Frederick Buechner dies; novelist and prolific theologian was 96

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Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister who found his flock not in a church but among the readers of his books, dozens of works of fiction, non-fiction, memoirs and theology in which he sought to capture” the elusive presence of the holiness of God,” died Aug. 15 at his home in Rupert, Vermont. He was 96 years old.

He had a heart condition, said his son-in-law and literary executor, David Altshuler.

Mr. Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) was the author of nearly 40 books translated into more than two dozen languages. A master of many genres, he produced a small library of volumes including amusing novels about characters who are saints, sinners or both, historical fiction drawn from the lives of real Catholic saints, and more directly theological writings which have won him accolades. comparisons with CS Lewis. , the British author of the allegorical series “Chronicles of Narnia”.

Mr. Buechner’s novel “Godric” (1980), an account of the life of 12th-century English hermit Godric de Finchale, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. “Lion Country” (1971), the first installment in his tetralogy of novels centering on fictional pastor Leo Bebb, a seedy Southern preacher who ministers to the Church of Holy Love, Inc., was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Mr. Buechner laid out his vision of Christian theology in his widely acclaimed memoirs, including “The Sacred Journey” (1982), “Now and Then” (1983), “Telling Secrets” (1991) and “The Eyes of the Heart “. (1999). He candidly addressed the defining elements of his life, including his father’s suicide when Mr Buechner was 10 and the comforting presence of his grandmother, seeking spiritual meaning from his experiences in an effort to help readers to find a purpose for themselves.

“What I propose to do now is to try to listen to my life as a whole…for whatever meaning, holiness, God there may be in it to hear” , Mr. Buechner told The New York Times in 1982. “My hypothesis is that the story of each one of us is to some extent the story of all of us.

With his meditations on God, suffering and beauty in daily life, Mr. Buechner attracted a devoted readership who greeted each new book with the anticipation of a church congregation awaiting a sermon from a well-known minister. like.

“Digging into your books is like sitting next to a wise mentor, and who doesn’t want to spend time with a wise mentor?” James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor of Christian magazine America, said in an interview.

Mr. Buechner’s autobiographical works, Martin added, “can take their place among other great spiritual memoirs,” including Lewis’ “Surprised by Joy,” Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain,” and “The Long Loneliness.” by Dorothy Day.

“He was so good,” Martin said.

Carl Frederick Buechner Jr. was born in Manhattan on July 11, 1926. He does not remember any of his parents as particularly religious. Her mother was a former model. His father worked in the sale of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, a job that meant frequent moves for the family when Mr Buechner was a child.

“I guess it was never having lived in one house,” he once wrote, “that made the world so perilous and uncertain.”

During the Depression, Mr. Buechner’s father struggled desperately at his job. In 1936, after checking on Mr. Buechner and his younger brother while they were playing, he committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, leaving a note for Mr. Buechner’s mother on the last page of their copy of the novel by Margaret Mitchell “Gone With”. the wind.”

“I adore and love you,” he would say, “and I’m no good.”

Such details, which Mr. Buechner related in his memoirs, produced much of the power of his autobiographical writing.

“Spiritual autobiography in general has suffered from too much spirituality and too little biography (Augustine’s ‘Confessions’, for example, confesses far too little and preaches too much),” observed writer Reynolds Price in a Times review of “The Sacred Journey”. “It is Buechner’s great strength that he is so lucidly particular.”

After his father’s death, Mr. Buechner moved with his family to Bermuda, where they remained until World War II. Upon their return to the United States, Mr. Buechner enrolled at Lawrenceville Private School in New Jersey, graduating in 1943.

After serving in the United States Army, Mr. Buechner earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University in 1948. His first novel, “A Long Day’s Dying,” about a widowed mother and her son studying at university, was published in 1950 to wide acclaim.

“This debut novel by a 23-year-old is a remarkable work,” wrote critic David Daiches in The Times. “There is a civilized quality of perception, a sensitive and plastic handling of English prose and an ability to penetrate to the evanescent heart of a human situation, all of which proclaims a major talent.

Mr Buechner taught English at Lawrenceville School before becoming a lecturer at New York University in 1952. He was attending Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church when he found himself in the grip of sermons of pastor and theologian George Arthur Buttrick.

These sermons, he said, inspired him to enroll in Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he studied with theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. He graduated in 1958 and was ordained a Presbyterian minister the same year.

Mr. Buechner taught religion at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Among his students was John Irving, who years later, in the acknowledgments of his novel “A Prayer for Owen Meany”, would note Mr. Buechner’s great influence on his life.

In 1967, Mr. Buechner and his family moved to Vermont, where he focused full-time on his writing. He had been married since 1956 to Judith Merck, a daughter of George W. Merck, president and president of the pharmaceutical group Merck & Co.

Besides his wife, of Rupert, survivors include their three daughters, Katherine B. Arthaud of Charlotte, Vermont, Dinah Buechner-Vischer of Concord, Mass., and Sharman B. Altshuler of Cambridge, Mass.; and 10 grandchildren.

In addition to “Lion Country”, Mr. Beuchner’s Bebb Tetralogy included “Open Heart” (1972), “Love Feast” (1974) and “Treasure Hunt” (1977).

Just as he had examined the life of Godric de Finchale, Mr Buechner delivered a romantic treatment of the life of the ancient Irish saint Brendan the Navigator in ‘Brendan’ (1987). His novel “The Son of Laughter” (1993) is derived from the biblical story of Jacob.

Mr. Buechner continued to write non-fiction until several years before his death. His latest volumes included “The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life” and “A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory”, both published in 2017.

“Trust that if God is anywhere, God is here,” he told The Times in 2000, “which means there’s no telling where God may appear next – around what sudden turn way if you have your eyes and ears open, your mind on you, in what strange little moments, almost too insane to tell.

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