Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1446
Buechner’s central thesis in The Sacred Journey is that God speaks to individuals in their daily lives, through the events that strike home to them. He stresses that the meaning of those events is often mysterious, ambiguous, cryptic, when first they appear. Indeed, in his own life the steps on his sacred journey were usually unrecognized as such when they happened. Only later, upon reflection, seeing where he had finally arrived, did he understand that many small events were actually divinely guided turnings on the road that led finally to service to Christ. He wrote this book to present some of those events in his own life, hoping that the theological truth he had discovered would shine through to others. He hoped that when others saw how small events could have eternal importance, they would learn to look at their own lives in the same light. Therefore, the most appropriate way to suggest something of the substance of the book is to recount a few of the more striking incidents that the author presents.
During his first decade of life, the period called “Once Below a Time,” Buechner was sick for almost a year. At that time, he became an avid reader of the Oz books, especially loving one of the characters, King Rinkitink. This king was plump and somewhat foolish, given to bursting into tears, but had remarkable strength, resilience, and courage. Though he was vulnerable and silly in many ways, he was strong and wise in others, so that he always managed to overcome his troubles, riding away on the back of his goat, Bilbil. The greatest of the services Rinkitink offered to the young invalid Buechner was through advice he received from a magic white pearl. The pearl told the king that the world is filled with wonders, and Buechner found that to be great wisdom which remained with him throughout his life. In addition, the way Rinkitink succeeded in life prepared the young Buechner for the later wisdom of Saint Paul, who said that God chose those who are foolish, weak, and low as the agents by whom to redeem the world.
When his father committed suicide, Buechner’s childhood ended. With his mother and his brother, the ten-year-old boy left the United States to live in Bermuda. That beautiful island became his own Land of Oz. It was a place where the terrible past could be forgotten and a new life begun. The most memorable of the experiences the young boy had there took place just before he left, at the age of twelve. As he sat with a girl his own age on a wall beside the harbor, their bare knees happened to touch. The effect was to fill him with panic, anguish, and longing for he knew not what. Into his whole being swept a hungering love for the beauty of the universe, which he later came to realize was a hunger for Beauty itself, which lies at the heart of and behind the universe. For the first time in his life he was a giver of love, not simply a receiver, which made him reach out for Paradise, longing to find an ineffable something that he could not identify. Recognizing that he had been given a gift in this overwhelming longing, he wondered if there was a Giver behind it.
Such memorable moments became for Buechner the promptings of a crazy, holy grace. It is crazy because it is totally unexpected: Out of the longing and pain and joy of daily life, something arises that touches and moves and exalts one. It is holy because it comes from farther away than Oz and produces healing. Thus, these moments are stages on the sacred journey, one that is a search for whatever lies deeper than one can see. The human being searches for his true self, and for other selves to love, and for work, but even when those are found the journey has not been finished. Something is still missing, and the search for that unfound thing must continue.
In Buechner’s search during those adolescent years, Jesus began to enter in. One of his vivid memories is of a pastel drawing of the head of Jesus by Leonardo da Vinci. The face is tired, with eyes closed, looking like the face of a man to whom everything had happened. For some reason the picture moved him; it seemed to afford him an authentic glimpse of who Jesus really was and so remained alive in his memory.
Another gracious gift was given to him at Lawrenceville School, where he went in 1940. There he had an English teacher, Mr. Martin, who led him to see that words have power, that they can evoke much more than they mean, that they can make things happen by bringing characters and events to life. One day Mr. Martin gave him a perfect grade of 100 for a character sketch, a grade that was clearly a gift, and it had the effect of turning Buechner in the direction he went thereafter: He decided that he wanted to be a writer. Among the things he wrote were many poems which made references to Jesus. For some reason that the older Buechner could not identify, Jesus was present in those poems as He is surprisingly present in many other times and places and characters. For the young man of seventeen, the strange presence of Jesus was a sign of the Something he could not name, the haunting and mysterious spark of a reality mostly known by its absence.
Another ray of that divine light shone on Buechner in the army, on a cold wet evening as he sat in the mud. Hungry, he got a turnip from another soldier, a turnip covered with mud. Slowly eating the turnip, with mud still on it, he realized that both were good, that even the drizzle and the cold and the army were good. It seemed that the whole of the world was good, that the ultimate goodness and joy of things was such that if you ever really took them to heart you would have to rise up and praise someone for it. Who exactly to praise he was not sure, but the praise bubbled up and prepared him for the time when he would know.
After two years in the army, he returned to Princeton, where he concentrated on becoming a writer. He began his first novel and through that experience deepened his understanding of life. As he created a plot for his novel, he came to see that life itself may have a plot, that events that seem random can have a direction of their own. Instead of the story being aimless, it can be seen as the result of something secretly at work within one, leading one toward significance. The first line of his novel describes a man in a barber chair looking like a priest—a whisper of the direction in which Buechner was heading. That first novel was a best-seller, the one that made him famous. He saw it as a gift, an undeserved success, something that he needed to work hard to justify.
During those years immediately after college, one more whisper of the divine voice broke into what he calls his self-centered life, when a friend and fellow teacher cried out for help over the telephone. Buechner was at dinner with his mother at the time, and she was very upset at the thought of his leaving abruptly, voicing all the excuses that he had been preparing to make. Hearing them spoken openly, however, he realized that this selfishness was appalling. His friend’s voice came then to be the voice of God, calling him out of his comfortable world into the dangerous battle where Christ is found. He came to see that only by journeying for others does one really begin to come alive: a new turning on his sacred journey.
Finally, in 1953, he went to New York to become a writer and heard the preaching of George Buttrick, one of the foremost Presbyterian preachers in the country. One particular sermon lifted him to the skies, when Buttrick said that Jesus is crowned in the hearts of people in confession and tears and great laughter. The phrase “great laughter” so moved him that it brought this stage of his journey to an end. He stepped through the door that he realized had been open for him for some time. He discovered what he had been seeking most of his life: He found Christ, and heard a call to enter the ministry. The next fall, he entered Union Theological Seminary.
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