“Each life,” Frederick Buechner once observed, “is not just a journey through time, but a sacred journey.” Today, the celebrated spiritual writer’s own journey through time came to an end. I learned of his death during an afternoon Zoom conference with faculty colleagues.
By the time I checked, someone had already switched the verbs in the Wikipedia entry on Buechner from present tense to past. Journeys through time can end—and be documented—pretty quickly.
Buechner, born in 1926, was a Presbyterian minister with degrees from Princeton and New York’s Union Theological Seminary. He taught religion for a few years at Phillips Exeter Academy but then retired to a Vermont farm, trading pulpit and lectern for the writer’s desk. He published over thirty books in multiple genres and garnered an impressive shelf or two of awards.
Generations of seminarians, clergy, academics, and spiritual vagabonds have claimed him as an unofficial chaplain. Sample book titles give us a sense of the idiosyncratic angle of his spiritual vision: The Magnificent Defeat, The Hungering Dark, Telling Secrets, Wishful Thinking. Exhibiting Benedictine-style humility and not-so-Presbyterian humor, he pigeon-holed himself “a part-time novelist who happens also to be a part-time Christian.”
Evidently he also spent a lot of time helping people pronounce his name. You wonder how many ways a creative writer could say, “Actually, it’s BEEK-ner.”
Buechner wrote about ordinary things such as work, play, routine, the turn of the seasons, daydreams, deep-seated fears, and washing dishes. Like a modern-day kabbalist, he thought the alphabet held a treasury of mysteries.
Mainly Buechner wrote about Buechner. Theology, he insisted, is autobiography in other terms. When we read him, we learn about God, we learn about Buechner, and we learn especially about their complicated relationship. In the process, we learn about ourselves and our own tangled complexities, both sacred and profane.
Buechner wrote with a casual grace that lulled readers into thinking that the exquisitely crafted prose on the page before them was simply an act of nature and not the result of agonizing decisions made by an author facing a deadline, a familiar wave of self-doubt, or simply another pile of dirty pots and pans.
Most of all, he wrote with refreshing honesty. Recalling a moment in his promising-young-man phase, he recorded the comments of an older woman who thought he needed a bit of help. “I hear you are entering the ministry,” she said. “Was it your own idea or were you poorly advised?”
In the Zoom meeting today, we mentioned Buechner because of his profound insights into vocation—the sense of calling (from the Latin vocatio) that impels us to live a life worth something.
For some, vocation means accepting what the Rule of St. Benedict refers to as an “impossible task.” For others, it means pursuing a dream that goes against the grain of cultural expectations. For many of us, it means courage to devote a life to a myriad of things—perhaps all unremarkable, but still very important.
According to Buechner, vocation is “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
All of us have visited that place at one time or another. And that’s the place where Benedictine University habitually seeks to situate itself.
In tributes to his legacy, we will likely keep stumbling over Buechner’s name. His notion of vocation, though, ought to give us a confident sense of stability and direction. Imagine matching your gladness with the world’s great need. That’s how sacred a journey through time can be.
Dr. Peter A. Huff
Director, Center for Benedictine Values