Frederick Buechner is one of my favorite authors. He is a writer of enigmatic fiction with strange and conflicted characters (e.g. the holy and profane Godric, an unsaintly, Saint Brendan, and the unlikable religious charlatan Lou Bebb), as well as sermons and theological musings, and poignant memoirs which wrestle with darkness, grace and calling.
A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory is vintage Buechner. Quite literally, in fact. Most of this book is culled from the Buechner canon with selections from The Sacred Journey, The Clown in the Belfry, Beyond Words, A Room Called Remember, Secrets in the Dark, Telling Secrets. However, the opening chapter, “The Gates of Pain,” is an unpublished lecture he gave, describing ways we can best steward our pain.
I typically am not fond of books of ‘selections,’ as they wrest passages from their context, catalog, and put them on display, like the bones of an ancient man in a museum. It is so much better to experience a book (and the person!) with its joints and sinews, muscle and skin, passion and intellect, embodied the way its Author intended. That being said, the themes of pain, loss and memory haunt Buechner’s works and these selections are well chosen. The lion’s share comes from just two works, with large swaths from The Eyes of the Heart and Beyond Words and supplemented by the Sacred Journey and the other books.
The book is broken into two principal parts. Part 1 describes pain (chapters 1 and 2) and part 2, memory (chapters 3-6). A third section of the book posts shorter reflections on secrets, grace, depression, death and the ways God speaks.
Buechner begins the “The Gates of Pain” by describing an episode related to his father’s alcoholism during his childhood. Someone had told him after hearing the story in a talk he gave, “You have been a good steward of your pain” (16). The essay weaves our universal experience of pain, with the parable of the talents inviting each of us to trade life, what we’ve been given—joy and sorrow—with those around us, inviting us to likewise steward our pain. “What does it mean to trade? I think it means to give what you have in reutrn for what you need. You give of yourself, and in return you receive something from other selves to whom you give”(26-27).
Buechner tells of an out-of-town friend who showed up unannounced to sit with him as he was consumed by his daughter’s struggle with anorexia (27-28). He challenges each us to learn to not only share uncontainable joys but to open up the door into our pain, share our struggle and allow God’s miraculous healing to enter our lives (28). Jesus doesn’t come to us in his own flesh but through the guise of the other, so, Buechner contends, trading pain, allows us to experience His healing presence. “Joy is the end of it. Through the gates of pain we enter into joy” (32).
The second chapter is the passage in The Sacred Journey that describes Buechner’s father’s suicide and its aftermath.
It is probably fitting that as I read part 2 on memory, I was remembering passages and people I had read before. Buechner remembers pain, loss, relationships with friends and family and the way his father haunts his life. He describes the interplay between hope and remembrance, between hope and expectation.
To remember my life is to remember the countless times I might have given up, gone under, when humanly speaking I might have gotten lost beyond the power of any to find me. But I didn’t. I have not given up. And each of you, with all the memories you have and the tales you could tell, you have also not given up. You also are survivors and are here. And what does that tell us, our surviving? It tells us that weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength has pulled us through at least this far, at lest to this day. Foolish as we are, a wisdom beyond our wisdom has flickered up just often enough to light us if not on the right path through the forest, at least to a path that leads us forward, that is bearable. Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond power to love has kept our hearts alive. (61-62).
One of the gifts that Buechner has given his readers and the church, is a reflective understanding of how pain shapes our journey. But not just pain. There are also the feeble ways God’s grace breaks into our lives, bringing hope, healing, and wholeness. As fantastical though it seems.
The world we are living in is filled with walking wounded. Broken relationships, news cycles dominated by natural disasters, racial violence, sexual harassment, and assault. Even so, come Lord Jesus. In the meantime, we need friends to come and share the journey with us and so mediate Christ’s presence to us. Buechner testifies to the power of sharing our pain with others and has shown us how to trade pain in his prose.
This is a good book. Even if you have most of it in other forms on your shelf, as I do, “The Gates of Pain” is worth reading and reflecting upon. I give this four stars. -★★★★
Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Handlebar Media in exchange for my honest review