Oxford University Press, 400 pages | Published December 1, 2022
We are all aspiring memoirists. For me, it started when my oldest grandchild asked, “Grandpa, what were you like when you were a little boy?” I would love to share my story with my grandson. In fact, I’d love to share my story with all my children, grandchildren and others who might be interested. This means I am going to have to write it.
While resources exist to help us tell our stories, they mostly offer a barrage of questions, like my grandson’s. Answer them in order, and you create a timeline with comments and reflections. But I see my life as more than a sequence of events. I hope to share how faith in God shaped me and impacted my days and decades. I want to speak from my interior to the interior of my loved ones, soul to soul. So I will need tell my story with a point of view and a plot that holds it together with a sense of meaning. But what plot? What story should I tell? Richard Lischer’s Our Hearts Are Restless: The Art of Spiritual Memoir provides guidance and excellent examples to help us locate the story in our memories.
A professor emeritus at Duke Divinity School, Lischer has written extensively on preaching, but is a memoirist as well. Lischer is a lively and enthralling writer, and as he summarizes and reflects on the work of others, he gathers their stories into seven categories: “Search and Surrender,” “Revelations,” “How Goes the Battle?” “The Stripping of the Altars,” “Pilgrimages,” “New Every Day,” and “Nomadic Faith.” Each category offers a structure that helps us make meaning.
The wonderful thing about reading Lischer’s accounts of the memoirs of people like Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, Emily Dickinson, Peter Abelard and Heloise, Anne Lamont, James Baldwin and others, is that I see the outlines of my own story more clearly.
“Pilgrimages” is my category. Lischer writes, “A sense of calling pervades these stories.” Pilgrims seek God’s call and, despite many trials, find it. Lischer draws on examples ranging from Therese of Lisieux to Dorothy Day and Kathleen Norris; reading them, I realize that I am still seeking my own story.
As a pastor, I am especially partial to pastoral memoirs. I appreciate the four in Our Hearts Are Restless: Augustine, John Bunyan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a pastor for a brief time, and Heidi Newmark. But where is Frederick Buechner? Even though he is quoted on an early title page, his absence from the book seems to me a glaring omission of one of the most poignant memoirists of our time.
I believe we are all aspiring memoirists; we long to see our lives whole, discern their meaning, and share it with our children, grandchildren and others. “Memory,” Lischer writes, “is a complex and often tangled form of revelation.” Our Hearts Are Restless is a captivating book because it reminds us the living God dwells in the twists and turns of the story of our lives. In the words of Augustine, “Lord, all that I have discovered about you I have discovered so by remembering.”
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