Thursday, January 12, 2012

Godric (Frederick Buechner)

Godric was leant to me by a friend, but it sat on the shelf for almost a year awaiting a breach in my perpetual reading list. Recently I was ready to just give it back without reading because I had held on it so long, but an endorsement on the back cover caught my eye literally moments before I handed it back: “From the book’s opening sentence…any sensible reader will be caught in Godric’s grip...” (Peter Prescott, Newsweek). Well, that sounded like a challenge. “Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.” Upon reading that first line I was skewered like a live pig, but squealing thenceforward with delight through the rest of book.

Frederick Buechner truly writes with a masterful literary and poetic quality. It was irreverent, but wonderfully so, for it happened to balance out the sense of histrionic piety throughout other parts of the book. It was hilarious, crude, and beautiful at the same time. Some of the lines made me blush in modesty (“…My bullocks shriveled to beansize in their sack and old One-eye scarce a barnacle’s length clear of my belly and crying a-mercy”). Some lines struck me dumb with awe (“‘Hold fast to Christ,’ I said, and she to me, ‘In Hell, you are the only Christ I have.’”). It is raw and witty (“[He prayed to] a God he must have hoped by then ruled elsewhere than the carcasses of mortal men”). His prose sings (“Why did we weep?...more than anything, I think, we wept for us, and so it is ever with tears. Whatever be their outward cause, within the chancel of the heart it’s we ourselves for whom they finally fall”). He writes like he doesn’t have to work hard at it. It flows too naturally to have been under stylistic duress of any kind, and I imagine this sort of writing would have eventually unraveled had its author been overly cognizant of his own gifting. It pays tribute to its medieval theme (a middle ages saint), yet it speaks with a modern poignancy and timeless relevance.

You have to be vigilant reading this book, especially at first. The meaning of a sentence will suddenly leap and twist mid-sentence to double back on itself with another ending than you anticipated. He brilliantly evades clich├ęs and predictable interpretations of his characters. If you place yourself in the shoes of the much-derided Reginald, Godric’s biographer, you’d get a good feel for how Buechner chafes at conventional interpretations of religion. He does only as much as he has to in order to help the reader understand something, but he leaves some experience raw and undefined, out of the reach of a deconstructing desire to digest the universe and God almighty with it. Buechner is content with not knowing some things, even about God. “He learned that it was Jesu saved him from the sea, though saved him why, or saved for what deep end he did not learn, nor has he learned it to this day.”

The foibles of his saint, Godric, comes with its medieval share of disgusting habits, a mystical view of nature and religion, slavish self-flagellation, inflation of God’s wrath, deflation of his mercy, and a devaluation of self as a parasite that God tolerates. In worshipful moments Godric slithers and moans like a man who has not yet learned that if a creature can out-moral his God, then by all appearances at least he has bested his God in the only way that counts. The saint cowers because he has not yet realized that if God need defend his belt against us, then we must be formidable challengers indeed. Thus it is pride and not humility that envisions God as monster, and we the despised worms between his toes over which he glowers in greed for his breath back. I for one want no god who suffers my existence merely to pave his roads and bejewel his throne by my praise and groveling adoration. Such a god would be in greater need of my charity, than I his.

There are some truly tragic moments in this story (spoiler alert!). I hate that Godric left De Granville’s pre-pubescent wife to suffer the shame and torment of De Granville’s cruelty. I hate that his friend Mouse died without knowing how much Godric cared. I hate that Godric’s brother was so desperate for a soul-tether, but drowned while searching in the night for his sister. I hate how Godric and his sister fell in love with each other, but were doomed to never find social acceptance of their relationship. But I hated with the author, because I loved with him his story, and his characters.

Clearly Buechner loves the tragic-heroic story of humanity, as dark as it is in some places. But ‘from the slime all gods have risen’, and the author’s celebration of the triumph of love and truth shines through the blackest shadows of human history. He loves mankind for what he is—sexual, sinful, self-punishing, dirty, smelly, starving for a laugh, drowning in his tears. And he loves mankind for what he can be: “As a man dies many times before he’s dead, so does he wend from birth to birth until, by grace, he comes alive at last.” Make no mistake, Godric may have been written as a period piece, but it is reflective of Buechner’s own beliefs. With all of Godric’s flaws, he is still honest, a character trait quite possibly prized by Buechner above every other value except courage and faith.

I have one question that remains after my first bump into Buechner: have I discovered a living Lewis? Methinks so.

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