Now and Then

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Now and Then picks up where the first installment of Frederick Buechner’s autobiography (The Sacred Journey, 1982) left off. Novelist, informal theologian, ordained Presbyterian minister and teacher, Buechner continues an unusual and rich account of a lifetime of seeking and being sought by God, and of finding Him in strange places.

These two memoirs are unusual, in part, because of what they leave out. Buechner performs the rites of self-deprecation, which a pseudoegalitarian age demands from those who dwell on themselves. (In the nineteenth century, Henry Thoreau could simply say that he wrote about himself because that was the subject he knew best.) Buechner gives very short shrift to the usual staples of autobiography—famous people met, great enterprises engaged in, and honors won. Encounters with the likes of the United States ambassador to Great Britain, Princess Margaret, and Alice B. Toklas—while not major enough to bear much weight, are disposed of even hastily so that Buechner can get on to describing intersections with the lives of “insignificant” people—experiences which, in retrospect, reveal the hidden shape of his life.

Indeed, Buechner’s self-deprecation is no mere pose; it points to the heart of the message of these two books, a message that he sums up in a command and a revelation: “Listen to your life” and “life itself is grace.” He is genuinely amazed that a backward look at his seemingly chaotic and wandering life reveals meaning, pattern, and purpose. He follows the general movement of modern literature (and psychology) in finding meaning not primarily in the big events (honors earned, books published, battles won) but in the chance encounters, the seeming failure, the moment unattended.

This way of seeing life is summed up in a statement in The New Being (1955) by Paul Tillich, one of Buechner’s teachers at Union Theological Seminary, which provides the epigraph for the book and its title:We only want to show you something we have seen and to tell you something we have heard . . . that here and there in the world and now and then in ourselves is a New Creation.

Behind the first half of Tillich’s statement lies the impulse for all autobiography, for all writing, perhaps for all attempts to communicate. Human beings feel compelled to give report—both to others and to themselves—and, in reporting, to understand. As Buechner claims, “The past is the place we view the present from as much as the other way around. . . .” Each is necessary to make sense of the other.

For Buechner, what the past teaches is found in the second half of Tillich’s statement—human beings are constantly in the process of being made; even more, of being redeemed. Buechner’s belief in a benevolent God Who personally works in human history and individual lives to accomplish, often mysteriously and undetected, His ultimate ends is the animating principle of this book, perhaps of all that Buechner writes. It is important to distinguish, however, between Buechner’s vision and more saccharine versions of this ultimate religious hope. “Here and there” and “now and then” are appropriately indeterminate. Buechner makes no claim of a constant basking in the warmth and leading of God. Hardly ever did he see, during the...

(The entire section is 1364 words.)