“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.

“No longer at ease here”

“No longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.” — Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi (detail, 1481).

Three days before the 2016 election, I posted The Top Ten Reasons To Stop Trump Now. All of them, sadly, turned out to be valid forecasts, but three of them remain especially worrying over the next two weeks:

Nuclear threat      Giving control of the world’s most powerful military, not to mention the nuclear codes, to an emotional toddler is clearly insane.

Fascism       Believe me. I alone can make America great. Everyone else is stupid. Trump is part of a worldwide erosion of democracy by a resurgent authoritarianism. Fear and hate have made many sell their souls to naked power. When fascism spread in 1930’s Europe, Americans were confident that “it can’t happen here.” Now we aren’t so sure.

Hatred     Racism, bigotry, misogyny, bullying, scapegoating and political violence have been making a shocking comeback, with Trump as their enthusiastic cheerleader. He has endorsed and normalized the most vile sins of the American shadow. God help us should he and his alt-right thugs and cronies ever come to power.

I wrote my warning on November 3, 2016. I wish I’d been wrong.

After yesterday’s insurrection, many are calling for the immediate removal of the President from power, and I add my voice to theirs. His seditious incitement of a coup may have been ridiculously futile, but it cannot be indulged as another childish tantrum. It was both physically dangerous and symbolically toxic. It will take our country a long time to live it down.

Breaking the law and shaming his country should be reason enough for immediate removal. But we should also be genuinely worried about the dangerous unpredictability of a cornered rat. He still controls the nuclear codes. He is still an unstable sociopath, a clear and present danger to America. As a Republican congressman put it today in calling for Trump’s removal, we need “to ensure the next few weeks are safe for the American people, and that we have a sane captain on the ship.”

One way or another, Trump will exit, but the venom that produced him will remain in our system for a long time to come. The alternative universes of social media continue to erode the very notion of a Union. It’s now all too easy to secede from consensual reality. Millions upon millions are joining delusional confederacies of bitterness and hate. And unprincipled, power-hungry cynics like Senators Josh Hawley (educated at Stanford and Yale) and Ted Cruz ( Princeton and Harvard) will continue to harvest money and votes from the killing fields of ignorance and bigotry.

For Christians, the defilement of the Capitol also tainted the Feast of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the manifestation, or revealing, of Christ’s light to the whole wide world. The Episcopal Collect for the Epiphany prays for the Beatific Vision: “Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face.” Sadly, what the world beheld on Epiphany was not the Light of the world, but an eruption of darkness from the vilest murk of the American id.

As with any healing, you can’t begin treatment until you get a diagnosis. Could yesterday’s “epiphany,” revealing the seriousness of our affliction, be the beginning of a cure? Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, herself a Catholic who knows the sacred feasts, expressed this hope. “Let us pray,” she said, “that this instigation to violence will provide an epiphany for our country to heal.”

The bizarre coincidence of the insurrection with the culminating celebration of the Nativity calls to mind the famous ending of William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming:”

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

All of us who were transfixed by the slouching horror on our screens yesterday feel the resonance of Yeats’ disturbing image. But my preferred poem for the day would be T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” a first-person account of the original Bethlehem Epiphany. Like every pilgrim, the speaker has tales to tell about the hardships of the quest. However, about the moment of revelation—beholding the Incarnate God face to face—he is curiously reticent, as though it would diminish the experience to put it into words.

Once he returns home, with time to reflect, the Magus finds himself “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods.” Having looked divine Love in the face, he finds a world without that love to be less than “satisfactory.” No longer able to settle for anything less than what he glimpsed in the Bethlehem stable, he finds himself “no longer at ease.” The journey to the Divine birth becomes for him a kind of death, a perishing of his old world and his old self.

In the light of the Epiphany—the revealing of ultimate truth—the Magus is transformed. He will never be the same. Dare we say the same about yesterday’s terrible “epiphany”? Has seeing our own darkness face to face shaken us to the core? Has it shocked us into renouncing its terrible sway? If we suddenly find ourselves “no longer at ease here,” thanks be to God! Our journey toward the Dawn can begin at last.

“Thus times do shift”: A Poem for Candlemas

Augustina Woodgate, National Times (2016/2019) at the Whitney Biennial 2019.

February already! How the year hurries on. I tear January from my calendar with a sigh. The new year’s fresh supply of months is being consumed at an alarming rate. A few weeks ago there seemed time enough for everything, but now . . .

Candlemas (February 2) is the last of the Nativity celebrations. You can read more about its meaning and customs in last year’s post, Consumed by Love. For me it is a day to remember the preciousness of the time we are given. Like the people’s candles traditionally blessed in the Candlemas rite, the days to come are made to be used up. As I wrote last year, “a candle is a temporal thing, fulfilling its function of radiance and warmth at the cost of its own vanishing.”

For Robert Herrick, 17th-century poet and priest, our temporal condition was a recurring theme. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is his best-known line, but his poem for Candlemas Eve is my favorite. The changing of seasonal decorations in houses and churches is an emblem of the human condition: Thus times do shift . . . new things succeed, as former things grow old.

       DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
           Down with the misletoe ;
       Instead of holly, now up-raise
           The greener box (for show).

       The holly hitherto did sway ;
           Let box now domineer
       Until the dancing Easter day,
           Or Easter’s eve appear.

       Then youthful box which now hath grace
           Your houses to renew ;
       Grown old, surrender must his place
           Unto the crisped yew.

       When yew is out, then birch comes in,
           And many flowers beside ;
       Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
           To honour Whitsuntide.

       Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
           With cooler oaken boughs,
       Come in for comely ornaments
           To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

Herrick’s poem was set to a Basque melody by Edgar Pittman (1865-1943). Here is a lovely version of it by English folksinger Kate Rusby.