“Strangely light of heart”—Remembering Frederick Buechner

Writing as a holy task (St. Matthew writing his gospel, Ebbo Gospels, 9th century).

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.

Are we too late for the Resurrection?

Guercino, "The Incredulity of Thomas" (1621)

Guercino, “The Incredulity of Thomas” (1621)

What we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked at and touched with our hands—
the Word of life— this is our theme . . .
We declare to you what we have seen and heard,
so that you too may share our life.    (I John 1:1,3)

The Easter Vigil is a night of wonders. Beginning after dark on Holy Saturday, God’s friends gather around a fire under the stars, as poets and singers, accompanied by the sounds of loon, whale and wolf, take us back to the beginning of time, when all things came to be. Then we follow the Paschal Candle, symbol of the risen Christ, into the Story Space to experience creative retellings of our sacred narratives, recalling God’s unfailing covenant with us throughout history. Theater, storytelling, music and multimedia immerse us in the rich play of Scriptural meanings. After that we process into the church, to the font of new birth, renewing our baptismal vows by candlelight. Suddenly, the contemplative quiet is broken by a great tumult of drums, bells, chimes (and sometimes fireworks!) as we welcome the first eucharist of Easter, sharing the feast of heaven with bread and champagne,and dancing our praises around God’s table.[i]

The Easter Vigil is the Christian dreamtime, the molten core of our worship life, but for those who missed it, who didn’t arrive at church until Easter morning, it exists only as a rumor of something quite out of the ordinary, hard to imagine after the fact. I could describe what happened in great detail, but a considerable amount of the joy and the wonder would be lost in the telling. Hearing about it is not the same as actually experiencing it.

Just ask Thomas the Doubter. He had missed out when the risen Christ first appeared to the other disciples.[ii] Oh Thomas, it was so amazing, so incredible! If only you had been there. “No way,” he says. “I just can’t see it. You must have been dreaming.” And so Thomas became known as the Doubter, and the Church made him patron saint of the blind. And yet, we always honor Thomas by telling this story on the Second Sunday of Easter, as if to say,

We welcome those who take questions seriously;
we believe that faith and doubt must dance together;
we are in fact a community of those
who wrestle with God’s absences
as well as God’s presences.

Another Thomas, the 20th century Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, wrote a poem about this gospel story:

His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm.[iii]

The sense of belatedness, of arriving too late, haunts every religious tradition whose foundations lie in definitive past events. Even Jesus’ closest friends, who had shared a last supper with him just days before, felt the warmth of his presence quickly cooling into memory.

But then they discovered that Christ does not come to us out of the past, locked within well-worn expectations. The risen One comes out of the future, often in a form we don’t expect: the stranger, the other, the outcast, even the enemy. If we only look for Jesus in the vacated tombs of past experience, we will get the admonishing angel: “He is not here. He’s already waiting for you somewhere else. Go and see.”

For a while after the resurrection of Jesus, there were sensory appearances in a form the disciples could recognize and relate to in the old familiar ways. They spoke with him. They ate with him. They experienced his peace. And their primal witness remains vital. A positive identification of the risen One as the same person who died on the cross was essential to the core Easter message: Jesus lives! Not a memory, substitute, or simulacrum, but a continuing presence which not even death could kill.

These appearances eventually ceased, but before they did, Thomas finally got his moment with the Jesus he had known. It blew away his doubts and drove him to his knees. But then Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” And later he said, “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”

In other words, Christ’s resurrection is not limited to the personal experiences of a few first century people. If that were the case, then it would be something we could only hear about later but never experience for ourselves. Like Thomas before his late encounter, we would have only Christ’s absence.

But the Easter faith affirms the continuing presence of the living Christ among us, now and always. That presence is not always clear or obvious. Even the saints wrestle with doubt and absence. Sometimes divinity seems to withdraw for a time. Sometimes it is we who are absent— distracted, inattentive, looking in the wrong place, using the wrong language. Divine presence can’t be switched on, or grasped possessively. It is elusive. It is fond of surprise.

But we are not left without clues. Jesus tells us, “If you want to keep experiencing me, love one another. Forgive one another.”[iv] Thus we meet the risen Christ in the life of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, justice, love. Where love and charity abound, there God is, there Christ is. It’s not enough to proclaim resurrection. We need to embody it.

As Rowan Williams explains: “the believer’s life is a testimony to the risen-ness of Jesus: he or she demonstrates that Jesus is not dead by living a life in which Jesus is the never-failing source of affirmation, challenge, enrichment and enlargement.”[v]

The Book of Acts tells us the first believers made their common life a “laboratory of the resurrection”[vi]— not just a theological mystery but a daily practice, rejecting the economics of selfishness and scarcity for radical acts of generosity and compassion. Their belief was a practice of entrusting themselves to the renewing force of divine love that is never exhausted by the sufferings of the world. In other words, resurrections have consequences.

These are large claims, of course, and not universally embraced. But for me resurrection’s greatest challenge is not that I am being asked to believe something difficult; it is that I am being asked to do something difficult:

to be utterly transformed by immersion into the dying-and-rising of Christ,
to become my baptismal self,
to cast off the rags of ego and fear
and be clothed in “garments of indescribable light.”[vii]

It’s not intellectual or empirical doubt that makes me hesitate at the threshold of the risen life. It’s not that I think such transformation to be impossible. No, for countless saints have already demonstrated its possibility. My doubt concerns myself. Am I up to it?

Have you ever stood on a rock
twenty feet above the surface
of an icy mountain lake?
The summer day is hot;
you know the water will refresh you.
You are caked with grime and sweat from hours of hiking.
It will feel so good to wash it all away.

You imagine the explosive energy of the splash,
the exhilarating shock of glacial waters.
And you anticipate the joy of swimming,
the bliss of weightlessness
setting you free from the gravity of things.

But you hesitate.
You doubt.
The water is dark.
Are there rocks beneath the surface?
Will the sudden cold take your breath away?
The very act of stepping out into nothing
is resisted by an inner voice of self-preservation.

There’s no way to stop the mind’s questions or the body’s fears.
They persist for as long as you stand there.
The lake doesn’t get any warmer.
The boulder doesn’t get any lower.

Then you just lean out into space
and let yourself go.

 

 

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Christ is risen!

 

[i] Although most Easter Vigils don’t happen quite this way, they can, and (IMHO) should. I have been curating them this way for several decades in various worship communities, and I believe that such a rich interplay of ritual and the arts, engaging all the senses in a multigenerational, visionary happening, at once contemplative, playful, and ecstatic, does true justice to our celebration of the Paschal Mystery – the passage from darkness and death into the risen life..

[ii] John 20:24-29

[iii] R.S. Thomas, “Via Negativa,” Collected Poems: 1945-1990 (London: Phoenix Giant, 1995), 220

[iv] My gloss on the Farewell Discourse in the Fourth Gospel (John 14-17)

[v] Rowan Williams, Resurrection (New York: The Pilgrim Press NY, 1984), 62-3

[vi] Dumitru Staniloae, q. in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 82

[vii] Pseudo-Macarius (desert father, c. 400, Mesopotamia/Asia Minor) First Homily