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James T. KeaneAugust 30, 2022
Frederick Buechner in 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)

Was Frederick Buechner a novelist? A hagiographer? An evangelist? A preacher? A poet? A theologian? After he died on Aug. 15 at the age of 96, Buechner was hailed as all of these and more—and indeed, his debut novel in 1950 and its many successors established him as a prominent American novelist more than seven decades ago. But for many fans of his more personal nonfiction works, Buechner was the American C.S. Lewis, a writer whose greatest gift was in communicating the individual’s search for God.

In an obituary for Buechner in the Washington Post, America editor at large James Martin, S.J., said that Buechner’s autobiographical works “can take their place among other great spiritual memoirs,” including Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain.

Frederick Buechner: “If we weren’t blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental.”

A Presbyterian minister who never worked as a pastor (and indeed, said late in life that he was not much of a churchgoer), Buechner published 39 books over the course of his life, including novels, memoirs, theological treatises, poetry and more. While not all his work dealt explicitly with religion, a major theme in his writing was that of the seeker in search of the divine—and vice versa. In his 1993 book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, Buechner noted that all Christian denominations had sacraments, moments where “you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.”

But a truly sacramental imagination, he wrote, found the divine in a thousand other places. “Needless to say, church isn’t the only place where the holy happens. Sacramental moments can occur at any moment, at any place, and to anybody,” he wrote. “Watching something get born. Making love. A walk on the beach. Somebody coming to see you when you’re sick. A meal with people you love. Looking into a stranger’s eyes and finding out they are not a stranger’s.”

“If we weren’t blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental.”

Buechner got his start as a novelist remarkably early, and America was quick to recognize him as a budding talent on the literary scene—even his debut novel, A Long Day’s Dying (it was his senior thesis from Princeton), was reviewed in the magazine by Harold Gardiner, S.J., America’s literary editor and a prominent figure in Catholic publishing at the time. Unfortunately for Buechner, Gardiner didn’t care for his early efforts, and wielded a savage critical pen. “Sophisticates among both readers and critics will turn up the nose at the simple story and kow-tow to the pretentiousness of A Long Day’s Dying,” Gardiner wrote in his 1950 America review of the book. “But I am convinced that it is Mr. Buechner and his gushing critics who are the little boys lost. If you don’t believe me, go through the long day’s dying entailed in reading the ‘literary masterpiece.’” Ouch!

“Buechner’s prose is supple, his mind fertile and his way of looking at religious and spiritual concepts always inviting and often very surprising.”

Buechner was in good company, at least; Gardiner was a man of strong opinions and was not afraid to name his literary preferences (Among others, he disliked John Steinbeck for his “frequent coarseness” and “sermonizing tone”). And if nothing else, he kept reading and reviewing Buechner. While acknowledging that the author “does have a feel for words” in his 1952 America review of The Season’s Difference, Gardiner complained of a “style that is not only mannered, it is simpering.” By 1958 and Buechner’s third novel, The Return of Ansel Gibbs, he toned down the harrumphing a bit. “Though the author’s style is still a little precious, it has taken on an edge that was missing up to now,” he conceded.

Other America reviewers were kinder in later years. In 1981, John R. May reviewed Godric, Buechner’s 10th novel and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year. Buechner had taken the collected legends around the 12th-century saint and “given it the flesh of his own fictional truth,” wrote May, “and that truth seems to rest in the mystery of God’s reign and of the way humans acknowledge it in their lives.” Buechner’s religious imagination, he argued, had helped create a remarkable book: “What is significant here, but hardly new, is the unmistakable evidence of fiction’s power as a medium of religious meaning.” Indeed, more than a few readers noted the similarities between the corrupt and yet somehow holy minister of four of Buechner's novels, Leo Bebb, and the "whiskey priest" of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory.

In more recent years, Father Martin praised Buechner’s novels but confessed a preference for his nonfiction works. “Two of my favorite spiritual memoirs are the magnificent works The Sacred Journey and Telling Secrets,he wrote in America in 2013. “Buechner’s prose is supple, his mind fertile and his way of looking at religious and spiritual concepts always inviting and often very surprising.” Martin quoted from a profile of Buechner by America deputy editor in chief (then digital editor) Timothy Reidy in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, which can be found here:

For Buechner, the process of writing about his life is sacred: ‘My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. ... It is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally.’

In his profile of Buechner, Reidy noted that the author wore a ring inscribed with the Latin phrase “Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.” A look back into America’s archives shows some of the significance of that maxim in Buechner’s own religious journey. In 1995 and again in 1997, Martin, then an associate editor of America, had asked a number of luminaries (Catholic and not) to answer a deceptively simple question: “How can I find God?” The responses, gathered together into two articles, are varied and well worth reading, including Buechner’s contribution to the 1997 article. Here is his short submission:

Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit are the words C. G. Jung had chiseled into his stone lintel in Switzerland, which mean, freely translated, that you will eventually find God whether you want to or not. If you want to (even if you don’t happen to believe he exists), all you have to do is find some quiet place, be quiet inside yourself, and ask Him to let you find Him (or Him you). As far as I know, it is a prayer that is always answered.

For many fans of his more personal nonfiction works, Buechner was the American C.S. Lewis, a writer whose greatest gift was in communicating the individual’s search for God.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Afterlife” by Diana Marie Delgado. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

William Lynch, the greatest American Jesuit you’ve probably never heard of

Parish priest, sociologist, novelist: The many imaginations of Father Andrew Greeley

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Joan Didion: A chronicler of modern life’s horrors and consolations

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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