Good novels invariably resonate on many levels: a captivating story; unique perspectives; profound insights; believable, multifaceted characters; entertaining situations; realistic portrayals or people and events; glimpses into “other worlds,” whether historical or fantastical; magnificent language. And sometimes one has the good fortune of reading a book that satisfies on all these levels—a book such as Godric, one of many novels by the eclectic and prolific writer, Frederick Buechner.
Godric tells the story of Godric of Finchale (1065–1170), an extraordinary twelfth-century Englishman who exemplified “living life to the full.” As a young man he worked as a merchant, entrepreneur, and sailor/adventurer, and later adopted the mantle of a pilgrim, hermit, great lover of animals, mystic, and was eventually acclaimed (though never officially canonized) as a popular saint. Although there are several accounts of Godric’s life, Buechner’s remarkable reimagining of his life has Godric himself telling the tale. And what an adventure it is. And what an eye-opening and heart-throbbing evocation of medieval life.
What impressed me above all else about this book was the extravagant beauty of the language. From the very first sentence to the last, readers are inundated with colorful images and compelling anecdotes that make it feel as if you are in the presence of the speaker. For instance, how’s this for an arresting opening sentence: “Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.” And how’s this for a description of taking delight in the surrounding world in spite of feeling deeply sorrowful over the troubles and suffering of the poor:
“But when melody wells up in thrushes’ throats, and bees buzz honeysong,
and rock and river clap hands in summer sun, then misery’s drowned in minstrelsy,
and Godric’s glad in spite of all.”
In a more philosophical mode, here is Godric’s brief reflection on the enigmatic nature of time:
“But what is time itself, dear friend? What is the sea where hours float?
Am I daft, or is it true there’s no such thing as hours past and other hours
still to pass, but all of them instead are all at once and never gone? Is there
no time lost that ever was? Is there no time yet to come that’s not here now?”
And as a final example of Godric’s exuberantly poetic prose, here’s how he self-reflects on the nature of prayer.
“What’s prayer? It’s shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike,
if any, who’s to say? It’s reaching for a hand you cannot touch. The silence
is so fathomless that prayers, like plummets, vanish in the sea. You beg. You
whimper. You load God down with empty praise. You tell him sins that he already
knows full well. You seek to change his changeless will. Yet Godric prays the way
he breathes, for else his heart would whither in his breast. Prayer is the wind that
fills his sail. Else waves would dash him on the rocks, or he would drift with witless
tides. And sometimes, by God’s grace, a prayer is heard.”
In a review of Godric published in the New York Times Book review, it is observed that that, in writing this historically based but highly imaginative rendering Godric’s life, Buechner displays “a fine readiness to invent what history doesn’t supply.” To my mind, this remark reminds us of an important, but often overlooked, insight about life in general. What we can see and make a record of (as history) does not reveal all there is to know and understand about anything. Yes, our brains are wonderfully adept at observation and analysis, but how woefully inadequate this knowledge would be without our equally amazing capacities for imaginative insight, for reaching into areas of thought and feeling that go beyond surface characteristics into the deeper and truer nature of what is being presented to us. And isn’t that what both self-reflection and inspiring literature are all about?
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness