(RNS) — This Christmas holiday and the culmination of the season of Advent on Dec. 25 will be especially poignant for me since it will be the first without James William Buffett in the world.
Yes, Jimmy Buffett.
Born on Christmas Day, 1946, in Pascagoula, Mississippi, Buffett grew up in a Catholic household. His mother, Lorraine Peets Buffett, worked so that she could send her three children to Catholic school. Buffett, an altar boy and Catholic-educated, would have been familiar with the liturgical cycle and certainly the season of Advent, as it called for him to focus on the waiting, not just for Jesus and Christmas, but also his birthday.
If you’ve been to one of his concerts or listened closely to his music or in an interview, then you’ve heard Buffett reference his Catholic upbringing. “Coastal Confessions,” off his 2004 album “License to Chill,” will take you down that spiritual road in a hurry. Most of the time, what we hear in his commentary on a song like this is how much he rebelled against his religion. As an adult, Buffett probably wouldn’t have considered himself very religious.
But if you pay attention to his music or, even more so, the legacy tributes from his family and friends — not to mention the many fans who never personally knew him — that have poured in since his death on Sept. 1, you will connect to a level of spirituality explained primarily by the formation in his Catholic faith. With a good dose of Rastafarianism sprinkled in over the years, too.
To me, Buffett’s music has often felt similar to Brian Doyle’s “One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder,” in the way they both inspire us to use our words to express the depth and complexity of even the most simple interactions and daily experiences. It’s this quality I’ve been thinking about as I move through Advent.
Advent is the season in the Christian liturgical year that precedes Christmas. It asks us to practice patience through waiting, for the coming of Jesus as a baby but also his coming again. We live in between the advents, and that living is enhanced by our ability to embrace wonder.
Doyle is, in his writing, noticing the wonder that’s available to us in the ordinariness of life. In one chapter, Doyle recounts an experience he has with a 9-year-old girl who asks him lots of questions. When they finally connect over writing, she tells him about the three books she’s written. She knows he’s a writer too. After she told him that one day she hopes to write a book with a really good pen, he pulled one from his shirt pocket and told her that he bet it contained a very good book in it. He says she accepted the pen with great care, “with a look on her face that I wish I could express in words.”
I think Doyle did capture that look in his words — he brings her wonder to life for any of us gifted to read about it. In a very similar way, Jimmy Buffett did this repeatedly with his music. In “Coastal Confessions,” he sings, “Well, I’m a tidal pool explorer from the days of my misspent youth. I believe that down on the beach, where the seagulls preach, is where the Chinese buried the truth.” The rest of the song details his search for truth (mostly down by the beach) and the confessions that go along with that probing. He uncovers wonder in both the search as well as the sheer act of just being.
Buffett’s early faith formation enabled him to use both head and heart in life and songwriting. His music is deeply reflective, tapping into the thinking side of our brain. Citing his mother as his influence, Buffett repeatedly talked about how she made sure he was a reader. He also invites us into the desires of our heart, though, even more than the rational part of our being. Chasing song lines through his adventures, often akin to spiritual pilgrimages, reflects the direction of his own heart. Thank goodness he put those reflections down on paper and turned them into songs. He shared his art like some people share their faith, and packed into those song lyrics and tunes is the gift of wonder.
That seems like a recipe for Advent wonder as we contemplate how we might live during this holy season that leads us to a manger and a baby, where we discern the mystery of “God with us” once again.
(The Rev. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University. He’s written a book, “The Sacred Year,” about the Christian liturgical season and is currently co-authoring a book about finding faith and spirituality in the music of Jimmy Buffett. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)