Exactly a year ago tomorrow, the fifth of March, 1986, a very good friend of mine died. He was an Englishman — a witty, elegant, many-faceted man. One morning in his sixty-eighth year he simply didn’t wake up. Which was about as easy a way as he could possibly have done it. But it wasn’t easy for the people he left behind, because it gave us no chance to say goodbye, either in words, if we turned out to be up for that, or in some unspoken way if we weren’t. A couple of months later my wife and I were staying with his widow overnight in Charleston, South Carolina, when I had a short dream about him, which I want to tell you about.
I dreamed that he was standing there in the dark guest room, where my wife and I were asleep, looking very much the way he always did in the navy-blue jersey and white slacks that he often wore, and I told him how much we missed him and how glad I was to see him again, and so on. He acknowledged that somehow. Then I said, “Are you really there, Dudley?” I meant was he there in fact and truth, or was I merely dreaming that he was? His answer was that he was really there. And then I said, “Can you prove it?” “Of course,” he said. Then he plucked a strand of blue wool out of his jersey and tossed it to me, and I caught it between my index finger and my thumb, and the feel of it was so palpable and so real that it woke me up. That’s all there was to the dream. But it was as if he had come on purpose to do what he had done and then left. When I told that dream at breakfast the next morning, I had hardly finished when my wife spoke. She said she had noticed the strand of wool on the carpet when she was getting dressed. She wasn’t sure it hadn’t been there the night before. I thought I was losing my mind, and I rushed upstairs to see, and there it was — a little tangle of navy-blue wool that I have in my wallet as I stand here today.
Another event was this. I went into a bar in an airport not long ago to fortify myself against my least-favorite means of moving around the world. It was an off hour, so I was the only customer and had a choice of a whole row of empty bar stools. And on the counter in front of each bar stool there was a holder with a little card stuck in it, advertising the drink of the day, or something like that. I noticed that the one in front of me had an extra little bit of metal stuck on top of the card. It wasn’t on any of the others, so I took a look at it. It turned out to be one of those tie clips that men used to wear. It had three letters engraved on it, and the letters were C.F.B. Those are my initials.
Lastly, this. I was receiving Communion in an Episcopal church early one morning. The priest was an acquaintance of mine, and I could hear him moving along the rail from person to person as I knelt there waiting for my turn. “The body of Christ,” he said, “the bread of heaven. The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” When he got to me, he put in another word. The word was my name. “The body of Christ, Freddy, the bread of heaven.”
The dream I had about my friend may very well have been just another dream, and you certainly don’t have to invoke the supernatural to account for the thread on the carpet. The tie clip I find harder to explain away; it seems to me that the mathematical odds against its having not just one or two but all three of my initials and in the right order must be astronomical. But I suppose that, too, could be just a coincidence. On the other hand, in both cases there is also the other possibility. Far out or not, I don’t see how any open-minded person can a priori deny it. And it’s that other possibility that’s at the heart of everything I want to say here on this Ash Wednesday night.
Maybe my friend really did come in my dream, and the thread was a sign to me that he had. Maybe it’s true that by God’s grace the dead are given back their lives and that the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is not just a doctrine. My friend couldn’t have looked more substantial, less ectoplasmic, standing there in the dark, and it was such a crisp, no-nonsense exchange that we had. There was nothing surreal or wispy about it.
As to the tie clip, it seemed so extraordinary that for a moment I almost refused to believe that it had happened. Even though I had the thing right there in my hand, with my initials on it, my first inclination was to deny it — for the simple reason that it was so unsettling to my whole common-sense view of the way the world works that it was easier and less confusing just to shrug it off as a crazy fluke. We’re all inclined to do that. But maybe it wasn’t a fluke. Maybe it was a crazy little peek behind the curtain, a dim little whisper of providence from the wings. I had been expected, I was on schedule, I was taking the right journey at the right time. I was not alone.
What happened at the Communion rail was different. There was nothing extraordinary about the priest knowing my name — I knew he knew it — and there was nothing extraordinary about his using it in the service, because he evidently did that kind of thing quite often. But the effect on me was extraordinary. It caught me off guard. It moved me deeply. For the first time in my life, maybe, it struck me that when Jesus picked up the bread at his last meal and said, “This is my body, which is for you,” he was doing it not just in a ritual way for humankind in general, but in an unthinkably personal way for every particular man or woman or child who ever existed or someday would exist. Most unthinkable of all: maybe he was doing it for me. At that holiest of feasts we are known not just by our official name but by the names people use who have known us the longest and most intimately. We are welcomed not as the solid citizens that our Sunday best suggests we are, but in all our tackiness and tatteredness that nobody in the world knows better than each of us knows it about ourselves — the bitterness and the phoniness and the confusion and the irritability and the prurience and the halfheartedness. The bread of heaven, Freddy, of all people. Molly? Bill? Ridiculous little So-and-So? Boring old What’s-His-Name? Extraordinary. It seemed a revelation from on high. Was it?
Maybe all that’s extraordinary about these three little events is the fuss I’ve made about them. Things like that happen every day to everybody. They’re a dime a dozen; they mean absolutely nothing.
Or, things like that are momentary glimpses into a mystery of such depth, power, and beauty that if we were to see it head-on, in any way other than in glimpses, I suspect we would be annihilated. If I had to bet my life and my children’s lives, my wife’s life, on one possibility or the other, which one would I bet it on? If you had to bet your life, which would you bet it on? On “Yes, there is God in the highest,” or, if that language is no longer viable, “There is mystery and meaning in the deepest”? Or on “No, there is whatever happens to happen, and it means whatever you choose it to mean, and that’s all there is”?
Of course we can bet yes this evening and no tomorrow morning. We may know we’re betting; we may not know. We may bet one way with our lips, our minds, even our hearts, and another way with our feet. But we all of us bet, and it’s our lives themselves we’re betting with, in the sense that the betting is what shapes our lives. And of course we can never be sure we bet right, because the evidence both ways is fragmentary, fragile, ambiguous. A coincidence, as somebody said, can be God’s way of remaining anonymous, or it can be just a coincidence. Is the dream that brings healing and hope just a product of wishful thinking? Or is it a message maybe from another world? Whether we bet yes or no is equally an act of faith.
A longer version of this essay appeared under the title “Faith and Fiction” in Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, published by HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 1986, 2006 by Frederick Buechner. Used with permission of Frederick Buechner Literary Assets, LLC.