Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Sinning Saint

Samuel Barber's Sea-Snatch, the sixth of his monkish Celtic Hermit Songs, is a song I think about when I'm around water, even in the bath. It's a tempestuous arpeggiated song for the soprano, a whirling cry from a floundering ship.

The lyrics:

It has broken us, it has crushed us, it had drowned us,
O King of the star-bright Kingdom of Heaven,
the wind has consumed us, swallowed us, as timber is
devoured by crimson fire from Heaven.
It has broken us, it has crushed us, it has drowned us,
O King of the star-bright Kingdom of Heaven.

I thought of this short song constantly while reading Frederick Buechner's novel, Godric, a re-imagining of the life of St. Godric, a medieval British ascetic.

I've liked Buechner's autobiographical writing, Now & Then, and Telling Stories, but it was high time to read his fiction. Buechner writes with the kind of austere beauty belonging to post-war letters that we (or at least in my generation, in our immediacy and decadence) largely lack.

In the novel, Godric is an old man, the unwilling narrator for a pious monk-scribe's parchment with the intent of hagiography. But from the first page ("puddling my way home like a drowned man from dark Wear with my ballocks shriveled to beansize in their sack"), Godric is an earthy and cantankerous man who contradicts the idea of his sainthood and challenges our understanding of what a saint is. Rather than a holy man who heals lepers and is visited by Mary as he is popularly imagined, Godric is a man of bodily inclinations, of blustering sins and temptations. He chastises his flesh daily in the frigid eddies of the Wear, an icy river which dominates the novel as a capricious menace and friend.

Godric describes himself to Reginald, the scribe: "Know Godric's no true hermit but a gadabout within his mind, a lecher in his dreams. Self-seeking he is and peacock proud. A hypocrite. A ravener of alms and dainty too. A slothful, greedy bear."

This is a saint who has a Friar Tuckish hearty holiness and says of his friend: "Mouse's sin smacked less of evil than of larkishness the likes of which Our Lord himself could hardly help but wink at when he spied it out in whore and prodigal."

Buechner's writing is sparse and his language carefully chosen. The books is permeated by the cold damp of the twelfth century and the harshness of medieval life. His images are elemental: this is a dark world dominated by the weather and by the crops. Buechner favors Anglo-Saxon words like "beak," "glint," "chill," and "scrap." His sentences have a Celtic lilt. Take this paragraph on Godric's father:

"Endless was the work there was, the seeding, the spreading of dung, reaping and threshing, cutting and storing. In winter there were scythes and plows to mend, the beasts to keep, roofs to patch until your fingers froze. It seems that he was ever striding off in every way but ours so I scarcely had the time to mark the smile or scowl of him..."

This is no high knightly fantasy; this is peasant fare. Reading this novel was a soul-scouring treat, a beautiful irreverent and desperate hymn to a life of yearning. It felt like reading Shakespeare, like a comb for the imagination.

1 comment:

Anthony said...


I'd never heard of Buechner until reading your delightful post. He was extremely prolific, wasn't he. I do like the sound of your hermit Godric. Buechner's style reminds me of J. P. Donleavy, sadly obscure today.

I've added Godric to my wish list. Thank you.