Praise, praise! I croak. Praise God for all that’s holy, cold, and dark. Praise him for all we lose, for all the river of the years bears off. Praise him for the stillness in the wake of pain. Praise him for emptiness … Praise him for dying and the peace of death.
— Frederick Buechner, Godric [i]
Frederick Buechner, one of the greatest of contemporary Christian writers, has departed this life. Born July 11, 1926, he died on August 15, 2022. Buechner pursued a life of faith in an age of doubt, and his wrestling with the language and content of belief in books, sermons and lectures has inspired, instructed, and delighted countless believers and seekers.
My first encounter with his striking words and novel images was during my senior year in college. On the last Sunday of Advent, 1965, my father, James K. Friedrich, a priest and film producer, staged a dramatic reading of Buechner’s imaginative rendering of the Nativity story at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. Before a packed congregation, three distinguished Hollywood actors, two of whom were members of that parish, played the roles of Shepherd, Innkeeper, and Wise Man, each recalling his own experience on that strange night in Bethlehem.
Edward G. Robinson—whose original given name was Emmanuel—registered the Shepherd’s amazement with his familiar dusky growl:
“The air wasn’t just emptiness any more. It was alive. Brightness everywhere, dipping and wheeling like a flock of birds. And what you always thought was silence stopped being silent and turned into the beating of wings, thousands and thousands of them. Only not wings, as you came to more, but voices—high, wild, like trumpets. The words I could never remember later, but something like what I’d yelled with my mouth full of bread, ‘By God, it’s good, brothers! The crust. The mud. Everything. Everything.’”
Frederic Worlock, a veteran character actor in dozens of films from How Green Was My Valley to 101 Dalmations, sounded the Innkeeper’s lament with his distinctive British voice:
“All your life long, you wait for your own true love to come – we all of us do – our destiny, our joy, our heart’s desire. So how am I to say it, gentlemen? When he came, I missed him.”
And the formidable Raymond Massey lent a patrician aura to the Wise Man’s melancholy reflection on his brief encounter with the Real.
“I will tell you two terrible things. What we saw on the face of the new-born child was his death. A fool could have seen it as well. It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and that is why we left—giving only our gifts, withholding the rest.”
Only in retrospect would the Magus realize that “to live without him is the real death … to die with him is the only life.” [ii]
You can hear a 23-minute recording of the 1965 performance, “A Christmas Triptych,” here:
Searching for the Holy One in our midst is a core theme of Buechner’s work. His vivid description of a papal mass on Christmas Eve, when the writer was in his early thirties, is one of my favorite moments in all his writings. When Pius XII, carried on a golden throne by Swiss guards, passed among the throng in St. Peter’s that night, his glasses “glittering in the candlelight,” he was “peering into the crowd with extraordinary intensity,” as though he were “looking for someone in particular.”
It was Christ he was looking for, thought Buechner, and a theologian might insist that the holy face was already “visible, however dimly, in the faces of all of us who had come there that night.” For the old pope that wasn’t enough. There was intense longing in his face, but Buechner also detected a “madness”—as if the pope were straining to exceed any settled account of reality.
And it is the madness that has haunted me through the years.
Madness because I suspect he hoped
that Christ himself had come back that night
as more than just the deepest humanity of everyone’s humanity,
that Impossibility itself stood there resplendent in that impossible place. [iii]
All of Buechner’s work is an attempt to put that Impossibility into words, that we might see and grasp its invitation to new life. His nine years as chaplain to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire were formative for him. The student body was a diverse and youthfully cynical lot, and Buechner’s challenge as a preacher was how to connect with the unwilling and the unbelieving. I attended an Episcopal school with compulsory chapel in the same years Buechner was at Exeter, and much later I would preach a sermon at Groton, Franklin Roosevelt’s Episcopal prep school. I know how daunting a roomful of resistant and dubious faces can be. For Buechner, the experience was a refiner’s fire. He learned how to make the case for faith in a fresh and accessible tongue. He did it with a remarkable gift for narrative and phrasing. “It’s on the house,” for example, was his translation of “divine grace.” But he also gained credibility by taking doubt seriously.
In our culture of disbelief, where the awareness of divine presence does not come naturally, even believers must live with persistent doubts. There is no way to prove there’s anything beyond the visible world, that our choices have an ultimate dimension, or that our heart’s desire has an abiding home.
Buechner never denied the validity of doubt. The only thing certain about faith is that it may not be true. “How could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?” he said. “If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. [iv] But it’s always “a fifty-fifty chance” between faith and doubt.[v] You have to choose—not between specific linguistic formulations, which even at their best cannot encompass the Real—but between saying Yes or No when Love invites you to dance.
“To be a saint,” Buechner wrote, “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.” [vi]
In Buechner’s Nativity dialogues cited above, the Divine Mystery has appeared in the world. The Shepherd embraces it. The Innkeeper fails to notice. The Wise Man, reckoning the cost to himself, refuses the offer. Those remain our options as well. And in a lifetime of extraordinary writings, Frederick Buechner explored the urgency of the choices set before us. We can choose life; we can choose death. We can say Yes; we can say No. Or we can simply ignore the big questions and opt for the unexamined life.
One of Buechner’s great influences was the Scottish writer George MacDonald, who, like himself, was an ordained minister. In 1990, I heard Buechner conclude a lecture with lines from MacDonald’s novel, Thomas Wingfold, Curate. Published in 1876, it posited faith as a brave rejection of the depressing sway of Victorian doubt. The way of faith may not be provable, argues MacDonald’s fictional curate, but it will always be more beautiful—and more “true”—than the alternative. No wonder Buechner loved this passage:
Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not. No facts can take the place of truths, and if these be not truths, then is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and John and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their death make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the garden of the Lord. I will go further … and say, I would rather die for evermore believing as Jesus believed, than live for evermore believing as those that deny him.
Buechner died at 96. When my mother died at the same age in 2010, I happened to find a quote from his novel Godric among her papers. I put those words on the cover of her requiem bulletin, below a Byzantine image of Christ rescuing the dead from their tombs:
I see a star, said Godric, at the age of 100 and more. Sometimes this star is still, sometimes she dances. Within that little pool of Wear she winks at me. I wink at her. The secret that we share I cannot tell in full. But this much I will tell. What’s lost is nothing to what’s found and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup. [vii]
[i] Frederick Buechner, Godric (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1980/1983), 96.
[ii] The performance of the text as “A Christmas Triptych” was in December, 1965.Buechner’s text would be published the next year in The Magnificent Defeat (Seabury Press, 1966)..
[iii] Buechner, The Hungering Dark (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1969/1985).
[iv] Ibid., The Alphabet of Grace (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1970/1989), 47.
[v] Ibid., The Book of Bebb (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001), 143. In the novel, Bebb is asked what he believes. “I believe in everything.” “You make it sound easy,” the other says, and Bebb replies, “It’s hard as hell.”
[vi] The Magnificent Defeat, 119.
[vii] Godric, 96.