Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and prolific writer whose work explored the intersection of faith and secular life, died peacefully in his sleep on Monday, August 15, 2022, at his home in Vermont. He was 96.
Over the course of his life, Buechner was the author of 39 books, including novels, memoirs, collections of essays and sermons, and works of theology.
For him writing was a form of self-discovery, a “conscious remembering,” as he once called it.
I was reading Buechner in 2014, less than three years after the death of my son Adam. Buechner had also lost someone to suicide.
In his memoir, Telling Secrets, Buechner shares the impact of losing his father. He says,
“The sadness was I’d lost a father I had never fully found.”
In November 1936 when he was ten years old his father took his life. There was no funeral as neither family had a church connection of any kind. Following the death of his father, no one talked about him much ever again. His mother’s sadness bought their silence.
Buechner was being asked to erase any memories of his father, or, at least to hide them away. There was no discussion as to what he might be feeling about his father’s death or even about his life. His father’s existence and his demise became a secret that was not to be divulged to anyone.
“Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel was the unwritten law of our family.”
I have always found Buechner’s writing energising. He writes eloquently, unassumingly, and honestly. His body or work reveals a desire to understand what it means to be human. He is not selling us anything. He’s bearing witness, truthfully, as he sees it.
Author Anne Lamott is an admirer of Buechner. Reflecting on his approach to writing she says,
“Ultimately, all we have to share with one another — is our truth in our very own voice.”
I am indebted to Buechner for enriching my life. Here are three life principles that he espouses.
Listen to your life:
Frederick Buechner was asked on numerous occasions how he would sum up everything he had preached and written in both his fiction and nonfiction.
The answer, he said, was simply this: “Listen to your life.”
“Be alive to your life! Observe! Pay attention!”
Listening to one’s life became a theme in his work. He said,
“If there was a God and if God were as concerned with the world and involved in it as Christianity says, then surely one of the most powerful ways God speaks to people is in what happens to them.”
Buechner urges us to look to the ordinary, to listen to our lives and seek out God in the most unexpected places, for there is God most likely to be found.
“Taking your children to school and kissing your wife goodbye. Eating lunch with a friend. Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace, but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that…“
It is through our stories that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally.
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
Now and Then (1983) A Memoir of Vocation
Many people believe God does not exist or, if he does exist, he is not actively involved in our lives. Buechner believes our lives are sacred because God is present. He suggests we chronicle the unexpected moments of grace and celebrate those fleeting experiences of inestimable joy.
In Buechner’s estimation, ‘our lives have a similar plot as the Bible: God creates, we get lost, and God works to bring us and the rest of creation back to himself.’
Such a template provides context to what we are experiencing and the insights we gain are invaluable, shaping our appreciation of the mystery of life.
Tell your secrets:
Some people who have experienced suicide bereavement are unwilling to talk about it. They are unable to find the right words to describe their pain, or they want to hasten closure of that unseemly chapter in their life, or they sense that no one is really interested.
Suicide is messy. Those left behind soon discover how unsettling and complicated life can become as you try to process the unthinkable.
Buechner’s father died of carbon monoxide poisoning. A few years later his father’s younger brother also took his own life. The two tragedies compounded Buechner’s sense of loss and awoke in him a sense of his own mortality that never faded away. For a time, he wondered if the family was afflicted with some fatal suicide gene.
Out of consideration for his mother, who insisted on guarding family secrets, Buechner did not write directly of his father’s suicide for decades, though scenes of suicide haunt his novels. Finally, Buechner decided that he had as much right to tell his father’s story as his mother had not to tell her husband’s story.
At the time of his father’s death, society viewed suicide with disdain. Buechner writes,
“Suicide was looked on as something a little shabby and shameful in those days.”
The shame experienced by those who were left to deal with the stigma of suicide meant that the subject was rarely raised even in a general sense.
Buechner believes our ability to heal, to hope, and to love is found in revealing what has long been hidden, that we need to find a way to give voice to our pain and sorrow.
Holocaust survivors faced this challenge. Should they speak about the atrocities they had witnessed? Many found it too painful to revisit the trauma of the past and chose to remain silent. Others recognised their responsibility to future generations to faithfully record the horrors committed by evil men, to expose the hatred and tyranny, and to hold the perpetrators accountable for their murderous actions. Their courage and resilience in telling their stories is both humbling and inspirational.
By speaking the truth Holocaust survivors honour those who have died. Whatever the cause of their death, be it starvation or sickness or the firing squad or the gas chamber they retained the dignity of their humanity. They were loved and valued, and their death wasn’t the end of the story.
By speaking the truth Holocaust survivors provide a road map for surviving traumatic events. They are living testimony to the fact that the human spirit can triumph over adversity.
Live like a saint:
Throughout his literary career Buechner explored the possibilities of sainthood.
Saints held a special fascination for him. They were not perfect. They were flawed like everyone else, capable of wrong thoughts and inappropriate actions. Their lives were not characterised by triumphant faith.
What set them apart was their availability to God. God was free to work through them. Their achievements were not their own doing, they were expressions of grace.
‘Saints are essentially life-givers. They rarely if ever preach in any straightforward way — their lives preach for them.
To be with them is to become more alive.’
This, I imagine, is something we all aspire to, to be a positive influence on those near to us. To hope that our life might be an encouragement, a source of inspiration, and a light to guide.
Buechner explains what it is to be a saint. He says,
“To be a saint is to live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and receive with gladness. To be a saint is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world, but it is also to be strangely light of heart in the knowledge that there is something greater than the world that mends and renews. Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy.“
To live like a saint. Is this the goal we set for our lives – to give and receive with gladness?
This is only made possible as we welcome God’s grace into our lives. As Buechner explains,