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Spiritual and autobiographical reflections on the author's seminary days, early ministry, and writing career.
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I Entered Union Theological Seminary in the fall of 1954. If anyone had told me as little as a year or so earlier that I was going to do such a thing, I would have been no less surprised than if I had been told I was going to enter the Indianapolis 500. The preceding year I had become in some sense a Christian, though the chances are I would have hesitated to put it like that, and I find something in that way of expressing it which even now makes me feel uncomfortable. "To become a Christian" sounds like an achievement, like becoming a millionaire. I thought of it rather, and think of it still, more as a lucky break, a step in the right direction. Though I was brought up in a family where church played virtually no role at all, through a series of events from childhood on I was moved, for the most part without any inkling of it, closer and closer to a feeling for that Mystery out of which the church arose in the first place until, finally, the Mystery itself came to have a face for me, and the face it came to have for me was the face of Christ. It was a slow, obscure processwhich I tried to describe in the earlier book, and the resultof it was that I ended up being so moved by what I felt that I found it inadequate simply to keep it inside myself like a secret but had to do something about it.
I could, of course, have done no more if no less than affiliated myself in one way or another with a particular church, could have simply read books about Christianity, talked to Christian people, set out to discover something about what a Christian life is supposed to involve and then tried as best I could to live one. But, onthe one hand, that didn't seem enough to me, and on the other, it seemed too much. To the degree that what I felt was so intense and dramatic that it was not unlike being in love, I had to stand up and declare myself in some intense and dramatic way. To the degree that my ignorance of Christianity was vast and comprehensive, I felt I had to learn vastly more than I could teach myself. To the degree that I felt woefully inadequate to the task of being whatever I thought a Christian was supposed to be, I needed all the help I could get. So to seminary I went.
It was a uniform to wear, a flag to raise, a comradeship of arms to draw strength from. And in view of the general direction my life had taken up to that point, it was a little crazy too. I liked that. I felt something of what Saint Francis must have felt when he decided, to everybody's astonishment, to give everything away to serve Christ's poor. I too succeeded in astonishing almost everybody including myself, but the difference was that I was no saint. I gave nothing away. I had no idea whom I was going to serve, if anybody, or in what way I was going to go about serving them. It was, rather, I think, to serve myself that I went to Union. To try to fill up some of the empty places not just in my education but in myself. To draw as close as I could to what I suddenly most needed. To nurture such faith and passion and longing as I suddenly found I had.
If not a saint, who was I then all those years ago? Since my graduation from Princeton some six years earlier, I had been an English teacher and assistant housemaster at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and had been reasonably good at it. I had published one very successful novel and one very unsuccessful one. Twice I had been in love with girls who, mysteriously, bore the same first name and who, when I asked them to marry me, both mysteriously turned me down. I had taken a year off from Lawrenceville to write the unsuccessful second novel and spent some seven months of that year in Europe, mostly in England, where a cousin of my father's was married to Lewis Douglas, the American Ambassador. Through the Douglases, who were enormously kind to me, all sorts of heady adventures had come my way. I remember dining with just the two of them at Prince's Gate my first evening in London and having Mr. Epps, the butler, come in to announce, "Your Excellency, Mr. Churchill is on the phone." I remember meeting Princess Margaret, no taller than my shoulder and petaled like a rose, and rattling on nervously to her about some movie I had just seen, not knowing that with royalty you always wait for them to introduce the subject you will rattle on nervously about. At a great reception in Edinburgh, after Lew Douglas had been given the Freedom of the City there, I remember being mistaken by an ancient ex-Lord Provost for Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who was also present, and being introduced by the old gentleman under that name to countless dignitaries who knew as well as I did that I was an impostor but who, like me, were too polite to say so. In Drumlanrig Castle, where we stayed with the Douglases' friends, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, on the way home, I saw my first and only ghost -- awoke just at dawn to find it sitting huge, white, faceless, in a wing chair facing my bed, then pulled the covers over my head and lay there sweating in a panic I can still almost recapture till the blessed sound of a vacuum cleaner somewhere else in the castle gave me courage enough to peer out and discover that, whatever it was, the thing had vanished.
Now and Then. Copyright © by Frederick Buechner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Frederick Buechner, author of more than thirty works of fiction and nonfiction, is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He has been a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent work is Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith.
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