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.