Secrets in the Dark Summary
A Life in Sermons, the subtitle of Frederick Buechner’s collection Secrets in the Dark, is not strictly accurate. To begin with, not all the pieces collected in it are sermons. Some of the pieces were originally given as talks, such as “Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain,” delivered at St. Paul’s School; “The Newness of Things,” given at the installation of Buechner’s friend Douglas Hale as headmaster at Mercersburg Academy; and “Faith and Fiction,” given at the New York Public Library. Some are essays: “The Good Book as a Good Book,” which appeared in A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (1993), edited by Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman, is on the relationship of fiction and religion; and “Paul Sends His Love,” which first appeared in Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament (1991), edited by Alfred Corn, is on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. However, the rest of the collection consists of sermons delivered over the course of Buechner’s life, ranging from those he delivered at Philips Exeter Academy beginning in 1959 (“The Magnificent Defeat”) to one given at Princeton University’s anniversary celebration, “A 250th Birthday Prayer.” Many of them have appeared in earlier Buechner collections—The Magnificent Defeat (1966), The Hungering Dark (1969), A Room Called Remember (1984), The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction (1991), The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections (1996)—and their republication here indicates that Buechner considers them to be his best work in this genre. Also included are a few sermons that have not been published before.
Also, while many of these sermons contain autobiographical elements, they do not form a quasi-autobiography; they are more the sermons of a lifetime than a life in sermons. The portrait that they paint of Buechner’s life, aside from the richness given to observations that result from his life as a parent and his career as a writer, is a remarkably consistent one. Like many reflective minds, Buechner’s is always open to the possibility of revelation and epiphany, but the pilgrimage charted throughout these sermons is grounded in a few basic concepts that Buechner returns to again and again. The first sermons in this collection were delivered to a group of students who were resolutely resistant to any religious message, and this sense of preaching to the unwilling underlies many of Buechner’s messages. His ministerial vocation is indeed a calling: he calls his listeners to come with him on a search for God and Jesus in their lives, on a journey to what he sees as their true home.
One must remember, however, that most of these pieces are sermons, not essays, and were written to be delivered and heard, not read. As such, they have a particular structure: title; introductory text(s), the vast majority of which are from the Bible; the sermon itself; and a concluding prayer in italics (although the italics soon disappear, and the conclusion transforms itself into the substance of a prayer). Because they are sermons, and Buechner is a novelist, the sermons’ organizational pattern is often more associational than logical; in a way, the movement of thought toward the central kernel of the message within reproduces the pattern of the journey the soul takes toward faith. For example, “A Room Called Remember,” one of the early sermons, begins with quotations from the Old Testament (from Chronicles about David’s worship of God before the ark) and the New (Jesus’ words on the cross to the good thief). Buechner begins by talking about dreams in general and how they sometimes reveal a profound truth about the dreamer, then recalls one such dream in which he tries to return to a hotel room where he was extraordinarily happy: The name of the room is Remember. Buechner then goes on to discuss different types of remembrance; the type of remembrance he thinks the room stands for is the type in which we remember our...
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