Frederick Buechner died today (August 15, 2022) at age 96. Christianity Today has covered his books extensively over the years, and published several profiles of the beloved writer. Our sister publication Books and Culture was also enthusiastic; among its many reviews and pieces on Buechner was this 1997 profile by Philip Yancey.
Frederick Buechner has met Christians who remind him of American tourists in Europe: Not knowing the language of their listeners, they speak the language of Zion loudly and forcefully, hoping the natives will somehow comprehend. They seem cocky with faith, voluble with their theology, and content with a God who resembles a cosmic Good Buddy. Their certitude both fascinates and alarms him. “I was astonished to hear students at one Christian college shift casually from small talk about the weather and movies to a discussion of what God was doing in their lives. If anybody said anything like that in my part of the world, the ceiling would fall in, the house would catch fire, and people’s eyes would roll up in their heads.”
Buechner himself has gained a reputation as a writer who speaks of his faith in more muted tones. Apart from a few childhood encounters, he hardly gave church a thought until he wandered into one in Manhattan as a young novelist whose star had flared brightly but briefly on the New York literary scene.
For him, faith was a pilgrimage undertaken voluntarily as an adult, a journey fraught with risk. Buechner’s chronicles of that journey have, almost uniquely among modern writings, managed to attract readers from two polarized worlds, the Eastern elite and conservative evangelicals. His work divides evenly between fiction (14 books) and nonfiction (13 books), and Buechner notes that the two genres roughly fit his contrasting audiences: the fiction speaks to the “cultured despisers” of religion while his nonfiction, more overt, finds its primary audience among those already committed to the faith.
This straddling feat has cost him and is, in fact, the central ambiguity of his career. “I am too religious for the secular reader and too secular for the religious reader,” Buechner often laments. Secular reviewers, noting him to be an ordained Presbyterian minister, sometimes prejudge his work. (Buechner has admitted that seeking ordination was probably the stupidest move he could have made for his writing career.)
On the other hand, conservative Christian readers wonder why the Christian message in Buechner’s novels remains so subtle, and why he insists on portraying characters as, well, human, complete with sexual urges and a disturbing penchant for sin. Buechner responds that he writes of people with feet of clay because they are the only kind of people he has met, including himself.
Writers, like farmers and fishermen, tend to dwell on the discouraging aspects of their work. Buechner has not made a breakthrough in sales on the level of, say, Scott Peck or Thomas Moore. He sinks into instant depression when he visits a “Book Superstore” that contains not a single copy of his 27 books. He winces when he reads in the New York Times a reviewer’s comment describing him as someone “whom I wrongly did not read because I thought he was a propagandist.” And he tires of answering the letters from seminary students asking why he felt it necessary to include the scene of incest in Godric, or why he made the hero-evangelist of his Bebb novels a sexual exhibitionist. Furthermore, Buechner objects to the label “Christian novelist” often slapped on him, insisting it only applies in the sense it would apply if a physicist wrote a novel: Of course the author’s outlook would suffuse the novel, and its content may well touch the field of physics, but that would hardly make it a “physics novel” any more than a novel written by a woman necessarily makes it a “women’s novel.”
Yet, in more ways than he is prone to admit, Buechner has indeed succeeded in straddling two worlds. He has maintained close friendships with the great poet (now deceased) James Merrill and with novelist John Irving, who acknowledged his debt to Buechner in the preface to A Prayer for Owen Meany. He gives readings at the New York Public Library. Godric was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. At the same time, Buechner’s books have become fixtures on the bookshelves of ministers, college professors, and literate Christians spanning a wide spectrum of theology. The sales of his major titles have passed the hallmark 100,000 figure, and they tend to stay in print for the long term.
I first met Buechner in 1979, about the time he decided to send his correspondence and original manuscripts to Wheaton College to repose in the college’s Wade Collection alongside papers from C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers. Buechner knew almost nothing about the school—in our phone conversations he kept calling it “Wheatland College”—but his alma mater, Princeton, had shown little interest while the folks at the Wade Collection had been warm and solicitous. After he had traveled to Wheaton, met evangelicals, and toured the campus, I asked him what he thought of his decision. “Well, it seems a good place for my literary remains to molder,” he said. “A safe place, where at least they will rest in very distinguished company.”
Frederick Buechner and evangelicals have gotten much better acquainted in the last two decades. I have a hunch, in fact, that Buechner has become the most quoted living writer among Christians of influence. Appreciation of his craft continues to grow—who else gets equally laudatory reviews in Christianity Today and the Christian Century? Buechner stumbled on a most appropriate resting place for his papers among the luminaries at Wheaton’s Wade Collection.
If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
—Now and Then
“Literature deals with the ordinary,” said James Joyce; “the unusual and extraordinary belong to journalism.” By that definition, Buechner’s work fits the category of literature. For him writing is a form of self-discovery, a “conscious remembering,” as he once called it. He writes not about Rwanda or the crisis of postmodernism, rather about a faint memory of his grandmother Naya, or about the old mill down the road, or about two apple tree limbs clacking together in the backyard. His style harks back to the Middle Ages, to writers who sat in cells all day, gazing inward and exploring the soul’s inner depths. Buechner at least walks outdoors, strikes up conversations, has a family to worry over, and takes an occasional trip. From this raw material he forges memoirs-in-process. Unlike traditional memoirs, the reader has no idea where the words are going and sometimes gets the sense that neither does Buechner. He acts more as an observer who peers out on the world-sometimes bemused, sometimes bewildered, always surprised-rather than as a stage manager who manipulates props to fit his first-person point of view.
In his recent volume The Longing for Home, Buechner draws a contrast between “the news of the day” reported on television each night—wars, homelessness, and other big issues—and the news of the day that goes on in our private worlds.
Some of the things that happen in them are so small that we hardly notice them, and some of them shake the very ground beneath our feet, but whether they are great or small, they make up the day-by-day story of who we are and of what we are doing with our lives and what our lives are doing to us. Their news is the news of what we are becoming or failing to become.
Buechner recommends reviewing this more intimate news during the nightly interval when you first turn out the light and lie in the dark waiting for sleep to come. That is when the events of the day—an unanswered letter, a phone conversation, a tone of voice, a chance meeting at the post office, an unexpected lump in the throat—hint at other, subterranean meanings. In these most humdrum events God speaks, and Buechner demonstrates through his writing how to listen.
The same discipline of listening, Buechner claims, also drives his fiction:
“Be still and know that I am God,” is the advice of the Psalmist, and I’ve always taken it to be good literary advice too. Be still the way Tolstoy is still, or Anthony Trollope is still, so your characters can speak for themselves and come alive in their own immortal way. If you’re a writer like me, you try less to impose a shape on the hodgepodge than to see what shape emerges from it, is hidden in it. If minor characters show signs of becoming major characters, you at least give them a shot at it because in the world of fiction it may take many pages before you find out who the major characters really are just as in the real world it may take you many years to find out that the stranger you talked to for half an hour once in a railway station may have done more to point you to where your true homeland lies than your closest friend or your psychiatrist.
Anyone can lie awake and review the events of the day. As a writer, Buechner must shape those memories into prose that keeps awake the reader as well as the rememberer. He succeeds primarily by attending to his words as acutely as he attends to the events themselves. Raised in a nonreligious home, he got baptized “less from any religious motive, I think, than from simply a sense that like getting your inoculations and going to school, it was something you did.” The vaccination worked in a paradoxical way. Baptism during a time when Christianity represented to him all symbol and no substance inoculated him against the cozy imagery of stained glass and statues, against the trappings of church for church’s sake, against the repetition of stale words long since desiccated of meaning.
“I’m sick of religious language,” Buechner once told an interviewer. “I’m sick of sermons right now.” Because he kept agreeing to preach despite the illness, he sought out new carriers for his beliefs. He looked to King Lear and the Wizard of Oz to make his points, as well as to Jacob and to Paul. Most of all, Buechner the prose stylist stuck to a lesson he had learned in writing fiction: nothing alienates an audience faster than a slight note of falsity or unrealism. If he was to write or speak about the Christian life, he must do so with undiluted honesty.
A time came, a difficult time in his personal life, when Buechner made a decision to write about saints. For more than a decade he had been trying to rid himself of Leo Bebb, the flasher-evangelist, an oddball saint and subject of four of his books. He kept on writing sequels, unable to let Bebb go. With no conscious thought of what to write next, he picked up the Penguin Dictionary of Saints, hoping to find some historical saint of the past, perhaps a truly holy man. The book opened to Godric, an eleventh-century English saint and a figure unknown to him. As he read, suddenly it occurred to him that Godric was Bebb in an earlier incarnation: yes, a holy man, a missionary, a body-torturing ascetic who kept two pet snakes, a rough man who became perhaps England’s first great lyric poet; but also a man who took his own sister to bed and who waged a lifelong war against lust, the “ape gibbering in his loins,” as Buechner would later put it.
Giving careful attention to language as usual, Buechner strove in Godric to purge all Latinate words, keeping only the harsher, guttural Anglo-Saxon derivatives. He abandoned his usual cadence in favor of the lyrical style of medieval English. Few readers recognized what was different about the language, but sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, they felt drawn into another world.
Buechner emerged from this book with a new definition of saint: a “life-giver,” one through whose life the power and the glory of God are made manifest, even though the saint himself may be standing up to his ankles in mud. That definition, of course, applies potentially to all of us—which is precisely why Buechner urges us to look to the ordinary, to listen to our lives and seek out God in the most unexpected places, for there is God most likely to be found. When Buechner chose to write about a biblical character (Son of Laughter), he settled on Jacob, the one who physically wrestled with God. Is it any accident that God identified his chosen people as Jacob’s children, the offspring of one who had grappled so fiercely in the night?
If you tell me Christian commitment is a kind of thing that has happened to you once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery, I say go to, go to, you’re either pulling the wool over your own eyes or trying to pull it over mine. Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: “Can I believe it all again today?” No, better still, don’t ask it till after you’ve read The New York Times , till after you’ve studied that daily record of the world’s brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer’s always Yes, then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and…great laughter.
— The Return of Ansel Gibbs
A minister, says Buechner, has two stories to tell: Jesus’ story and the minister’s own. In Buechner’s case, the writer’s own story illumines how he tells the other, for a few defining events in his life provide background lighting to virtually everything Buechner has written.
At the age of ten, Fred and his younger brother Jamie watched from their upstairs bedroom window as their mother and grandmother tried to revive a motionless body lying on the driveway. It was their father, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. A few years later the father’s younger brother, Fred’s uncle, also took his own life. Out of consideration for his mother, who insisted on guarding family secrets, Buechner did not write directly of his father’s suicide for decades, though scenes of suicide haunt his novels. Finally, Buechner decided that he had as much right to tell his father’s story as his mother had not to tell her husband’s story. His book Telling Secrets exercises that right.
Buechner was, in his own words, “a bookish, rain-loving, inward-looking child,” and the deaths of his father and uncle awoke in him a sense of his own mortality that never faded away. For a time he wondered if the family was afflicted with some fatal suicide gene. The tragedy also reinforced Buechner’s intuition that most of us are shaped less by the big forces described each night on the television news than by the intimate forces of family, friends, and shared secrets. He learned, like every good novelist, that human behavior cannot be explained, only rendered.
Another great disruption occurred when he reached the age of 27. With two novels under his belt, one (A Long Day’s Dying) extravagantly praised, Buechner moved to New York to try his hand at writing. He hit a wall, found himself unable to write anything, and contemplated other careers-in advertising, or even working for the CIA. Uncharacteristically, simply because the building sat a block from his apartment, he began attending the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, pastored by the celebrated George Buttrick. At the time of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, Buechner heard a sermon that changed his life. Buttrick was contrasting Elizabeth’s coronation with the coronation of Jesus in the believer’s heart, which, he said, should take place among confession and tears. So far so good.
And then with his head bobbing up and down so that his glasses glittered, he said in his odd, sandy voice, the voice of an old nurse, that the coronation of Jesus took place among confession and tears and then, as God was and is my witness, great laughter, he said. Jesus is crowned among confession and tears and great laughter, and at the phrase great laughter, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face.
—The Alphabet of Grace
A week later the young novelist was talking with Buttrick about what seminary he should attend. Buttrick drove him to Union Theological Seminary, and the following fall Buechner enrolled there as a student, to learn from the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr, James Muilenburg, Paul Tillich, and John Knox.
At times Buechner has been tempted to interpret his conversion experience in Freudian terms as a search for a missing father, or in existentialist terms as a self-validating response to anxiety and failure. He resists that temptation. Instead, he sees in it an exemplar of the “crazy, holy grace” that wells up from time to time “through flaws and fissures in the bedrock harshness of things.” As Buechner has noted, many modern writers have plumbed the depths of despair in a world where God seems largely absent, but few have tried to tackle the reality of what salvation, of what God’s presence, might mean.
In his own writing, Buechner has never forgotten that Christ was crowned in the presence of laughter. Beyond the shadows in which we live and move there lies, in a phrase from Tolkien he often quotes, “joy beyond the walls of the world more poignant than grief.” Buechner writes of a magic kingdom, like Oz, of an end to our weary journey, of a home that will heal at last the homesickness that marks our days. “I have been spared the deep, visceral look into the abyss,” Buechner says. “Perhaps God indeed saves his deepest silence for his saints, and if so I do not merit that silence. I have intellectual doubts, of course. But as John Updike put it, if there is no God then the universe is a freak show, and I do not experience it as a freak show. Though I have had neither the maleficent nor the beatific vision, I have heard whispers from the wings of the stage.”
The Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon sketches two contrasting models of how God interacts with history. The traditional model shows a God “up in heaven” who periodically dispatches a lightning bolt of intervention: the calling of Abraham and of Moses, the Ten Plagues, the prophets, the coming of Jesus. Capon prefers a model that shows God “under” history, constantly sustaining it and occasionally breaking the surface with a visible act that emerges into plain sight, like the tip of an iceberg. Anyone can notice the dramatic upthrusts (Pharaoh certainly had no trouble), but the life of faith involves a search below the surface as well.
Buechner has spoken of his quest for the “continuing dim spectacle of the subterranean presence of grace in the world.” He writes of an anxious moment in an airport (Buechner battles a fear of flying) when suddenly he notices on the counter a tie pin engraved with his initials, “C.F.B.”; and of a good friend who dies suddenly in his sleep and then visits Buechner in a dream, leaving behind a strand of blue wool from his jersey, which Buechner finds on the carpet the next morning; and of sitting parked by the side of the road in a moment of personal crisis when a car barrels down the road with a license plate bearing the simple message “T-R-U-S-T.” Each of these occurrences, Buechner grants, is open to a more “scientific” interpretation. Perhaps nothing happened beyond a cat dragging in a wool thread, or a passenger leaving a tie pin on a counter, or a trust officer of a bank driving down the highway. Buechner, though, prefers to see in such chance occurrences messages upthrusts-of an underlying Providence. For example, when the car drove by, “Of all the entries in the entire lexicon it was the word trust that I needed most to hear. It was a chance thing, but also a moment of epiphany-revelation-telling me, ‘trust your children, trust yourself, trust God, trust life; just trust.’”
In ways like these-ambiguous, elusive, and open to different interpretations-God edges into our lives. Were there no room for doubt, there would be no room for faith, either. For Buechner, such random events present a kind of Pascalian gamble: he can either bet yes on a God who gives life mystery and meaning, or no, concluding that whatever happens happens, with no meaning beyond. The evidence either way is fragmentary and inconclusive, and demands faith.
Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, orderly whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises. Faith is different from mysticism because mystics in their ecstasy become one with what faith can at most see only from afar. Faith is different from ethics because ethics is primarily concerned not, like faith, with our relationship to God but with our relationship to each other. … Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting. Faith is journeying through space and through time. If someone were to come up and ask me to talk about my faith, it is exactly that journey that I would eventually have to talk about-the ups and downs of the years, the dreams, the odd moments, the intuitions. I would have to talk about the occasional sense I have that life is not just a series of events causing other events as haphazardly as a break shot in pool causes the billiard balls to careen off in all directions, but that life has a plot the way a novel has a plot, that events are somehow or other leading somewhere, that they make sense.
—From an unpublished speech at Wheaton College
A novel and a life of faith-the two, Buechner concluded, have much in common. Faith and fiction both rely on the concrete and particular far more than the abstract and cerebral, both deal with seeming contradictions, and both involve a sustained process of reordering those particulars and contradictions into some pattern of meaning. Yet Buechner found it very difficult at first to talk of his personal faith. Raised in a nonreligious home, living in a nonreligious part of the country, he felt reticent and embarrassed, as if faith should hide in a closet, one of those family secrets no one mentions in public. The change came about, appropriately, through an odd coincidence.
Buechner was going through a dark time, something approaching a nervous breakdown. He had just moved his family to an isolated farm near the town of Rupert, Vermont, leaving a comfortable position with a private school in order to write full-time. Before long he had written himself into a blank wall. The muses would not show up on schedule. Everything he wrote made him so depressed he could not continue. Then came a letter from Harvard inviting him to deliver the school’s Noble Lectures on theology. Perhaps, suggested the chaplain, Buechner could do something on “religion and letters.”
The chaplain no doubt meant the phrase in the sense of letters as literature. But as he stared at the invitation, Buechner saw the word in its most basic, literal essence: the letters of the alphabet, building blocks of all language. The more he thought about it, the more he saw that faith consists of God using the “humdrum events of our lives as an alphabet,” the building blocks of a language that, if listened to properly, can convey God’s self to us. His eye turned inward. Out of those musings came The Alphabet of Grace, an adaptation of the Noble Lectures in which Buechner picks one by one through the fragments of a single day of his life.
At last Buechner had found a “voice” for his nonfiction. He need not be a theologian like his teachers at Union. He need not be a preacher of sermons. He could simply fashion stories and meaning out of the material of his own life, just as he already did in his fiction. The next decade was one of his most fruitful. The Leo Bebb novels emerged, as if Buechner were testing the alphabet of faith in a coarser version. As a counterpoint, he began producing his own quieter, more subtle “letters” of faith (The Alphabet of Grace, Telling the Truth, A Room Called Remember), as well as a series of memoirs (The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, Telling Secrets). Sometimes he would experiment with other forms, such as collected sermons or the “theologized ABC” books (Peculiar Treasures, Wishful Thinking, Whistling in the Dark). Even these more formal structures, though, served as carriers for Buechner’s personal voice, a voice characterized by the hunt for the subterranean, the mining of the ordinary for the hidden message of God.
Once I was being interviewed for a job and somebody said, “If you think of a Christian spectrum with William Sloane Coffin on one hand and Simon Stylites on the other hand, where would you put yourself?” I said, “Much closer to Simon Stylites.” I sit on a mountain writing books.
—From an interview in Radix, July/August 1983
[T]here are really two frontiers: the outer-concerned with issues such as civil rights, the peace movement and poverty, the frontier where justice does battle with injustice, sanity with madness, and so on-and the inner, where doubt is pitted against faith, hope against despair, grief against joy. It’s this inner frontier that I live with and address myself to. And when I feel like justifying myself, I say that ultimately the real battle is going to be won there.
—From an interview in the Christian Century, November 16, 1983
Nearly 30 years have passed since the Buechners moved to the house in rural Vermont and Fred settled into his writing routine. The house had passed down to Fred’s wife, and she domesticated it with outdoor things: flowers, a huge vegetable garden that feeds the deer as well as the family, horses, chickens, a pig “who grew to the size of a large refrigerator,” goats, some cattle. To the household, Fred mainly contributed books, “which, unlike people, can always be depended upon to tell the same stories in the same way and are always there when you need them and can always be set aside when you need them no longer.” He converted part of a barn into a kind of library to hold his many volumes, and for years that barn served as his writer’s refuge where he would retreat to fashion his own books.
Eventually, Buechner added a study onto the back of the house, a bright, airy room looking out onto a pond, a jagged line of stone fences, a stand of birch, a valley, a 3,000-acre preserve of hardwoods. “I call it my ‘magic kingdom,’” he says, and little wonder. Here are displayed Buechner’s most valuable books, many rebound in oiled leather and gold leaf. It takes several shelves just to hold the many first editions, in various languages, of Buechner’s cherished Oz collection. Shelves by the windows hold other objects of delight and whimsy: a kaleidoscope, paired magnets that “suspend” in air, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, a model of Humpty-Dumpty, a gargoyle.
In this room he sits in an upholstered chair by the fireplace, feet propped on an ottoman, and writes on unlined notebook paper with a felt-tip pen. “If you made a video of a writer’s life, it would be hopelessly boring,” he says. “I sit in this chair and make marks on a page. That’s all you can see. I am sinking into my self, of course, into the place where dreams and intuitions come from. It is a holy place. But to an observer, I am not doing much at all.”
Not a single other dwelling is visible from Buechner’s study: leaning on an invisible pulpit, he addresses an invisible audience. Likewise, the results of Buechner’s labors remain mostly invisible to him. He sells thousands of books, but hears from only a small sampling of readers. Some tell him his books saved their faith, or that he was the first Christian writer who seemed honest. I was present at Wheaton College when a troubled young student stood in a large hall and said into a microphone, “Mr. Buechner, I would like to say that your novels mean more to me than the cross of Christ itself.” Buechner was flustered and embarrassed—how could anyone reply to such a remark? What the student probably meant was that Buechner’s novels had presented truth in a more penetrating way than he had ever heard before, especially in church.
Once, upon returning to Vermont after a winter holiday, Buechner found this message on his answering machine: “You don’t know me but I am a fan of yours. I just wanted to tell you I have twice in the last six weeks contemplated suicide, and it was because of your books that I didn’t do it.” Given Buechner’s family history, that message lodged like an arrow: hearing it, he said, “meant more to me than winning the Nobel Prize.”
Because of scattered responses like these, Buechner does not downplay his ministerial role by elevating the “art” of his fiction and dismissing his nonfiction as somehow less valuable. Writing is his ministry: vicarious, indirect, mediated, perhaps, but ministry nonetheless. “I used to hang my head at such responses and say, ‘God, if you only knew who I am.’ Now I’m more likely to say, ‘Yes, I’m a fool, hypocrite, weirdo, but God in his mercy chose me to present himself to you.’ We have this treasure in vessels of clay. … Mine is a disorganized, unstructured kind of ministry, but it is, I hope, a legitimate one.”
Still, apart from these few messages from readers, Buechner remains largely disconnected from the people to whom he ministers. He has not found a satisfying church nearby. “I’ve found that most ministers preach out of their shallows more than out of their depths,” he says. “I rarely go to hear them, and when I do, I feel guilty about my negative reaction. So many churches remind me of dysfunctional families, full of loneliness, buried pain, dominated by an authority figure. Except for a marvelous Episcopal church I attended near Wheaton, I have found no church that truly ministers to me. Al-Anon support groups come closest to what I wish the church would be.”
Most battles of faith, therefore, Buechner fights alone. He has no community of Christian friends nearby. Devotional writers others admire—Kathleen Norris, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton—for the most part fail to move him. He finds spiritual nourishment in poets such as John Donne, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but as a source of artistic inspiration he tends to turn to other novelists: Graham Greene, William Maxwell, Flannery O’Connor. Increasingly, he struggles with melancholy.
“I had my seventieth birthday last year, and it was the only one that really made an impression,” he says. “Forty, fifty, sixty-those birthdays slid right by. This one made me feel shadowy and sad, geriatric. My great friend the poet James Merrill died last year. We knew each other for 55 years. We wrote our first books together one summer in Maine. Yet I don’t want to write out of the shadowy part of myself, but out of the part that is still young and full of joy. I think of the lovely fairy-tale plays Shakespeare wrote in his old age: The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest. I think of the last self-portraits of Rembrandt, suffused with golden light.
“One project, a novel based on Mary Magdalene, depressed me so badly that I abandoned it. And then one day came a miracle of grace. I was reading the apocryphal Book of Tobit, a Hebrew fairy tale about a dog and a journey and a fish, a tale full of magic. Joy welled up. That night, or early the next morning about 4:45 a.m., I got out of bed and began my next project, a retelling of the story of Tobit and his son Tobias. Nothing I have written ever gave me such pleasure, and I finished it in a month and two days. It is called On the Road with the Archangel, to be published this fall.
“Every once in a while a book comes along like that, a gift of grace. Like an artesian well, almost all you have to do is let it flow out under its own power. At least for yourself, the writer, it comes with such life of its own that it almost bowls you over. When that happens, I feel as if the book is gathered in the palm of my hand. It is there, I am holding it. Of course you have to work very hard to get the language and the form right, but the one thing you don’t have to do is struggle to bring it to life. The gift comes first, and then the labor.”
Philip Yancey is the author is many books, including most recently The Jesus I Never Knew, winner of the 1996 ECPA Gold Medallion Book of the Year award. After its initial publication, this essay was later adapted as a chapter in Yancey’s book Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church.