Listen To Your Life:
Remembering Frederick Buechner

By: Mark Mitchell, Executive Director of BASOM

I learned this week that one of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, passed away at age 96. Although he was from a different tradition (Mainline Protestant) than me, I discovered his books in my early thirties and was so drawn in by them that I wrote him a letter. He was gracious enough to write me back in a handwritten letter I still treasure, dated September 18, 1990. 

 So who was Frederick Buechner? 

Frederick grew up in New York City, but moved a lot as his father searched for work. His family settled in Bermuda after his father took his own life when he was 10. He graduated from Princeton with a degree in English in 1948. He quickly achieved fame in 1950 with his first novel, A Long Day’s Dying. 

But it was something else that happened in New York City that forever changed his life: He began attending Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. He hadn’t grown up in church, but he went because he lived next door and “had nothing else to do on a Sunday.” One Sunday, he was struck by something the well-known pastor, George Buttrick, said: “Christ is crowned in the hearts of those who love him and believe in him amidst confession and tears and great laughter.” He recounted: “I was so taken aback by ‘great laughter’ that I found the tears springing to my eyes.” 

Frederick later told his his pastor he wanted to learn more about the Christian faith. Buttrick pointed him towards Union Theological Seminary, but he also warned him: “It would be a shame to lose a good novelist for a mediocre preacher.” Buechner graduated from Union and then launched the religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he taught for nine years before moving with his wife and children to a farmhouse in Vermont. He later was awarded lectureships at Harvard and Yale universities and held teaching positions at Tufts University, Calvin College and Wheaton College. 

Over the course of his life, Buechner wrote nearly 40 books across a number of genres. My favorite novel of his is Godric, which was a finalist for the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But, without question, I enjoy his memoirs the most: Sacred Journey, Now and Then, and Telling Secrets. Listening to one’s life was a theme in his work because he once said, if there was a God and if He were as concerned with the world and involved in it as the Bible says, then surely one of the most significant ways God speaks to us is in what happens to us. In his own words:  

If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that 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. 

— Now and Then, 1983 

 RIP Frederik Buechner.