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Godric: A Novel Paperback – December 22, 1999
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If you think a novel about a saint is likely to be a dry and airy sort of thing, think again. Godric was a 12th-century saint--born to Anglo-Saxon parents in Norfolk almost in the year of the Norman invasion (1066 for those of you long unschooled!). He was a peddler and wanderer long before he settled into the life of a hermit in northern England, led there by the famous hermit St. Cuthbert, who told him, "your true nesting place lies farther on, [and] until you reach it, every other place you find will fret you like a cage."
In Godric Frederick Buechner captures the voice and the times of this saint with a style that recalls the richly alliterative language of Middle English poetry. So too does it recall the beautiful earthiness of that literature, reminding us that this time of deep spirituality was also a time of real flesh-and-blood folk. And in some ways this is the deepest point of this delightful (and at times comic) novel: these people, like those who live among us today, become saints not by leaving the body behind but by finding a way to live more deeply within it. They find a way to turn it to glory. --Doug Thorpe
"Godric is a memorable book...a marvelous gem of a book...destined to become a classic of its kind." -- Michael Heskett, Houston Chronicle
"In the extraordinary figure of Godric, both stubborn outsider and true child of God, both worldly and unworldly, Frederick Buechner has found an ideal means of exploring the nature of spirituality. Godric is a living battleground where God fights it out with the world, the Flesh, and the Devil." -- London Times Literary Supplement
"With a poet's sensibly and a high reverent fancy, Frederick Buechner paints a memorable portrait." -- Edmund Fuller, The Wall Street Journal
Frederick Buechner's Godric "retells the life of Godric of Finchale, a twelfth-century English holy man whose projects late in life included that of purifying his moral ambition of pride...Sin, spiritual yearning, rebirth, fierce asceticism--these hagiographic staples aren't easy to revitalize but Frederick Buechner goes at the task with intelligent intensity and a fine readiness to invent what history doesn't supply. He contrives a style of speech for his narrator--Godric himself--that's brisk and tough-sinewed...He avoids metaphysical fiddle, embedding his narrative in domestic reality--familiar affection, responsibilities, disasters...All on his own, Mr. Buechner has managed to reinvent projects of self-purification and of faith as piquant matter for contemporary fiction [in a book] notable for literary finish...Frederick Buechner is a very good writer indeed." -- Benjamin DeMott, The New York Times Book Review
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Buechner has written the story of an English hermit, Godric, from the 12th century. It reads as part memoir and part biography, as Godric changes back and forth between the first- and third-person in the telling of his life's story. It took a bit of time for me to acclimatize my brain to Buechner's narrative style and vocabulary, given my 21st century existence, but once I did so I found Godric's story to be compelling and to some extent, universal.
Godric is someone who moves through life making the most of the opportunities present to him at the time. He is someone whom I would characterize as a survivor. Things go awry, sometimes he knows he is doing wrong, but he does what he thinks he needs to do at the time to get through the day, choosing not to be concerned with the next day until the sun rises on it.
Godric has a sense of Christian ethics, as he occasionally ponders the implications of his actions from the perspective of the Gospel and a clear understanding that there is an eternal destiny for all persons, a destiny that could just as likely be Hell as Heaven. And while he seems to desire Heaven he knows that God's will for him may be for the opposite.
As he looks back over his life Godric sees a point where there was a profound change in his heart for God, a change that came about not through any action on his part but which was entirely the work of God. Buechner writes "The Godric that waded out of Jordan soaked and dripping wet that day was not the Godric that went wading in." Shifting to Godric's voice he prays, "O Thou that asketh much of him to whom thou givest much, have mercy. Remember me not for the ill I've done but for the good I've dreamed. Help me to be not just the old and foolish one thou seest now but once again a fool for thee. Help me to pray. Help me whatever way thou canst, dear Christ and Lord. Amen." (105)
As a Christian Godric was drawn to life as a hermit, but his latter life was no less boring than what came before. Over time his renown as a mystic grows and people seek him out for wisdom and guidance. But Godric knows the truth well, particularly that his own personal struggles with sin are really no different than before. Sin continues to plague him in thought, if perhaps less so in deed. But Godric also knows he belongs to God and he places himself before his Lord and Savior as his only hope for this world and the next.
I read this book knowing it was a novel and I presumed it to be fiction. At the end of Godric's story Buechner has 2 pages of historical notes, and to my surprise I learned that there was really a Godric of Finchale, whose story was chronicled by a monk named Reginald, a character appearing in Buechner's work and whose biography provides the framework for Buechner's tale.
My intent in reading Godric was to enjoy some fiction and Buechner surprised me by incorporating theology to the story in a manner that transcends time. Godric's struggle with sin is mine as well, and we both know that our only hope is in the mercy of Christ.
Having tasted Buechner once, I intend to explore his work again sometime. If you have never read him then I invite you to start here. Jump right in, for the water is delightful!
In the end, the honest display of our sinful nature and the ambiguity of the human response inevitably leads to mocking of hagiography, and that is both an explicit and an implicit theme. I consider it the best part of an interesting, and very good, book.
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