Remembering Frederick Buechner, 1926-2022

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Many readers will immediately associate the name Frederick Buechner with a passage from Wishful Thinking that they know by heart: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It’s a rich sentence, full of possibility, and has been foundational for many of us in helping students through vocational discernment. But Buechner said a great deal more about vocation, whether in essays or fiction or memoir, and I’d like to explore his wider vision briefly as we mourn his death on August 15, 2022, at the age of 96.

I met Buechner only once, and briefly at that, but like so many of his readers, I had a sense of knowing him personally. The title of his third memoir, Telling Secrets, partially explains this; he told us a great deal about himself. Buechner’s secrets are not salacious or titillating, so we should perhaps read telling as an adjective to understand what he’s up to. Buechner believed, as he says in The Sacred Journey, that “the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.” The secrets here are not skeletons hidden in the closet but rather the beats of a heart opened to his friends.

Because people knew Buechner through his writing, and because they saw themselves in his story, his book signings and public lectures took on a sacred character. Dale Brown, who hosted him frequently, told me that people would regularly come up to Fred and exclaim, “You saved my life!” Naturally reserved, Fred nevertheless opened himself in such moments so that the “crazy, holy grace” named in his writing became incarnate. I suspect that he saw these exchanges as part of his vocation—unexpected and ill-fitting and filled with grace.

This is the surprise about Buechner’s expression of vocation: as pithy and durable as his famous definition is, it never seems to fit his life or his fictional characters’ lives neatly. And perhaps it shouldn’t. How could a single sentence hold the weight of a concept that he pondered for decades? His definition leaves things unaddressed, like ability. Theologian Deanna Thompson suggests two further dimensions of vocation absent from Buechner’s one-sentence definition: deep sadness and unchosen callings. As Thompson points out, however, these dimensions do appear, profoundly, elsewhere in Buechner’s work. We need to go beyond his one sentence, however elegant and useful it may be.

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When we turn to his memoirs, we find nothing like this way of calculating a call. After a peripatetic childhood torn by the suicide of his father, Buechner embarked on an educational and career path without much explicit measurement of gladness or hunger. His calling came in 1952, when he heard the preacher George Buttrick proclaim that Christ is crowned “amidst confession and tears and great laughter.” The phrase “great laughter,” which was not in Buttrick’s manuscript, constituted something of a vocation, and it led him to surprising places.

In fact, surprise sums up much of the nature of calling in the memoirs. After the surprising success of his first novel and the lackluster reception of the second, Buechner surprised everyone by enrolling in seminary. Even Buttrick questioned this, as it seemed so absurd: “it would be a shame to lose a good novelist for a mediocre preacher.” Buechner says that he was “richly embarrassed” that some thought this a “noble, selfless thing.”  The surprising, the absurd, the uncomfortable: here were the places to which Buechner was called, not primarily because of a burning concern for the world’s deep hunger nor even for his own deep gladness, but because of crazy, holy grace.

The point in the memoirs is to be surprised, to laugh with the absurd, to be honest about the doubt, to be open about the pain. Vocation can then be seen, often in retrospect. In Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, Buechner famously tells us, “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.” He focuses on the unremarkable moments that, when we’re paying attention, turn out to have been important.

More surprises follow in the memoirs, and in each we see why he so often refers to grace as crazy. He encountered the faith healer Agnes Sanford, not at all typical for a chaplain at Phillips Exeter; he spent a semester at Wheaton College (IL), a place that might have engendered mutual suspicion but instead became a locus of grace, as he described it in Telling Secrets. I entered Wheaton the year after he left, and the air was still spiced with him. Perhaps the craziest surprise for Buechner was that writing could be his ministry. He initially believed that he had to pursue either writing or ministering, but eventually he discovered the “ministry of words” through which he pastored so many people whom he never met. (I am grateful to Jeff Munroe for this point.)

The surprise for all of us, in retrospect, is that sometimes, sometimes, the vocation for which we felt unprepared, for which we felt unworthy, which we may not have chosen, which may involve deep sadness, turns out to have been exactly the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. Buechner’s novels underscore this idea, particularly when addressing sainthood. The huckster preacher and saint Leo Bebb, who inspired four novels, was such a character. He raises a man from the dead in Knoxville, Tennessee, not least because he doesn’t want to lose the price this man has offered him on a car. But raise him he does. Godric, the eleventh-century peasant-merchant-saint, has a history of fraud and self-seeking, but, to his surprise, kisses a leper, who is then healed. Henceforth he feels that he has to offer his hands, just in case there is healing in them. Brendan, the seafaring saint of the fifth century, seems anything but holy or seaworthy, yet he converts a pagan king and crosses the Atlantic.

Openness to surprise means finding crazy, holy grace, and when we listen to our lives, we can see how our vocation unfolds. This may not be easy to communicate to students struggling with career options, but perhaps it is exactly what they need to hear. Pay attention. Listen. Be honest. Be open. You may not comprehend either the world’s hunger or your own gladness, but, absurd as it may seem, you might be a means of grace right where you are.

I direct a speaker series that was founded as the Frederick Buechner Institute for Faith and Culture by Dale Brown in 2007, and we hold an annual event in Buechner’s honor. As we seek our institutional vocation, looking for deep hungers and searching for gladness, we find that twinkle in Fred’s eyes that says, pay attention because vocation can come as a surprise . That speaker discussing his grandfather, J.B. Phillips, only to discover that a man in the audience had been baptized by Phillips in London seven decades earlier? There, says Fred, your deep gladness surprised you. The opportunity to mark the 60th year of ministry for a local pastor just before his death? There is crazy, holy grace that fills a hunger. My tagline for the Institute is Expect Serendipity, and I think that the old saint himself smiles on these moments, no longer one bit surprised.

Martin Dotterweich is Professor of History at King University, where he also directs the King Institute for Faith and Culture.

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