At Montreat in 1973

How did Tony Abbott hear about the works of Fred Buechner that gave him such pleasure, such hope? It was by meeting Lou Patrick, Goldie Stribling, and Betty McLaney in 1973, as they worked to present a reading of Buechner’s Alphabet of Grace to the Trinity Congregation at Montreat Conference Center. Tony came on board to help them arrange Buechner’s work for presentation. “Thank goodness we found Tony,” said Goldie Stribling when asked, “because we didn’t know what we were doing.” The presentation was so powerful, the relationship so satisfactory on all sides, that friendships resulted among Lou, Goldie, Betty, and Tony.

Tony was invited to give a series of lectures on poetry at Trinity Presbyterian Church. It was after those lectures that Lou wrote in that letter he sent to Tony, “It was your “feel” [for the material] that quickened our feelings.” Because of Lou and that Montreat experience in 1973, Tony discovered the works of Frederick Buechner, who like Lou and himself, knew grief and darkness, knew homelessness. Fred’s father died by suicide when Fred was ten years old, and like Lou Patrick and Tony, he buried that grief deep within, struggling for years to keep it hidden from the world – and from himself. As an adult, Fred Buechner began the hard work of grieving for his father; he shared his journey in his memoirs, both his ‘bearing-through’ experiences as well as his joys. In fact, he says that ultimately his whole life’s work was a search for his father. When you meet someone who puts into words for you that darkness within and the ways you bore them, and who offers those words as gifts so that they help the hearer, you hang on for dear life, thank God. Fred Buechner found Lou Patrick; Lou found Tony Abbott, Tony found Fred Buechner, I found Tony Abbott – and on and on it goes. 

Deep calls unto deep. It is sometimes recognized. Lou and Trinity Presbyterian Church asked Tony to give more readings and lectures through the years. He twice gave a three-day series called the Gilchrist Lectures at Trinity, once on the writings of Fred Buechner and another time on the book Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Having discovered Fred Buechner, he continued to read Buechner’s work and even taught a class at Davidson called “Three American Prophets: O’Conner, Buechner, and Percy.” In a lecture at Trinity, Tony opened by reading an excerpt for Buechner.s book Open Heart, in which Buechner tells us of a teacher teaching Shakespeare’s King Lear to high school students. Tony reads the part where students attempt, in spite of themselves, to answer the question “What evidence do you find in Act Three for a significant change in Lear’s character?” One student said, “he’s gotten kinder.” Another student quotes from the play where Lear says about the Fool, ‘I have one part in my heart / That’s sorry yet for thee,’ and says that is the evidence that Lear has gotten kinder. And Laura Fleischman, who ‘sat in the back row next to a good-looking basketball player named Carl West,’ said, “Also, he says a prayer for people.’ The excerpt ends with Buechner’s recalling that one student says that we are the ‘poor naked wretches’ Lear is praying for. Buechner says:

“Maybe I just ascribed my own thoughts to them….Laura Fleischman in the fullness of her time. William Urquhart in his fatness. Greg Dixon with his pimples. Carl West handsome and bored with the knowledge that he could have any girl in that room. They were the poor nakes wretches, and at least for the moment they knew they were.” 

Tony finished the excerpt and chuckled and then said, “I tell my students who take this Buechner class with me that if they are not captured by this, then the class is not for them.” We in the audience laughed with him. We were ourselves captured. 

From “Deep Calls Unto Deep: Reflections on the intersecting lives and writings of Fred Buechner, Tony Abbott, and Louis Patrick” by Janet Sarjeant