Story and Memory in God’s Kingdom: Frederick Buechner on Our Deep Need For One Another

Since his recent passing, Frederick Buechner’s words have been with me more frequently, shared by friends sharing on social media, emerging from memory, and on pages that I’ve gone searching for when I couldn’t quite remember how he had phrased a particular idea or insight that had left such an impression on me. Concurrently, I’ve been reading and thinking quite a bit about our epidemic of loneliness that advances unabated, and how we might explore different approaches to human connection, trust-building, and mending social fabric.

So, for a moment, let’s reflect with Buechner on the connecting with others, especially through, story, memory, and the miracle of faith.

Buechner reminds us of the complexity that there really is a “self” that is each of us, and yet a self that deeply desires to be connected to others, and indeed can only finally find itself in others. Those familiar with Martin Buber’s I and Thou, and subsequently neo-orthodox theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who took up similar themes, will hear echoes in this mediation from a relatively young Buechner:

“The paradox is that part of what binds us closest together as human beings and makes it true that ‘no man is an island’ is the knowledge that in another way every man is an island. Because to know this is to know that not only deep in you is there a self that longs about all to be known and accepted, but that there is also such a self in me, in everyone else the world over. So when we meet as strangers, when even friends look like strangers, it is good to remember that we need each other greatly you and I, more than much of the time we dare to imagine, more than more of the time we dare to admit.” (Buechner, The Hungering Dark)

But how will strangers come to know one another? How can the self come to truly know another? How will we be accepted? Throughout his writings, not only by way of content and argument, but far more so by overall narrative style and autobiographic approach, Buechner suggest that we come to know through story. Here is the possibility of connection, of intersection, of trust.

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours… It is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.” (Buechner, Telling Secrets)

Buechner takes us a step further by pointing out that our storied lives are not as contained as we might suppose, and that our sharing of our lives – even for a moment – is not a single point on a timeline, but the possibility of an evolving connection with another who can in return remind us who we are. In a passage that reminds me of George Herbert’s tender words, “The best mirror is an old friend,” Buechner writes,

“When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart. For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost. When I’m feeling most ghost-like, it is your remembering me that helps remind me that I actually exist. When I’m feeling sad, it’s my consolation. When I’m feeling happy, it’s part of why I feel that way. If you forget me, one of the ways I remember who I am will be gone. If you forget, part of who I am will be gone.” (Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary)

Finally we return to his meditation in The Hungering Dark concerning the paradox of no man is an island yet every person is indeed their own island. Using some license, I want to suggest that for Buechner, it is through story, memory, and their role in our identity as people faith that the paradox is resolved. And so we are no longer talking of islands, but an archipelago:

“Island calls to island across the silence, and once, in trust, the real words come, a bridge is built and love is done –not sentimental, emotional love, but love that is pontifex, bridge-builder. Love that speaks the holy and healing word which is: God be with you, stranger who are no stranger. I wish you well. The islands become an archipelago, a continent, become a kingdom whose name is the Kingdom of God” (Buechner, The Hungering Dark).

Who will God have us encounter? In what ways will our stories intersect? What – and indeed who(!) – is the common humanity that we share? And how can we remember one another’s stories and remind one another of the truth, goodness, and beauty that is mixed up in it? There is so much gospel in all of this, I believe, since by faith God’s story tells me so much about who I am and the story of the world I inhabit, and the many strangers who become friends and truth tellers that God has brought into my life have been gracious enough to provide reminders. May the story and witness of Frederick Buechner’s life remind us a bit of who we are, and in his words, may we carry something of who he is with us.

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