on March 13, 2002
I have only recently discovered the works of Frederick Buechner -- and I know I have found something precious and rare. In this novel, his telling of the life story of Godric, a saint who lived from c.1065-1170, he paints a vivid, breathing portrait of a man who aspired with all his heart to know, love and serve God, struggling with his humanity every step of the way. Godric's heartfelt prayer to Mary is a touching example of the longing he feels:
'Saint, Mary, virgin dame.
Mother of Jesu Christ, of God his Lamb,
take, shield, and do thy Godric bring
to thee where Christ is King.
Our Lady, maiden, springtime's flower,
deliver Godric from this hour'.
Godric never saw himself as a saint -- even though some people called him that even during his lifetime. He saw his failings and sins as too many to bear that title -- he doubted his own entry into Paradise. During his youth, he behaved as many his age would do -- he lusted after women; he fell victim to his own greed and exploited pilgrims, the poor, and the rich alike; he turned his back on his own family, breaking the hearts of his mother and sister when he left them to roam the world (although his love for his sister Burcwen was so great that, for the remainder of his life, he wore a cross made of two sticks, bound together by locks of her hair). He took up with a would-be privateer and sailed the seas, amassing treasure that he brought back from time to time and stored away on the Holy Isle of Farne -- realizing only later how he had desecrated not only those shores, but his own soul as well by hoarding away the profits he so rudely gained.
When Godric leaves home, he is blessed for his journey by Tom Ball, a family friend. Ball's blessing is prophetic in relation to Godric's eventual life choices. Godric describes Ball's blessing thus: 'He laid his hands on me and blessed my eyes to see God's image deep in every man. He blessed my ears to hear the cry especially of the poor. He blessed my lips to speak no word but Gospel truth. He warned against the Devil and his snares...' Ball speaks to Godric of the choices we are given to make in our lives every day, likening them to doors that we may enter or pass by. At the time, his words touch Godric -- but it is only later, after many life experiences, good and bad, that Godric feels them in his heart and is touched by them to the core.
The book covers many of Godric's adventures, including a pilgrimage to Rome with his mother, on which he is visited by a holy vision of a maiden he calls Gillian, which urges him to follow God's will more completely. He also visits Jerusalem, walking on the same paths that Christ walked, visiting the room in which he was condemned by Pilate -- and bathing in the Jordan, perhaps one of the most life-changing experiences he is given.
He returns to England, and after a few more adventures, he meets with Elric, a hermit devoted to God (seen by many people as a madman), staying with him a while until the old man's death. He sees great holiness within Elric's life. Godric himself settles at a spot in the woods near the river Wear, a place that he had seen in an earlier vision -- it is here that he lives out the rest of his days in almost complete solitude, devoting himself to prayer and reflection, visited only rarely by outsiders. A monk named Reginald is sent to him in order that Godric's story may be written -- and a young man named Perkin becomes his devoted servant, meeting those needs he cannot meet himself. They are the sole witnesses to the end of his life -- and they know him better than any other.
Godric's longing for God -- and his strength at bearing up under what he sees as the weight of his humanity and his sin -- are tenderly and lovingly rendered by Buechner in a prose that is stunning itself in its beauty, in its breathtaking evocation of the very language of the times in which the story takes place. So effective is the style contructed by the author for this book that the reader could well believe the manuscript dated from the era in which it is set. It brings alive the people and places in Godric's life in an illuminating manner.
It is a marvel to read -- and an experience that will entertain as well as enlighten. This is a book that I will return to again and again -- there are many riches to be found within. Buechner is blessed with a gift for telling classic stories -- both from the Bible and other sources. We are blessed that he shares this gift with us.