On Saturday, just as I was waiting to go onto a church platform to officiate a wedding, I heard that Frederick Buechner had passed away. At 96 years old, the news did not come as a surprise. And though he lived fully and gifted many along the way, I was a little sad. I would have like to have told him how much his writings have meant to me–not just his devotional books and sermon collections, but his memoirs and fiction as well.
While Frederick Buechner is unlikely to continue to be a subscriber to A Pilgrim in Narnia, this note is my meagre thanks. For those readers who have not yet been converted to Buechner’s unusual literary and spiritual voice, I have sprinkled this post with links to 8 or 9 other essays, reviews, and reflections on one of my favourite writers.
One of the series of books that I read every couple of years is Frederick Buechner’s set of four memoirs written over 20 years or so. It helps that I use three of these books in my teaching at Regent College, where I first encountered Buechner’s writing. Even without the need to prepare for student discussions, I would turn to these books as part of the rhythms of my life.
The book that has been most transformative for me has been the second volume, Now and Then: A Memoir on Vocation. In “‘Exegesis of the Soul’ A Reflective Response to Frederick Buechner’s Memoirs” I have republished a college paper about my most significant encounter with Buechner and this second memoir. Although I cringe at some of the writing–I have never been my best as a writer when I was narrowing in on a scholastic deadline–the piece speaks clearly about these memoirs gave me a voice for the various vocational streams that I was struggling to name and weave together at the time. I really did find that Buechner was telling my story at times–and I suspect some readers will also find themselves in these words.
This reflection that I wrote on a Japanese mountainside almost exactly 20 years ago has defined the three-part sense of calling I have as a teacher, writer, and leader. Now and Then remains one of the most transformational books in my life.
It was in the first memoir, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days, where I made another connection to my spiritual journey, and where I saw an author begin to teach me about life writing as a spiritual and academic discipline.
Life writing is an emerging academic discipline we call “autoethnography” or “autograph,” the approach to research that treats the life of the researcher as part of the data of research. In the study of literature, my life becomes one of the “texts.” When I am studying C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, for example, I am reading my own story next to that one. In reading these memoirs for the first time in a cabin in rural Japan in 2002, I began to see in a very dim way the discipline that would emerge.
Buechner–pronounced Beek-ner–also models the spiritual posture of life writing in the way he shapes these memoirs. Life writing is hardly anything new to Christian spirituality. “O wretched man that I am!” cries St. Paul. “Search my heart, O God,” sings the Psalmist. “Take up and read!” chants the echo of eternity in St. Augustine’s confessions. I have read the life writing of Thérèse de Lisieux, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, L.M. Montgomery, Sheldon Vanauken, Teresa of Ávila, and Karen Armstrong all the last few years. Spiritual autobiography has become one of the hallmarks of great American Christian writing, including new and classic works by Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, Rachel Held Evans, Anne Lamott, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard, and Dorothy Day.
Frederick Buechner is one of the great memoirists in this Christian tradition, at least in the last century. In his introduction to The Sacred Journey, he very briefly sets up his task as a life writer:
What I propose to do now is to try listening to my life as a whole, or at least to certain key moments of the first half of my life thus far, for whatever of meaning, of holiness, of God, there may be in it to hear. My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.
For the reader, I suppose, it is like looking through someone else’s photograph album. What holds you, if nothing else, is the possibility that somewhere among all those shots of people you never knew and places you never saw, you may come across something or someone you recognize. In fact—for more curious things have happened—even in a stranger’s album, there is always the possibility that as the pages flip by, on one of them you may even catch a glimpse of yourself. Even if both of those fail, there is still a third possibility which is perhaps the happiest of them all, and that is that once I have put away my album for good, you may in the privacy of the heart take out the album of your own life and search it for the people and places you have loved and learned from yourself, and for those moments in the past—many of them half forgotten—through which you glimpsed, however dimly and fleetingly, the sacredness of your own journey (The Sacred Journey, 6-7).
This is the project that Buechner begins here and carries out over a series of books for the next two decades. The Sacred Journey is an unusual conversion story–a story unlike the testimonial you might be familiar with, though one that has a traditional plotline. A key discovery for me as I flipped through Buechner’s photo album is that, like him, I lost my father when I was young. As I talk about in this post just after my mother died of cancer in 2016, that loss shaped who I am. Like Buechner, I recognized much later how these powerful early-life losses were part of an unnameable search for God.
The Sacred Journey, has the very soft frame narrative of a construction project happening in his New England home. The pounding of hammers and the shuffling of workboots slips away as Buechner moves through his childhood and early adult life. As he comes to the turning of his time, to the point where something like grace happened unexpectedly in his life, we return to the construction project and the thinking about life writing. This section begins his third chapter, and I think is a nice coda to the theme of listening to our own lives begun in the introduction.
The crow of a rooster. Two carpenters talking at their work in another room. The tick-tock of a clock on the wall. The rumble of your own stomach. Each sound can be thought of as meaning something, if it is meaning you want. After some years now of living with roosters, I know that their crow does not mean that the sun is coming up because they crow off and on all day long with their silly, fierce heads thrown back and the barnyard breezes in their tail feathers. Maybe it means that they are remembering the last time it came up or thinking ahead to the next time. Maybe it means only that they are roosters being roosters. The voices and hammering in the other room mean that not everybody in the world sits around mooning over the past, but that the real business of life goes on and somewhere the job is getting done; means, too, that life is a mystery. What are they talking about? What are they making? The ticking of the clock is death’s patter song and means that time passes and passes and passes, whatever time is. The rumbling stomach means hunger and lunch. But meaning in that sense is not the point, or at least not my point. My point is that all those sounds together, or others like them, are the sound of our lives.
What each of them might be thought to mean separately is less important than what they all mean together. At the very least, they mean this: mean listen. Listen. Your life is happening. You are happening. You, the rooster, the clock, the workmen, your stomach, are all happening together. A journey, years long, has brought each of you through thick and thin to this moment in time as mine has also brought me. Think back on that journey. Listen back to the sounds and sweet airs of your journey that give delight and hurt not and to those that give no delight at all and hurt like Hell. Be not affeard. The music of your life is subtle and elusive and like no other–not a song with words but a song without words, a singing, clattering music to gladden the heart or turn the heart to stone, to haunt you perhaps with echoes of a vaster, farther music of which it is part.
Though the memoirs have been the most important books for me, I have enjoyed Frederick Buechner’s novels and nonfiction works. By way of confession, I have never read his most popular novel, the 1950 bestseller A Long Day’s Dying. However, I am slowly collecting Buechner’s work in the bookshelf of my mind as well as the one in my office.
Particularly rich are his medieval saints lives Brendan and the Pulitzer Prize finalist Godric. Teaching Godric–the retold story of a rather decrepit and rascally saint–at our local Bible College is one of my favourite book-teaching experiences, especially as the students brought out moments of grace within the more shocking and horrifying scenes.
Though these saint tales may be Buechner’s greatest achievements in literary fiction, my absolute favourite set of stories is the National Book Award finalist The Book of Bebb.
This series of short novels is about a delightfully authentic religious cad named Leo Bebb. As I speak about here, the fatherless/father-seeking theme is prevalent in the brilliant Bebb tetralogy. Truly, it might be that the whole Bebb series is a desperate groping for fathers–not just Anthony, the protagonist, but each of the men and women who find themselves around the conflicted Bebb. These novels have delighted me so much that my only regret is that few people know what I mean when I say “Bebbsian.” Please, go out and find The Book of Bebb, and join me in honouring the pear-shaped, bowler hat-wearing religious scam artist who remains, somehow, mysteriously, impossibly, an utterly guileless and endearingly genuine person.
Beyond the novels, I have used his sermons and devotionals in my teaching with books like The Alphabet of Grace, Whistling in the Dark, The Magnificent Defeat, and The Clown in the Belfry. For folks who want a brief entry into Buechner’s nonfiction, I have republished a brief review of Beyond Words, a daily readings book that brings in references from across the nearly 40 books he wrote:
As I have always felt that Frederick Buechner has been underappreciated, and as my most recent reading of The Remarkable Ordinary was so resonant for me, I did a week-long series on the book in January 2021. The first post dealt with my tension between being “Enslaved to the Pressure of the Ordinary” (ala Screwtape) and the great beauty and grace and laughter in the ordinary. After struggling with how the normal can wear us down, little by little, I wrote:
This cup of coffee, the music in my ears, waking and laying down in warmth and love, children playing in the other room, the cat supervising my work, these books at my elbow and on my bedside, making love and sharing the sign of peace, mandarin oranges, arugula, cameras in our pockets, fat snowdrops on red and brown faces, beautiful eyes above non-medical masks, the season’s death and rebirth in the great turning of the world. Oh, the beauty that there is!
As I was fighting with the words to describe what I meant by the Slavery/Beauty of the ordinary, I found great encouragement and clarity in Frederick Buechner‘s The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017). The Remarkable Ordinary is very much reminiscent of his life-changing autobiographies–and the book contains echoes of his other nonfiction works. In The Remarkable Ordinary, Buechner reads his life as a text. And in this story, he shows how the transformational moments in his life have not been grand miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary.
This book is a somewhat loose collection of some old lectures and some new material, designed to help us recover or reimagine our relationship to mundane reality. With some imagination on our part, we can walk alongside Frederick Buechner as his memories and experiences show the little moments of grace in the daily routines and terrible surprises of life. To live my life going against the grain of the world’s systems–both in solidarity with those who suffer and for the health of my soul–does not mean that I reject the simple and lovely ordinary things in life. Indeed, I think that’s where my greatest strength comes from: the Spirit of God in my heart and at my elbow, at my desk and the dinner table, as I lay down to sleep and rise to walk in the road. So I am thankful for Frederick Buechner’s thoughtful collection of ideas for reminding me of the liberation that comes in the normal moments of life.
The Remarkable Ordinary is a great introduction to Buechner’s spiritual reflections. For interested readers, I provided four follow-up posts with quotes from J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Maya Angelou, and George MacDonald:
- “The Laughing Room of Maya Angelou” by Frederick Buechner
- “Joy Beyond the Walls of the World, Poignant as Grief,” with J.R.R. Tolkien and Frederick Buechner
- “I Would Rather Die for Evermore Believing,” with George MacDonald and Frederick Buechner
- Christ and Hitler with C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner
I don’t know if The Remarkable Ordinary was his last book, but he published it in his early nineties, which is remarkable and far from ordinary. I consider Frederick Buechner to be one of the great American writers of the late 20th century. I hope that you can join me in appreciating this relatively unknown and transformative writer, pastor, and teacher.
And, just because it’s a cool chart from the Frederick Buechner Wikipedia page:
|1947||Irene Glascock Prize for Poetry|
|1955||O. Henry Award for “The Tiger” (3rd prize)|
|1959||Rosenthal Award for The Return of Ansel Gibbs|
|1972||Fiction Finalist, National Book Award for Lion Country|
|1981||Finalist, Pulitzer Prize for Godric|
|1982||American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters|
|1987||Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize|
|1994||Critics’ Choice Books Award for Fiction for Son of Laughter|
|Nomination for Chautauqua South Florida Fiction Award for The Storm|
|2007||Lifetime Achievement Award from the Conference on Christianity and Literature|
And there is an honourary doctorate list!
|1982||Virginia Theological Seminary|
|1996||The University of the South|
|2000||Wake Forest University|