Buechner’s Sense of Modernity and Godric’s Flawed Sainthood
In Godric, Frederick Buechner uses multiple characters who are at once medieval and modern to not only tell the uncommon tale of a flawed saint, but to depict through medieval text and setting his modern comments, appraisals, and beliefs about what is means to be holy. Buechner chose in picking Saint Godric as a subject brought to life the intriguing story and unsolved puzzle of a flawed saint. With his additions Buechner created characters that were empathetic in modern and medieval language. Through many episodes in the novel his uses poetic language to break down his critics on the time period and uses philosophical expression to recreate the past using his presents ideas.
Buechner’s first illustration of this is found within Godric and Aedlwards relationship. The readers first introduction to Godric’s father is “his name means Keeper of Blessednness. If so, he kept it mostly to himself, more’s the pity. I pity Aedlward.”(Buechner 9), from these lines Buechner shows the reader that Aedlward has been absent in Godric life and that Godric shows signs resents towards him. In the catholic religion it is a commandment to honor thy mother and father and this rule upheld strongly. So for Godric to outwardly express these feeling about his father shows Buechner challenging the readers understanding of being holy. He uses the concept of a father not being a part of his first born sons life to show a contemporary approach not often seen in the middle ages. He demonstrates to the reader that being holy can sometimes contradict human emotions. The law of primogeniture had its origins in medieval Europe, and it’s practices were often adhered to by families of all castes, this would have included Godrics. Godric is a semi-fictionalized life story, retold through Buechner research and artistry. With this in mind, it is possible that Aedlward’s character is based loosely on Buechner’s own father. Not only is Buechnner the eldest son but, in Frederick Buecher: Novelist/Theologian of the Lost and Found written by Marjorie and Charles McCoy, they disclose “Buechner’s characters and plots are drenched in tears. There is, for example, his own father’s suicide”. From this it can be assumed that Buechner incorporated his own feeling about being abandoned by his father, or as Godric admits that “ fear kept Aedlward from us, and next to God what he feared of all things most was an empty belly. He had good cause” (Buechner 10). During Buechner’s early childhood his family moved frequently because his father searched for work, and in 1936 Buechner’s father committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, a result of his conviction that he had been a failure. The catholic religion may assert that one should always honor thy parents in the way of not speaking out against them but Buechner depicted Godric as a medieval yet modern character by him honoring his father through understanding. Godric was able to comprehend that although he wanted his father around more, his father was worried about not providing for his family properly therefore spent most of his time working. The notion of a father feeling pressured to provide for his family is one that can be rationalized throughout any time period, modern and medieval.
Another illustration of a medieval yet modern approach to being holy is found through the character Elric. Like Godric, Elric is a hermit who punishes his body to honor Christ or to make up for his past sins. He is beset by voices, demons, and seems to believe that the devil is constantly tempting him. It is from these very fiends that distinguish Elric from Godric, who sees visions of the Virgin Mary, Angels, John the Baptist, and even Christ. Through Elric, Buechner shows as the McCoys say in there work “faith always runs the risk of taking itself too seriously, in sermons or religious literature, we may focus too easily on some ideal of God ourselves and forget our humanity”(McCoy and McCoy 13). As a result of Elrics constant visions of demons and death Buechner is able to illustrate that to be holy doesn’t means you must always be concerned and worried about sinning and the devil. Symbolized by his thoughts of demons, Elric shows that he is not ready to face death and as Elric trembles on his deathbed saying, “I fear in Paradise I’ll even miss the fiends” (Buechner 120) Buechner displays to the reader an aged paranoid man who has lived his life self-punishing himself in solitude. Instead of using the worlds gifts to lighten his life he chose to be haunted by demons, memories, and mistakes. This is once again, unlike Godric who as the Medieval Sourcebook “Reginald of Durham:Live of St.Godric” notes that “In various voyages he visited many saints’ shrines, to whose protection he was won’t most devoutly to commend himself, more especially the church of St.Andrew in Scotland where he most frequently made and paid his vows… ,and where St Godric would medit ate on the Saints life with abundant tears. Thence he began to yearn for solitude, and to hold his merchandise in less esteem than heretofore”. Godric chose to live a, although troubled sometimes, godly life by visiting holy sites, unlike Elric who in the end is still clinging to the death and the fiends because the demons that have haunted him all his life are better than nothingness.
Furthermore, in the beginning of the 19th episode Elric express to Godric “My skull’s a chapel. So is yours. The thoughts go in and out like godly folk to mass. But what of hands that itch for gold? What of feet that burn to stray down all the soft and leafy paths to Hell, the truant heart that hungers for the love of mortal flesh? A man can’t live his life within his skull.”(Buechner 115) Although said through a medieval voice Buechner uses this line as a universal voice understood by those who believe in any sort of morality. Life’s temptations, desires, or “demons” are always around and with Elric death Godric was able to see that a life shouldn’t be only spent worried about demons. Buechner creates a modern character out of a medieval hermit to demonstrate that being holy can also come from praise, and that one does not need to be religious to understand the “itch”, the “burning”, the “truant heart” (Buechner 115) that comes with life forbidden desires.
These forbidden desires were also seen through Godric and Burcwen’s complicated relationship. One of the driving tensions in the novel is Godric’s relationship with his sister, Burcwen and with this Buechner created character relationships that the reader flips the pages anticipating the moment Godric and Burcwen consummate their feelings for each other. However, Buechner uses incest, one of the most established mortal sins and social taboos, as a grotesque image to break down the readers pre-established conclusions about love and divergent relationships. Although incest is unlawful, with the way Godric speaks of his love, Buechner was able to use this atypical relationship to question the readers thought and traditions of love. When Godric mourns that “The worst that Godric ever did, he did for love. Nor was it of an earthy sort that seeks its own but love that gives itself away for the beloved’s sake, and thus, when all is said and done, the love that God himself commands” (Buechner 155) he depicts his true feeling and suggest that love is beyond social and perhaps moral norms. Godric’s outlandish love for Burcwen evokes sympathy from the reader therefore furthering the readers willingness to question their pre-established conventions. Godric and Burcwen relationship is one that is visited constantly throughout the episodes of the novel and partially the reason for the death of both Burcwen and Godrics brother. This along with Burcwen’s declaration that “unless I go, I’ll hang myself. They’ll bury me at the crossroads with a stake drove through my heart” (Buechner 26) is used to further exemplify that love, no matter who it is with, can alter a persons thinking and can make a person perform preposterous acts. With this Buechner again creates modern theories within medieval characters. The belief that love is powerful enough to extend past religious and lawful rules is a concept even beyond Buechner’s time.
The most prominent example of Buechner’s use of a medieval and modern character to demonstrate a new meaning of holy can be found in Godric himself. Towards the end of the 23rd episode Godric express “How useless is my life. My flesh is ever prey to lust and pride and sloth. I let folks call me Holy Father though I know myself to be of all God’s sinful sons most foul.” (Buechner 143), with this Buechner create the most medieval and modern character because Godric expresses pride.Though he revolts when Reginald declares him a saint, Godric maintains an ironic self-deprecating sense of humor when rejecting Reginald insistence on making him an idols or saint to others. Godric shows that he is too proud to admit that he has done some good in his life, and has ultimately become a delegate of holiness in spite of himself. Buechner recognized that most people yearn for spiritual blessings and acceptance as Godric seeks throughout the novel. The idea that God or anyone would choose such a deeply flawed and sinful human being to be an example of holiness, or be amongst the many saints who have devoted their entire lives to being in Gods image, is one that is inconceivable. It is because Godric has stolen, lied, was incestuous, and displayed pride that the reader is comforted in their own sinful state. By Godric partaking in sins that can happen in any time period Buechner once again creates modern and medieval character. In fact, of all the seven deadly sins pride is the worst and the sin that most humans fall prey to. Through Sabine Baring-Goulds “Lives of Saints” the reader is given the ability to see the effect of pride on a persons conscious. Baring-Goulds asserts “He watched, fasted, and scourged himself , and wore always a hair shirt and an iron cuirass. He sat night after night, even in mid-winter, in the cold Wear” ( Baring-Goulds 323), from this the reader is able to see how self-punishing Godric was with himself.
Godric’s pride kept him from admitting to his brother William where Burcwen was and why. It was because of Godric’s lie that his youngest brother loss his life. Pride is a sin that most are guilty of committing and have continued to commit in modern and medieval times. Additionally, through Godric”s small lie the reader empathizes of wanting to change their past. The notion of making a grave mistake that can’t be changed or reversed is a common theme throughout the novel. In the episode with Peregrine Small, Finchale and his young wife, and the death of William Godric expresses great grieve about his mistakes and how through time he can never make up for his loss. During the entirety of the novel Godric possesses this self-loathing deposition that the reader cannot comprehend. It isn’t until the end of the novel where the reader see why Buechner wrote the novel similarly to a puzzle for the reader to complete through each episode.
Reginald of Durham. “Life of St.Godric” in Coulton, G.G. Social life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation rot. “Medieval Sourcebook.: fordam.edu/halsall/source/godrick.STEB 2003
Baring-Gould, Sabine. The lives of the saints. Edinburgh: John Grant, 1914. Print.
McCoy, Marjorie and McCoy, Charles. Frederick Buechner: Novelist/Theologian of the Lost and Found. San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1988. Print.
Buechner, Frederick. Godric:. San Francisco: Harper, 1990. Print.