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Frederick Buechner, prolific novelist and theologian, dies at 96

Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister who found his flock not in a church but among the readers of his books, dozens of works of fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and theology in which he sought to capture “the elusive presence of the holiness of God,” died Aug. 15 at his home in Rupert, Vt. He was 96.

He had a heart ailment, said his son-in-law and literary executor, David Altshuler.

Mr. Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) was the author of nearly 40 books translated into more than two dozen languages. A master of many genres, he produced a small library of volumes that included funny novels about characters who are saintly, sinful, or both, historical fiction drawn from the lives of actual Catholic saints, and more directly theological writings that earned him comparisons to C.S. Lewis, the British author of the allegorical “Chronicles of Narnia” series.

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Mr. Buechner’s novel “Godric” (1980), a retelling of the life of the 12th-century English hermit Godric of Finchale, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. “Lion Country” (1971), the first installment in his tetralogy of novels centered on the fictional clergyman Leo Bebb, a seamy Southern preacher who ministers to the Church of Holy Love, Inc., was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Mr. Buechner expounded on his vision of Christian theology in his widely acclaimed memoirs, including “The Sacred Journey” (1982), “Now and Then” (1983), “Telling Secrets” (1991), and “The Eyes of the Heart” (1999). He candidly addressed the defining elements of his life, including the suicide of his father when Mr. Buechner was 10 and the comforting presence of his grandmother, seeking spiritual meaning in his experiences in an effort to help readers find purpose in their own.

“What I propose to do now is to try listening to my life as a whole . . . for whatever of meaning, of holiness, of God, there may be in it to hear,” Mr. Buechner told The New York Times in 1982. “My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.”

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With his mediations on God, suffering, and beauty in everyday life, Mr. Buechner attracted a devoted readership that greeted each new book of his with the anticipation of a church congregation awaiting a sermon by a beloved minister.

“Diving into his books is like sitting next to a wise mentor, and who doesn’t want to spend time with a wise mentor?” James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of the Christian magazine America, said in an interview.

Mr. Buechner’s autobiographical works, Martin added, “can take their place among other great spiritual memoirs,” among them Lewis’s “Surprised by Joy,” Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain,” and Dorothy Day’s “The Long Loneliness.”

“He was that good,” Martin said.

Carl Frederick Buechner Jr. was born in Manhattan on July 11, 1926. He did not recall either of his parents as particularly religious. His mother was a former model. His father worked in chemical and pharmaceutical sales, a job that resulted in frequent moves for the family when Mr. Buechner was a child.

“I suppose it was having no one house I had lived in always,” he once wrote, “that made the world seem so perilous and uncertain.”

During the Depression, Mr. Buechner’s father struggled desperately in his job. In 1936, after checking in on Mr. Buechner and his younger brother as they played, he took his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning, leaving a note for Mr. Buechner’s mother on the last page of their copy of Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone With the Wind.”

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“I adore and love you,” it read, “and am no good.”

Such details, which Mr. Buechner related in his memoirs, produced much of the power in his autobiographical writing.

“Spiritual autobiography in general has suffered from too much spirituality and too little biography (Augustine’s ‘Confessions,’ for instance, confess far too little and sermonize too much),” the writer Reynolds Price observed in a Times review of “The Sacred Journey.” “It is Buechner’s big strength that he is so lucidly particular.”

After his father’s death, Mr. Buechner moved with his family to Bermuda, where they remained until World War II. When they returned to the United States, Mr. Buechner enrolled at the private Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he graduated in 1943.

Following stateside Army service, Mr. Buechner received a bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University in 1948. His first novel, “A Long Day’s Dying,” about a widowed mother and her university student son, was published in 1950 to wide acclaim.

“This first novel by a young man of 23 is a remarkable piece of work,” reviewer David Daiches wrote in the Times. “There is a quality of civilized perception here, a sensitive and plastic handling of English prose and an ability to penetrate to the evanescent core of a human situation, all proclaiming major talent.”

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Mr. Buechner taught English at the Lawrenceville School before becoming a lecturer at New York University in 1952. He was attending Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church when he found himself in thrall to the sermons of the minister and theologian George Arthur Buttrick.

Those sermons, he recounted, inspired him to enroll at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he studied under theologians including Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. He graduated in 1958 and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister the same year.

Mr. Buechner taught religion at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. His students there included John Irving, who years later, in the acknowledgments of his novel “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” would note the great influence of Mr. Buechner on his life.

In 1967, Mr. Buechner and his family moved to Vermont, where he focused full time on his writing. He had been married since 1956 to Judith Merck, a daughter of George W. Merck, president and chairman of the pharmaceutical concern Merck & Co.

Besides his wife, of Rupert, survivors include their three daughters, Katherine B. Arthaud of Charlotte, Vt., Dinah Buechner-Vischer of Concord, Mass., and Sharman B. Altshuler of Cambridge, Mass.; and 10 grandchildren.

In addition to “Lion Country,” Beuchner’s Bebb Tetralogy included “Open Heart” (1972), “Love Feast” (1974), and “Treasure Hunt” (1977).

Much in the way that he had examined the life of Godric of Finchale, Mr. Buechner delivered a novelistic treatment of the life of the ancient Irish saint Brendan the Navigator in “Brendan” (1987). His novel “The Son of Laughter” (1993) was derived from the biblical story of Jacob.

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Mr. Buechner continued writing works of nonfiction until several years before his death. His final volumes included “The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life” and “A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory,” both published in 2017.

“Trust that if God is anywhere, God is here,” he told the Times in 2000, “which means there is no telling where God may turn up next — around what sudden bend of the path if you happen to have your eyes and ears open, your wits about you, in what odd small moments, almost too foolish to tell.”