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The Sacred Journey is a narrative of Frederick Buechner’s first twenty-seven years of life, interspersed with the insights he gained from remembering and telling the story.

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The book begins with an introduction and then is divided into three parts: “Once Below a Time,” which describes his life until he was ten, up to the day his father killed himself; “Once upon a Time,” the account of his years from ten to seventeen, when he was graduated from preparatory school; and “Beyond Time,” which tells of the next ten years until he started theological seminary. The whole book is 112 pages long, with approximately thirty-five pages given to each main part.

The contents of the book are stories of those events that had the greatest impact on the spiritual development of the author. The story is striking because the end result was so unlikely. Buechner was born into a family that had nothing to do with Christianity, and he enjoyed very little church influence in his formative years. In addition, he had to endure the devastating losses of his father and uncle to suicide, raising the fear that he too would be touched by that plague. Those events could easily have led him to believe that life is meaningless at best, or evil at worst, but instead he came to believe that life is the gift of a good Creator. As an adult, he became a Presbyterian minister and a writer of lucid, accessible theological books.

Focusing as he does on his spiritual life, his sacred journey, Buechner leaves out much that he could have included. In the sequel to The Sacred Journey, titled Now and Then (1983), he notes that in the earlier book he had left out everything that had to do with sex, money, travel, health and films, all of which were of great importance to him. In addition, he pays almost no attention to the public events of the world around him. He describes formative events (such as his father’s death and the family’s move to Bermuda), the most important people (especially his grandmothers), and the characters in books who profoundly influenced his imagination. The most important stories for him were those in which he was touched by the mystery from beyond that he did not know how to name during most of the period this book covers.

The central theme of the book is that God continually guides and speaks to human beings, but does so through their daily experiences, both good and bad. Buechner shows how he was drawn to Christ by events that he did not recognize at the time to be manifestations of the presence and guidance of God. Thus, his purpose in writing is not only to illuminate his sacred journey but to encourage others to see their own lives as such a journey. He invites readers to remember their own past and try to discern the ways in which God has been speaking to them through it.

The reader Buechner addresses is the literate adult interested in spiritual matters. He does not assume that his readers are Christians, nor that they know much about the Christian viewpoint. Instead, he writes in language that is free from theological jargon, focusing on human experience in general, so that all sensitive readers can identify with the story and find parallels in their own lives.

The tone of the book is confessional, not self-laudatory. Buechner is one of the foremost American religious writers, so the book could have been a celebration of success, but instead it is a celebration of the gift of God’s coming. Constantly the author stresses his own weaknesses and failures while pointing to the grace of God at work in hidden ways that only became apparent in hindsight.

The Sacred Journey

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1799

Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister, is a writer with two more or less distinct readerships. Readers of The New York Times Book Review know him best as a novelist. Of Buechner’s ten novels, only his first, A Long Day’s Dying (1950), published when he was twenty-three, has achieved great commercial success, but he has won critical esteem and a small, loyal following with novels such as The Entrance to Porlock (1969), Lion Country (1971; later collected in The Book of Bebb, 1979), and, most recently, Godric (1980). As a writer of what might be called popular theology, Buechner has a much larger readership. His works in this genre—certainly among the best of their kind—range from the meditative tone of The Hungering Dark (1969) and The Alphabet of Grace (1970) to the broad humor of Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (1979).

Readers from both camps should be attracted to The Sacred Journey and thereby encouraged to discover the “other” Buechner. The Sacred Journey, the first volume of an unusual autobiography, takes Buechner up to his late twenties and his decision to attend Union Theological Seminary; the second volume, Now and Then, which brings him up to the early 1980’s, was published in 1983.

The forms of autobiography are as diverse as the men and women who write them, yet Buechner’s project can justly be called “unusual” in two significant ways. The Sacred Journey and its sequel are unusual primarily for what they choose to omit. Both books are very slim volumes of little more than one hundred pages. Buechner himself, looking back at The Sacred Journey in the introduction to Now and Then, summarizes his omissions: “I left out pretty much the whole dimension of my life that had to do with matters like sex, money, travel, health. . . .” What he has left out, in fact, is much of the stuff of life which one expects to find in an autobiography. Yet more surprising is Buechner’s principle of inclusion, as he explained in an interview in Publishers Weekly:It’s an odd thing, to write your autobiography. It seems egotistical. But I really do believe that every life is a sacred journey, and I wanted to write about mine—and the discovery of God I had made in it—in such a way as to persuade people to look at their own lives.

In one sense, there is nothing unusual about an autobiography centered on a coming to Christ; indeed, probably more autobiographies have been devoted to this theme than to any other, and they continue to appear each year. Such books, however, whatever their devotional value, are generally not literature. For a writer of Buechner’s repute—a serious modern novelist—to shape his autobiography around a conversion to Christ: that is most unusual. Very few contemporary Christian writers—themselves a distinct minority in the modern pantheon—have attempted such a project. It is striking to observe how Christian writers as diverse as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Flannery O’Connor, even when writing under the cover of fiction, choose not to depict their own positive experience of faith.

Perhaps the serious Christian writer, fully aware of the pervasive doubt and skepticism that characterize modern literature—a doubt which he has surely experienced himself—is too self-conscious to make a statement of his faith, fearful that his conviction will be mistaken for arrogance, his hope dismissed as evidence of an insufficient acquaintance with harsh reality. Above all, perhaps, he is reluctant to appear to be claiming a holiness which he does not in fact possess. While even Buechner is not exempt from such self-consciousness, his great achievement in this autobiography is to have brought all of his craftsmanship as a writer to bear on an explicit account of a Christian life, a life described in Christian terms. As such, The Sacred Journey and Now and Then will be of great interest both to Christian and to non-Christian readers, joining a select company of similar books headed by C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy (1955).

The metaphor of life as a journey is as old as literature itself. A journey is purposeful: one is traveling to a destination. The characteristic modern attitude toward this metaphor is summed up in titles such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932; Journey to the End of Night, 1934) and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956); one is merely traveling to the grave. Samuel Beckett’s Comment c’est (1961; How It Is, 1964), in which the narrator, in a savage parody of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684) crawls endlessly through the mud, takes this attitude to its ultimate conclusion. However bleak their outlook, such writers at least confront life’s ultimate questions instead of holding them at arm’s length with irony or merely plunging into a whirl of distractions. What is the meaning of an individual life story, and of the life story of the human race? These are the same questions which Buechner addresses in The Sacred Journey, but his answers differ from those of Céline, O’Neill, and Beckett. “Deep within history,” he says,as it gets itself written down in history books and newspapers, in the letters we write and the diaries we keep, is sacred history, is God’s purpose working itself out in the apparent purposelessness of human history and of our separate histories, is the history, in short, of the saving and losing of souls, including our own.

The Sacred Journey is divided into three sections. The first, “Once Below a Time,” takes its title, from Dylan Thomas’ poem “Fern Hill.” For the child, time—measurable time—scarcely exists, as Buechner explains, “All time is by and large now time and apparently endless.” This rich evocation of childhood is largely given to sketches of Buechner’s two quite different grandmothers. Grandmother Buechner was a formidable figure: rich (“holder of the purse strings”), strong, impatient with the weaknesses of others, yet a “worrier” who listened in the falling dusk to the music of Richard Wagner, she “spoke her mind with a terrible honesty. . . .” Naya, Buechner’s other grandmother, to whom he would dedicate his first novel, “was as different from Grandma Buechner as a lamp to read by is different from the twilight of the gods.” There are memories of his father, too (though little about his mother)—memories of happy times together against the background of the father’s stressful moves from one job to another during the Depression years—and wonderful recollections of childhood reading—especially of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books: “Like a house in the rain, books were havens of permanence and protection” amid the endless moves from place to place, from house to house.

In the second section, “Once Upon a Time,” Buechner is introduced to the adult world of irrevocable loss. The title is ironic: its pleasant, fairy-tale connotation plays against the reality with which the section begins: the suicide of Buechner’s father. Because The Sacred Journey is so restrained, so lacking in confessional intimacies, this episode stands out with special poignancy. Of only about four pages, not at all a long scene, it is still the longest continuous narrative in the book, and so it stands out for that reason as well. “On a Saturday in late fall,” he begins, “my brother and I woke up around sunrise.” While Buechner and his brother played with a roulette wheel—spread out on one of their beds with all the trappings—their father, who was to take them to a football game later that day, looked in on them briefly. Not long after, he was dead of asphyxiation. Buechner’s father had written a note, not discovered for several days, on the last page of Gone with the Wind, which had been published that year; addressed to Buechner’s mother, it said: “I adore and love you, and am no good. . . . Give Freddy my watch. Give Jamie my pearl pin. I give you all my love.”

To escape, Buechner’s mother—despite Grandmother Buechner’s disapproval, but with her financial support—took her sons to Bermuda, in Buechner’s account a virtual paradise into which cars and other features of contemporary life had yet to intrude. They spent two therapeutic years there, with a winter in New York in between, and it was in Bermuda that Buechner experienced his first love—a shy, unspoken, innocent, yet passionate longing for a girl his age, twelve going on thirteen. Both in his account of Bermuda and of this first love—so easily dismissed, he says, in so many ways—he suggests the “hungering, heart-breaking love for the beauty of this world” that can lead men to “the beauty of Beauty itself, or Being itself and what lies at the heart of Being.”

From Bermuda, the Buechners moved to North Carolina to live with Naya and her husband, and from there in due time Buechner went away to school, to Lawrenceville in New Jersey. There, where one of his classmates and best friends was the future poet James Merrill, he began to mature and he formed the ambition to be a writer.

The last section of The Sacred Journey, “Beyond Time,” tells of Buechner’s years at Princeton University, interrupted by his stint in the Army (after an incident during a simulated battle, he was disqualified for combat duty and spent his term doing clerical work in the United States). He describes the publication of his first novel, a surprise best-seller which made him a short-lived celebrity (photographs in Life, Time, and Newsweek) at twenty-three. He also tells of several years which he spent teaching at his old school, Lawrenceville; of a period of uncertainty which, in memory, has the look of farce (“the pilgrimage and the farce always go hand in hand because it is a divine comedy we are all of us involved in after all, not a divine dirge”); and of his eventual decision to attend Union Theological Seminary. Along the way there is no single dramatic moment which might be called a conversion. “To say that I was born again,” Buechner concludes, “to use that traditional phrase, is to say too much”—too much because he has remained all too preoccupied with himself, all too human—yetin another way to say that I was born again is to say too little because there have been more than a few moments since, times when from beyond time something too precious to tell has glinted in the dusk, always just out of reach, like fireflies.

Beautifully written yet never merely fine writing, heartfelt yet never taking itself too seriously, The Sacred Journey is one of Buechner’s finest books and one of the finest of its kind.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 118

Buechner, Frederick. Interview with J. F. Baker, in Publishers Weekly. CCXXI (February 12, 1982), pp. 32-34.

Buechner, Frederick. Interview with Shirley Nelson and Rudy Nelson, in Christianity and Literature. XXXII (Fall, 1982), pp. 9-14.

Buechner, Frederick. “Listening to My Life.” Interview with Kenneth L. Gibble, in The Christian Century. C (November 16, 1983), pp. 1042-1045.

Christian Century. XCIX, October 13, 1982, p. 1025.

Library Journal. CVII, March 15, 1982, p. 630.

Lischer, Richard. Review in The Christian Century. XCIX (October 13, 1982), p. 1025.

McCoy, Marjorie Casebier, and Charles S. McCoy. Frederick Buechner: Novelist/Theologian of the Lost and Found, 1988.

Price, Reynolds. “The Road to Devotion,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (April 11, 1982), pp. 12, 28-29.

Woelfel, James. “Frederick Buechner: The Novelist as Theologian,” in Theology Today. XV (October, 1983), pp. 273-291.

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