C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner never met, yet they are “friends” because they share so many similarities as authors writing from a Christian perspective. In terms of Buechner’s themes and range of his writings, this award winning American author and ordained Presbyterian minister may have as much in common with C.S. Lewis as his own British Inklings. So let me introduce Frederick Buechner and his writings.
Do you read primarily to relax and allow your imagination to soar? Or, do you normally select “useful” books, with the potential to be applicable to meeting the challenges of real life?
During my college years, I enjoyed scifi and fantasy. I still have a weak spot for alternative histories. But my seminary years had a subtle effect on my reading. With time always at a premium as a young pastor with a family, I had so many practical, pastoral books and journals to study, that I seldom had time for something so frivolous as “fiction.” Fortunately, semi-retirement has released me from that restrictive literary diet.
I’ve finally found some time to unpack a few of the boxes of books sitting in my garage. (The fact we moved them into the garage around 2010 would be embarrassing if it got out, so I ought not to mention it here.)
As one would expect, I’ve encountered many pleasant surprises. A number of books I had been missing have turned up, I’ve found some that are even more timely today than when they were stored, and—best of all in the minds of my adult children—I’ve been able to part with about two-thirds of the titles, and recently donated about 150 volumes to a local charity.
One of the titles I am currently reading is Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets. I had picked up a copy when it was highly recommended to me, only to discover it was a memoir. Being a “practical pastor” who always had too many utilitarian books to read, I set it aside . . . only to pick it up twenty years later.
And what a joyous surprise it has been. Buechner is in his nineties, and is widely respected. He has been a prolific writer, and has received numerous awards for his fictional works. Readers, particularly from the Reformed branch of Christianity have been especially fervent fans of the Presbyterian pastor and theologian. My friend, Brenton Dickieson is quite fond of Buechner and has written about him in A Pilgrim in Narnia on several occasions. He notes that Buechner quotes a number of the Inklings, including Tolkien, Williams and Lewis.
I vaguely recall the Lewis connection being one reason my fellow Air Force chaplain recommended Telling Secrets to me. But I had forgotten that the first section is entitled “The Dwarves in the Stable.” This is, of course, an allusion to an extremely momentous scene in The Final Battle, the final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia. It was originally published as an independent essay, as this entertaining post points out.
Buechner shares a dark family secret, the consequences of his father’s suicide in 1936. Listen to how movingly he describes the secret’s power:
His suicide was a secret we nonetheless tried to keep as best we could, and after a while my father himself became such a secret. There were times when he almost seemed a secret we were trying to keep from each other.
Buechner moves on to relate the suffering the family experienced during his daughter’s battle with anorexia. He shares few details, since “it is not mine to tell but hers.” Nevertheless, he describes setbacks in the struggle causing him to feel as though he “was in hell.”
I choose the term hell with some care. Hell is where there is no light but only darkness, and I was so caught up in my fear for her life, which had become in a way my life too, that none of the usual sources of light worked any more, and light was what I was starving for. . . .
I remained so locked inside myself that I was not really present with them at all. Toward the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle there is a scene where a group of dwarves sit huddled together in a tight little knot thinking that they are in a pitch black, malodorous stable when the truth of it is that they are out in the midst of an endless grassy countryside as green as Vermont with the sun shining and blue sky overhead.
The huge golden lion, Aslan himself, stands nearby with all the other dwarves “kneeling in a circle around his forepaws” as Lewis writes, “and burying their hands and faces in his mane as he stooped his great head to touch them with his tongue.” When Aslan offers the dwarves food, they think it is offal.
When he offers them wine, they take it for ditch water. “Perfect love casteth out fear,” John writes (1 John 4:18), and the other side of that is that fear like mine casteth out love, even God’s love. The love I had for my daughter was lost in the anxiety I had for my daughter.
This is just a single example of the sensitive wisdom Buechner shares throughout this grace-filled work.
After I finish Telling Secrets, I look forward to reading two of Buechner’s novels already on my shelf, Godric and Brendan. They are both historical fiction, telling the stories of two sainted monks from the twelfth and sixth centuries respectively.
I encourage any of you unfamiliar with his writings to explore his work. If an autobiography can be this good, I’m eager to take a journey through what I have no doubt will be quite an adventure in his fiction.
Buechner possesses an additional connection to C.S. Lewis, which has the potential to last centuries. He describes his decision to offer his personal papers to Wheaton College, where they are available in the archives. The theologian describes his decision in this humble manner.
Wheaton College [has] a great collection there of the manuscripts and papers of people like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and the like, and because I could think of no more distinguished company than theirs among whom to have my own literary remains molder, a year earlier I had offered them everything I had stowed away over the years in cardboard boxes and scrapbooks and manila folders; and to my delight they said that they would be delighted to have it.
If you would enjoy learning more about the relationship between Buechner and the Inklings, check out this fine article; “C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner: Literary Expression of Faith” is available for download. It’s quite enlightening.
The second chapter of Telling Secrets is entitled “The White Tower.” Many Inkling fans will jump to the conclusion (especially after reading this post) that it is a reference to the citadel of Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor. Like me, they would be incorrect.
Buechner is not alluding here to Tolkien’s masterpiece. On the contrary, he is referring to the central tower which was the old keep of the Tower of London. Ironically, that very keep, the White Tower, was built by a Norman monk who became the Bishop of Rochester. His name . . . Gundulf.
Buechner chose this metaphor for the human condition for the following reason.
I think here of the Tower of London. More particularly I think of that oldest part of it, known as the White Tower, which was built by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. On the second floor of it there is a small Norman chapel called the Chapel of Saint John. It is very bare and very simple. It is built all of stone with twelve stone pillars and a vaulted ceiling.
There is a cool, silvery light that comes in through the arched windows. . . . The chapel is very silent, very still. It is almost a thousand years old. You cannot enter it without being struck by the feeling of purity and peace it gives. If there is any such thing in the world, it is a holy place.
But that is not all there is in the White Tower. Directly below the chapel is the most terrible of all the tower’s dungeons. It has a heavy oak door that locks out all light and ventilation. It measures only four feet square by four feet high so that a prisoner has no way either to stand upright in it or to lie down at full length. There is almost no air to breathe in it, almost no room to move. It is known as the Little Ease.
I am the White Tower of course. To one degree or another all of us are.