about the things I can’t forget.