Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Listening Closely to Buechner’s Telling Secrets

Frederick Buechner was just leaving the Phillips Exeter Academy as its school minister as I was arriving in the fall of 1966, a tenth-grade Episcopalian altar boy on the verge of losing his religion for a long time. So, through no fault of his own, Buechner has always hovered over my memory of the last of my first Christian years like a shadowy spirit fleeing the scene.

If he had stayed, instead of moving to Vermont and a full-time writing career, things might have been different. Within two years, under a new principal and new minister, Exeter dropped its religion requirement, and I stopped going to church entirely. For forty years.

I was reminded of Buechner periodically in after times because my mother adored his writing—novels, essays, memoirs, collected sermons—and never stopped telling me so. Until today, I had never read a single book by him, because after all, he had deserted me and what did Mom know?

I should have paid more attention to my mother. 

Maybe I expected Buechner to be another Marcus Borg, refrying the cold beans of the Protestant Reformation one more time and adding his eccentric spices. I picked up his memoir Telling Secrets because a friend who knew I was writing a memoir involving secrets thought I might find it edifying.

I do.

Early on in Telling Secrets, I was preparing to be completely annoyed with Buechner. For long stretches, he writes like a minister who can’t stop sermonizing. His prose is beautiful—too beautiful to make you think he ever really hurt over the secrets he claims he held onto for too long.

But the book is constructed cleverly like a descending spiral. Early on, he gives up one of his two big secrets (his father’s suicide) and then quickly enough the other (his daughter’s anorexia). Then after passing on to other matters, which include his troubed/troubling mother, he returns to the pair of secrets again, digging deeper now and beginning to link them. Then again he moves on, and this is precisely where Buechner finally really grabbed me, during this second detour.

Here he writes of teaching a guest course at Harvard Divinity School and then, some time later, a course at the Midwestern Evangelical college named Wheaton, west of Chicago. In a nutshell, he gives Wheaton a suprised thumbs-up and HDS a raspberry. It is the 1980s, and there are a surprising number of “humanist atheists” studying divinity in Cambridge, not to mention a pack of unforgiving feminists. Buechner finds that Harvard in the 80s is nothing like Union Theological Seminary in the 50s, where he studied and professors prayed to begin each class. Now his Harvard students mock him for praying.

Then, before spiraling back to father and mother and daughter one last time, Buechner makes a final jolting detour to a twelve-step program. “I believe,” he writes, “that what goes on in [twelve-step groups] is far closer to what Christ meant his church to be, and what it originally was, than much of what goes on in most churches I know. . . . I have found more spiritual nourishment and strength and understanding among [members of Alanon, in his case] than I have found anywhere else for a long time.”

The phrase most of the churches I know led me to wonder what Buechner thinks of Catholicism, but Catholic is a word he never uses. 

Still, there are enough beautiful and moving thoughts in this short (106-page) book to repay the attentive reader of any faith. I have added Buechner’s novel Brendan, about the sixth-century Irish monk and voyager, to my Goodreads list, and will thank my mother for the tip the next time I talk with her.

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