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At 96 years old, Frederick Buechner left this vale of tears and passed, as my Native friends might say, into the spirit world.
I should have read Buechner much more than I have, and I can say that with certainty because for a long time we’ve been at it, the two of us, going through a compilation of his often thoughtful meds in alphabetic order, a collection of his wonderful thoughts and ideas titled Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABCs of Faith. It’s a book of meditations like none other we’ve used for daily devotions, profoundly thoughtful, almost always given to mystery, and, page after page deliciously funny, all of it spoken in an inimitable voice given to sometimes surprising goofiness. I love it.
I honestly didn’t know he was still alive. I thought we were reading the words of a departed saint who’d passed on some time ago. I’m embarrassed to admit that and surprised to know I’d been wrong. Just Sunday, he was still among the living. But then, at 96, life or death hadn’t really mattered to us, his readers, because once every day we heard his distinctive voice hold forth. For Buechner, I can’t help think that, like the apostle Paul, in the most profound way, it didn’t matter: “to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
On Tuesday of this week, the night after he passed away and when I didn’t know of his passing, my wife and I read a passage from the S section, a couple of paragraphs titled “Saint.” In his honor this morning, let me offer it, right from the meditations of just such a one, someone who is himself one of God’s pocket handkerchiefs, a man I’m happy to call, by his own definition, “Saint Frederick.”
In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.
Many people think of saints as plaster saints, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long. As far as know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way. On the contrary, no less a saint than Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, “I am foremost among sinners” (I Timothy 1:15), and Jesus himself prayed God to forgive him his trespasses, and when the rich young man addressed him as “good Teacher,” answered “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18).
In other words, the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else’s, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them. When you consider that Saint Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven devils, that Saint Augustine prayed, “Give me chastity and continence, but not now,” that Saint Francis started out as a high-living young dude in downtown Assisi, and that Saint Simeon Stylites spent years on top of a sixty-foot pole, you figure that maybe there’s nobody God can’t use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.
The Holy Spirit has been called “the Lord, the giver of life” and, drawing their power from that source, saints are essentially life-givers. To be with them is to become more alive.
Thank you for this piece. The passage you chose is exactly right to describe Frederick Buechner. He was indeed a saint–the kind that he admired most, the kind that he also brought to life in his novel Godric. He himself was a saint, like Godric, we could relate to–of real flesh and blood, a “life giver,” as Buechner says in the passage you quote.
For decades I taught Godric and “The Dwarves in the Stable” to my senior students. Both pieces rang true for them in so many ways. Like many of his readers, I wrote him a few times to share my gratitude. He always wrote back. Often I would encourage my students to write him, too, if something he wrote made a difference for them. He always wrote them back. One time, a young man was touched by something Buechner said about his unresolved relationship with his father. This student had lost his father, too, and was angry at God about it. He wrote Buechner, who wrote him back an honest, encouraging reply. Another time not long after reading Godric in my class, a student I was teaching experienced the tragic murder of her mother. I wrote Buechner to tell him. Within days she received a beautiful letter of hope and consolation from him.
I don’t write to authors as a rule, but I suspect there are very few who were as diligent and generous as he was in responding.
He was indeed a saint. For anyone wanting to know his writing better, I would recommend our friend Jeff Munroe’s wonderful book, Reading Buechner (InterVarsity Press, 2019). Jeff knows his work intimately, and this book is not only a wonderful introduction but also a great guide to his best work.
Mark Hiskes and Jeff Munroe are two of my saints. Read Mark’s shimmering poems and Jeff’s beautifully humane understanding of Buechner. Jeff lost both his father and faith father within hours of each other. He was reeling. What loving souls, all three.
The first Buechner I ever read was “Book of Bebb.” It forever colored my reading of him. I delighted in it all. Way back when “Christian Century” hosted lectures by him in Vermont. I attended them. His humble rambling style was disarming as listening to him you knew you were going to profound places. How many of us were lifted to a higher plane reading him?
Thanks, as always, for the lovely pieces you write. This one was special to me because of my affection for, as you say, St. Frederick. Of his writings, my personal favorite is “Longing for Home.” For RJ readers, as well as Jeff’s book, mentioned above, I would add the book by the late Dale Brown, “The Book of Buechner,” (Westminster John Knox, 2006).
Among my favorite passages by Buechner is his description of Peter in Peculiar Treasures. I practically have it memorized. His range of writing styles is astonishing, and and they are all gifts from the Divine through this dedicated man. What a life.