The Rector’s Digest 2022:04
28 October 2022
Sts. Simon & Jude
My father died on the Feast of the Epiphany 2015. He’d been in a veterans’ retirement home in Kosciusko, Mississippi, for some time — suffering from dementia and a body broken down by more than half a century on his feet behind his small-town pharmacist’s counter. I’d actually had the honor of giving my dad the Last Rites just a few hours before (what his Protestant evangelical mind would’ve made of that, this Anglo-catholic cleric has no idea! But it was incredibly meaningful to me), and news he had died came via an early-morning phone call to my mom and me.
The rest of the hours of that day are lost to me, somewhere in the mists of time. But I do remember one particular moment. It occurred to me that morning that I’d probably need to say something at dad’s funeral, and these lines sprang to mind almost immediately:
My father was sitting by the fire. He did not rise. He only raised one hand, then spoke the only word of all the words he ever spoke to me that I remember still as his.
“You’ll have your way,” he said, and to this day that word he spoke and that raised hand are stitched together in my mind.
I believe my way went from that hand as a path goes from a door, and though many a mile that way has led me since, with many a turn and cross-road in between, if ever I should trace it back, it’s to my father’s hand that it would lead.Frederick Buechner, Godric (New York: Harper & Row, 1980): 23.
Those words are Frederick Buechner’s — they’re the blessing Aedlward gives his son Godric as he leaves home in Beuchner’s novel of the son’s name, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. And I was drawn to those words from Godric again in the wake Beuchner’s own death on a different feast, the Assumption, this past August.
I’ve spent a lifetime collecting fathers, it seems, and I suppose Frederick Buechner could count as one of them, if only of the literary sort. My wife says it’s because I was adopted that I’m always in the market for fathers, for roots — why I fell in love with Boston because it’s where the history comes from, with Notre Dame for the tradition, and with the church catholic for Vincent of Lérins’ ubique, semper, et ab omnibus (his assertion that it holds that faith “which has been believed everywhere, always, by all”). And my time in that church has been a boon to my father-lust, presenting me with mentors to emulate, confessors to confide in, spiritual fathers (and more than a few mothers) to follow.
I think what I loved about Buechner was the simple way he wrote. Always seemed like how a father should talk. His counsel to listen to the cock’s crow and the carpenters’ conversation, the tick-tock of the wall clock and the grumble of my stomach: “At the very least they mean this: mean listen. Your life is happening. You are happening.” (From his memoir’s first volume, The Sacred Journey). Or the way he taught me to pay attention to the mundanity of life: “Morning, afternoon, evening — the hours of the day, of any day, of your day and my day. The alphabet of grace. If there is a God who speaks anywhere, surely he speaks here: through waking up and working, through going away and coming back again, through people you read and books you meet, through falling asleep in the dark.” The mundane just is where the good/God stuff is. From the first book I read of Buechner’s, his evocative retelling of the Jacob saga, The Son of Laughter, I’ve felt different, thought different, seen God different. He wrote:
He blessed me as I had asked him. I do not remember the words of his blessing or even if there were words. I remember the blessing of his arms holding me and the blessing of his arms letting me go. I remember as blessing the black shape of him against the rose-colored sky.
I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face. It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or of terror. It was the face of light. No words can tell of it. Silence cannot tell of it. Sometimes I cannot believe that I saw it and lived but that I only dreamed I saw it. Sometimes I believe I saw it and that I only dream I live.Frederick Buechner, The Son of Laughter (New York: HarperCollins, 1993): 161.
Now that was the kind of God I wanted to believe in. Felt like it could be a father’s God.
My father’s God.
I’m a Christian today because of fathers, my own adoptive one and the many figurative ones I’ve collected. And I hope my kids will be Christians, at least in part because I’m their father. I used to want that because it felt like their faith was a referendum on the validity of my own, but after reading Buechner I believe that less now. Now I want them to believe because it’s true, not just because it’s what I believe. The God Buechner’s Jacob saw by the Jabbok can surely bring my children in and plant them on the mount of his possession in his own good time and according to his good pleasure.
I miss my dad. I hope he and Frederick Buechner meet in heaven somehow. And I’ll miss imagining Buechner is still up at his house in New England where I could conceivably just drive up some day and ring the bell. We’d have coffee or maybe whiskey. I’d look at his shelves, smell the air of his library. Wonder what it would’ve been like to be him, or to have been his son. In the fading afternoon light, I’d be grateful. And I’d say a prayer for all my fathers.
For more on Buechner:
- Alan Jacobs’ remembrance: https://blog.ayjay.org/remembering-fred-buechner/?utm_source=ayjay&utm_medium=email
- Julie Mullins’s review of Buechner’s work in Image Journal
- James K.A. Smith’s discovery of the friendship between James Merrill and “Freddy” in Image 109.
- Listen to Buechner’s 1992 presentation at Calvin University’s Festival for Faith and Writing.
What I’m up to now that autumn’s coming to New York —
- Listening: Not so much what I’m listening to currently as what I’ll be listening to as soon as I get it for Christmas — the deluxe remaster of John Mellencamp’s 1985 classic Scarecrow. Nothing reminds me quite so much of high school for some reason as this record does (well, except for AC/DC, but I probably won’t be spinning “Thunderstruck” on the rectory turntable any time soon).
- Reading: I’m just over halfway through 100 Days of Dante, the world’s largest Dante reading group. Every day I read a canto from the 14th century poet’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, then listen to a short lecture about it on YouTube. It’s amazing! The best part is discovering Dorothy Sayers’ 3-volume translation, which is exquisite (here‘s a nice review). “Our souls demand Purgatory,” C.S. Lewis wrote his friend Malcolm, and slowly but inexorably this poem is changing my life. Can’t recommend it highly enough.
- Watching: Renee and I said goodbye to another old friend — Shetland‘s D.I. Jimmy Perez. Can’t remember how I first found this series seven season ago, but I fell in love with Douglas Henshall’s character from Ann Cleeves’ novels (Vera is another nice series based on Cleeves’ books). Maybe because we live in insanely busy Times Square, I fantasize about what it’d be like to move to a remote subarctic archipelago in Scotland (R assures me, “You’ll be lonely”). The stories are well-written, but for me the scenery is the thing.
- Practicing: Lectio divina. I’ve been setting aside time every day for this contemplative practice of “divine reading,” usually first thing in the morning right after praying Morning Prayer downstairs in the chancel. There’s a million books and websites to tell you how to do it, so if you’re looking for a discipline to try on for size during Advent, maybe lectio is your thing.
- Smelling: Doubt this’ll become a recurring category, but when you’re at a place nicknamed “Smoky Mary’s,” it’s hard to get away from all the incense. And who’d ever want to?! If you’re in the market, we sell our brand on the website.
Thanks for reading — and enjoy the candy corn!