I wrote a scary story once. I was trying to write a Lovecraftian science fiction piece for an anthology called (wait for it) FutureLovecraft. But it wasn’t a very good story. It was an interesting idea with a weak ending. It got a lot of deserved rejections. Then I sent it to TMPublishing, a Christian publisher that is now (judging by its dead website) unfortunately defunct, for consideration in their Emerald Sky magazine. The editor there liked it enough to ask me to make it better, which I think I did.
That’s what good editors do: they make you look hard at your story and dig out the twist that was lying in wait the whole time. “This technology you introduce,” the editor told me, “it needs to have a more pivotal role in the resolution of the plot.” So I threw out the ending and tried again, and then the story bucked and kicked in my hands and I saw the twist. It involves tissue regeneration and memory downloads and– because it is, after all, Lovecraftian– ancient and horrifying evils from the dawn of time.
I like it, and, from the comments I’ve gotten, many of my (albeit few) readers have liked it as well. Space is dark and scary, and I think I’ve captured a bit of that here. You can read “Starlight, Her Sepulchre” here.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Lots of thoughts on this book. It’s not great fantasy. The plot meanders, leaves things unfulfilled and under-explained or simply unfinished. A man wanders into the land of Faerie and then wanders out again. The language at times is eye-rollingly bad. But it’s also easy to see the gems, the bits of wonder and humility, that so effected C. S. Lewis. Consider what MacDonald writes near the end, as an analogy of love for Christ:
“This . . . is a true man. I will serve him, and give him all worship, seeing in him the embodiment of what I would fain become. If I cannot be noble myself, I will yet be servant to his nobleness.”
Or later, about love:
“I knew now, that it is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another . . . All true love will, one day, behold its own image in the eyes of the beloved, and be humbly glad.”
Here the bits that “baptized” the imagination of Lewis, as well as the universalism that apparently got MacDonald in trouble as a minister. The conclusion of the narrator’s wanderings in Faerie, the moral for him, is given at the end:
“May the world be brighter for me, at least in those portions of it, where my darkness falls not. Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow.”
And the final farewell, reminiscent of Wolfe’s “good fishing” line at the end of the Short Sun books:
“A great good is coming– is coming– is coming to thee, Anodos . . . Yet I know that good is coming to me– that good is always coming; though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it.”
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The life of a saint is a peculiar thing. As I mentioned in a recent review of the writings of St. Seraphim, hagiography can make me acutely uncomfortable. Time and distance tend to polish the contours of anyone’s life, and a saint viewed through the lens of their own writings is often more comfortable than one in the flesh or even one depicted by contemporary accounts.
Frederick Buechner brings a saint to life in Godric, but it’s a real life, and in more ways than one. Buechner took an account of a historical saint from medieval England and built a life with the pieces history had provided. The skill with which he accomplishes this alone makes the book worthwhile, as England is a land with a rich and deep history entwined with Christianity. Godric would pair well with something like the Ecclesiastical History of the Venerable Bede. Buechner’s Godric is born the year before the Norman invasion and provides a Zinn-like “people’s history” view of the rise and fall of monarchies through the eyes of a merchant, a pilgrim, and finally a monk.
Then there is what the book says about sanctity, and this is where Buechner’s genius really shines. The book is not plot-driven, not riveting in the sense of chapters ending on cliffhangers or some over-arching mystery to solve or eminent peril to resolve. It’s something much more real: it’s a life. It’s about how Godric tried to find God. There are brushes with the supernatural, but they are merely hints and shadings. What Buechner drives home is Godric’s own, very human, search. There is no dramatic conversion. There are instead seemingly aimless wanderings as Godric tries to come to grips with his own fear, his own selfishness, and his seeming inability to do true good to those around him. It is in some respect an account of everyone’s life.
What makes Godric a saint? For Buechner it was two things: the perception that people formed of his sanctity, as he lived out the final half of his life in a hermitage beside the River Wear, and something much harder to define. It wasn’t his miracles. Those could be explained away. It wasn’t his holiness or sinlessness, as Buechner makes abundantly clear. As an anchorite, Godric is crotchety, impatient, and sometimes despairing. Moreover, the single more or less constant theme in his life is a relationship that provides the impetus that sends Godric wandering in the first place and which is ultimately culminated in incest and murder.
The thing about sanctity that Buechner might be telling us (and he is indeed saying much, and saying it very well in this book) is that Godric is a saint because he is desperate. He desperately wants to divorce himself from his own sinfulness. He desperately wants to know the love of God, and he’s crazy and stubborn enough to become one of those people who live out this desperation not enmeshed in the relationships within which most of the rest of us live out the struggle but in isolation, discipline, and constant prayer.
There is something else that makes this book wonderful. This is the voice Buechner creates for Godric; it is what makes the novel truly come to life. There’s not only the tone and the style in which he speaks, nor the harsh clarity that makes you know there was a real, breathing person behind these thoughts. There’s also the rhythm. The entire novel reads like a prose poem, with the flow of each sentence and phrase running with a steady cadence, fitting for the life of a saint who is credited as the first English lyric poet. It is almost intoxicating, carrying the reader along like the River Wear must have whispered constantly to Hermit Godric. Godric is a beautiful book beautifully crafted, and I’d love to find an audiobook version by a talented reader.
A couple summers ago my bicycle was stolen. It was my own fault. I left it unlocked outside my office. I had owned that bike since before I had a car, and I mourned its passing with this story, which involves time-travel and (a first for me) zombies. It appeared (with the lovely illustration above) in the Spring 2012 of AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.
You can read about my bicycle here.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’m still enough of an evangelical that hagiography strikes me as foreign. I don’t know what to make of it, this idea that holiness can come out from the introspective realm of spiritual instruction to impinge on historical figures and alleged historical events. Which is perhaps why this first volume of the Little Russian Philokalia, the writings of St. Seraphim, seemed progressively stranger as I read through it.
St. Seraphim lived from the middle of the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth, during which time he became one of the best-known mystics of the Russian Orthodox Church. He lived as a monk and ascetic in the Sarov Monastery in eastern Russia (a city known today as being the center of the Russian nuclear industry). This volume collects the saint’s “Spiritual Instructions” and “Acquisition of the Holy Spirit” as well as an account of the rediscovery and return of his relics.
I found the first portion of the book, the “Spiritual Instructions,” the most accessible. They provided, as I had hoped, some challenging and focusing readings for Lent. Similar to The Practice of the Presence of God, The Imitation of Christ, or other classic works of Christian instruction, these are the sorts of words it seems necessary to always have on tap as a Christian reader. The concise, clear, sharp challenges that, if maybe I let them wash against me constantly like a stream against stone, might actually do some good. How to be silent. How to be generous. How to cultivate a true love of God and others. St. Seraphim’s instructions were also useful because they could provide an avenue into the writings of other Orthodox fathers, as he intersperses them with the words of older saints as well as scripture.
In the second portion of the book I was on less familiar ground, taking the first steps into the thick, alien forest of Russian hagiography. This portion, the “Acquisition of the Holy Spirit,” is a conversation purported to have taken place between the saint and one of his disciples, recorded and only found years later in the days leading up to St. Seraphim’s canonization. Here my cynicism begins to raise its head a bit as the author of the spiritual instructions becomes move into the historical narrative. Because historical figures are always notoriously human, and when they’re not, when they’re portrayed as somehow otherworldly beings, I don’t quite know what to make of it. Several hundred years ago is one thing; the 1830s is something else.
Finally, the volume concludes with (again, to my post-evangelical, Western sensibilities) the strangest and yet most compelling portion of the story. Strange in the sense that here we’re fully in the realm of hagiography, with a dash of apocalyptic prophecy thrown in for good measure. Compelling in the glimpse it provides into the sudden and tragic destruction of the religious heritage of Orthodox Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and its slow and fitful rebirth in the closing decades of the twentieth century. St. Seraphim’s relics are recovered and returned to Sarov, where a church is rebuilt to receive him. Pilgrims flock to the procession. Miracles ensue. What to make of it all?
The paradox is that sanctity, the idea that holiness can truly intrude into the world in very real and tangible circumstances, remains for me one of the most viable arguments for the pursuit of the Christian life. And the first portion of this book illustrates to me the appeal: that a life pursued in humility, love, and devotion is possible. Yet if there are people who truly embody this, as St. Seraphim was reported to, why is it so hard to accept that the results that follow might be the sort of miracles and happenings outlined in the third part? We want our saints at a safe distance, their words coming down to us through the filter of the centuries. It’s harder to deal with them otherwise.