Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Godric is the second of Frederick Buechner’s books that take place in early medieval England. I reviewed Brendan: A Novel, here on the blog a couple months ago. This month, I turned with great eagerness to Godric.

Godric was published in 1981, so it came before Brendan, which was published in 1987. Probably if I was clever I should have read them in order of publication, but ho hum, oh well.

Godric was published to great acclaim. Edmund Fuller of The Wall Street Journal said in his review, “With a poet’s sensibly and a high reverent fancy, Frederick Buechner paints a memorable portrait.” Similar praise came from The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, and Publisher’s Weekly. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

All this to say that this is a remarkable novel, and again, Buechner succeeds in bringing this all-to-human saint to life, warts and all.

I didn’t realize until 3/4 of the way through this book that this story, like Brendan’s, was based on the life of a real person, St. Godric of Finchale (1065 – 1170AD). Godric was a popular medieval saint, but he was never formally canonized.

His official hagiography (life of a saint) was written during his lifetime by Reginald of Durham, a monk who knew Godric, and who apparently had Godric bless his manuscript before Godric died. There are apparently other hagiographies of Godric as well, but Reginald’s is the most important.

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St. Godric of Finchale, from the Cotton Faustina B manuscript, in the British Library. Image from Wikicommons

The bare bones of Godric’s story is that he was born to poor parents, and became a pedlar, merchant, and finally a sailor, plying his trade to places both near and far. It is possible he owned the ship that ferried the crusader king Baldwin I of Jerusalem to Jaffa in 1102 AD to prepare for a siege against Jerusalem.

During his years at sea, he apparently went to Farne Island, where he had a spiritual encounter with Cuthbert, the beloved Bishop of Lindisfarne, who was long dead by this point. This encounter changed Godric. He dedicated himself to Christ and devoted the rest of his life to Him.

Eventually Godric ended up at Finchale, which is around four miles from the monastery at Durham, where Cuthbert was buried. He lived there for around 50-60 years as an extremely ascetic hermit and died as a very old man.

Godric’s story is a fascinating one. That Reginald actually knew the saint makes his hagiography even more interesting, I think. But even so, it is a “official” account of his life, with hardly a wrinkle showing.

Buechner’s account has no such restraints. There are plenty of wrinkles in this tale. Buechner’s Godric is irrascable, selfish, bitter, and guilt-ridden, and he spends much of the book pining for the love of his life, who happens to be his sister.

I’m glad that I have read a couple of Buechner’s other biographical works – The Son of Laughter (the story of the biblical patriarch Jacob), and Brendan. Both of those books I enjoyed, but they gave me some familiarity of Buechner’s penchance for presenting “holy” figures as all-too-human, no halo attached.

As always, the writing in this book is strong. Buechner gives us lyrical and thoughtful prose, filled with sentences that make you stop and ponder. For example, when he takes his mother to Rome to pray for his father’s soul, they look out over the ruined Coliseum and weep.

Why did we weep? I asked myself. We wept for all that grandeur gone. We wept for martyrs cruelly slain. We wept for Christ, who suffered death upon a tree and suffers still to see our suffering. But more than anything, I think, we wept for us, and so it ever is with tears. Whatever be their outward cause, within the chancel of the heart it’s we ourselves for whom they finally fall. 

The book is full of passages like this. It’s a book that wrestles with faith, doubt and devotion, and what those things meant to Godric in his time and place, and gives you pause to ponder what they mean to you in yours. It’s a portrait of a sinful man who seeks absolution and mercy, and who tries in his humanness to overcome his flaws.

It’s a book that requires more than one reading, I think. I will admit that I did not love it upon first reading, but as I flip back over the pages and see all the places that I underlined and marked, I feel a greater appreciation for it. It’s a book that, like Godric himself, I suspect, you have to sit with awhile to really get to know and appreciate.

There’s a reason why this book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. This honest look at one person’s spiritual journey refuses to rest on pat answers or platitudes, yet it remains reverent all the same. In the book Buechner gives Godric more than one encounter with Cuthbert, and as well with a mysterious figure named Gillian, an angel-type being that encourages him even before he meets Cuthbert to embrace Christ. And despite his flaws, and turnings away, Godric’s life is a trajectory towards Christ all the same.

Godric’s story is not told in chronological order. It starts with Godric as an old man, looking back on his life, telling the story to Reginald, and this older Godric’s story is interspersed with the tale of his life as a child and going forward. I think this makes for a richer book, as we get Godric’s interpretation of his life’s choices and reflections on them as the book moves along, which makes the story deeper.

I can’t quite decide whether I found this book depressing or hopeful. It’s a bit more gloomy than the other two biographies, to be sure, and because of that I found it more difficult going. But it’s not all shadows. The light peeks in here and there, sometimes more strongly than others. Godric’s final words in the book, just before he dies, are, All’s lost. All’s found. Farewell. That pretty well sums up  the tension in the book between despair and hope.

At one point Godric remarks, How seemly is a life when told to children thus, with all the grief and ugliness snipped out. I suppose it’s how monk Reginald will tell of mine. 

This book contains all the grief and ugliness, to be sure. But because of that, the light that shines is all the brighter.

It’s a complex book. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s a marvellous portrait of one man’s life, in all it’s glory and shame, and the telling of it asks questions of us. And in the end, that’s the kind of book that means the most.


Other posts in the Year of Reading Buechner series:

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation


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Book review: The Private Lives of the Saints, by Dr. Janina Ramirez

The subtitle of this book, Power, Passion and Politics in Anglo-Saxon England, is a clue to why I was attracted to it. There is not a lot of books on Anglo-Saxons out there, and even fewer on the saints of the period. I was very glad to see that someone had tackled this subject!

Dr. Ramirez is an Oxford lecturer, BBC broadcaster, researcher, and author. Her aim in this book is to widen the stories of the Anglo-Saxon saints to encompass the times in which they lived, and to show how their influence in that tumultuous time gives us clues about the culture and society of the Anglo-Saxons themselves. The book was published in 2015 by WH Allen.

Needless to say, this is a subject near and dear to my heart, so it was with great eagerness that I opened the book. I was a little afraid that Dr. Ramirez would start from the seemingly more and more popular societal view that the Christians were the source of all that is wrong in our world (ok, maybe an exaggeration but you know what i mean, don’t you?), but thankfully I did not see that bias in this book. I found it to be a fair, balanced, and ultimately fascinating view of these real people who lived so very long ago.

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I will admit to knowing nothing about Dr. Ramirez before reading this book, but I was delighted to find she is has many BBC TV specials to her name (including one on The Treasures of the Anglo Saxons) , as well as print publications both academic and mainstream. She has her PhD thesis, The Symbolic Life of Birds in Anglo-Saxon England available at her website. Cool! Plus, she does many lectures and hosts a podcast, Art Detective. Phew! Busy lady! Image from her Facebook page. 

The book begins with a short but succinct description of Anglo-Saxon England. as well as an important explanation of the word, “saint”.  Too often we take our modern definition of “saint” – an extra-holy person officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church – to frame our understanding of these early saints. However, in the Anglo-Saxon period, a person was declared a saint by the common consensus of the people, which meant that pretty much anyone with influence and high status could earn this title. And even some without those qualifiers.

The lines between secular and sacred, the worldly and the otherworldly, are incredibly hard to define in the early medieval period. A king could be a saint, and a bishop could rule like a king. The idea that someone could be declared a saint simply due to popularity is something that is hard to grasp from our twenty-first century perspective. 

Ramirez gives us a good example from modern times to help us understand how this worked. Princess Diana was a royal figure, who lived in the public eye, and who was known for her good deeds and kindness. Her death sparked worldwide mourning on an heretofore unseen scale. In Anglo-Saxon England, Diana would likely have beeen heralded as a saint (with the caveat that of course, a saint in the early medieval period would also have the added mantle of Christian piety attached). But her example gives us an understanding of the mixture of public status, power, and virtuous living that seized the imaginations of the Anglo-Saxons and prompted them to confer the title of “saint” on various people in their society.

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Princess Di, a modern-day saint? Image by John McIntyre on Flickr

The book looks at the important Anglo-Saxon saints in chronological order, starting with Alban, Britain’s first Christian martyr in the 3rd or 4th century,  and ending with Alfred the Great (died 899 AD). Along the way she covers many of the saints that I have discussed on the blog, such as Brigid, Patrick, Columba, Cuthbert, Hilda, and Bede; plus a few others that I haven’t got to  yet: Alban, Gregory, Wilfrid, and Alfred.

In each chapter Dr. Ramirez gives us a thorough understanding of the times in which the person lived, and attempts to go beyond the official hagiographic account of the saint to explore what this person was really like, as well as their impact on their society. Along the way we learn fascinating details about the Anglo-Saxons and the incredible diversity of people, religion and culture that made up the mix of life at that time.

Dr. Ramirez gives us a really good principle to follow when studying the past, and it’s one that resonated with me. It is exactly this principle that has made it easier for me, as a novelist, to tackle the sometimes daunting task of bringing an era that is so far removed from our own to life:

…it is a central premise when studying the past to remember that humanity never changes beyond recognition, and regardless of the seeming differences between people past and present, basic human interests remain largely the same. 

It is this connection to the humanity of these sometime plastic and daunting figures that makes The Private Lives of the Saints so interesting.

I was happy to see that my own ramblings on these subjects on the blog lined up fairly well with what Dr. Ramirez presents in her book. As I have said before, I am very much an amateur on these subjects – I’m a novelist, not an academic historian – but I have done careful research on the times and people of the Early Medieval period in order to present that era as accurately as I can in my novel.

Dr. Ramirez does take a different view of Brigid than I did, which is fair. She come down on the side of the theory that Brigid was not a real person, but her cult grew out of a Christianizing of the goddess Brigantia. I won’t quibble with her. I think there are compelling cases to be made for either view. And I would certainly not recommend you skip that chapter if you disagree with her on that, because if you did you would miss one of the highlights of the book for me. The chapter on Brigid contains a wonderful explanation of the history of monasticism and how the Celts looked to the early Desert Fathers for inspiration as they established their monasteries in extreme, harsh locations. This chapter is well-worth reading, even if you might not agree with her ultimate conclusion about Brigid.

I also loved that Ramirez included a couple of favourites of mine who are not officially names “saints” but whose influence cannot be denied, that being the Venerable Bede and Alfred the Great (I haven’t done a post on him yet, but I definitely will!).  They were highly important figures not only in their day but also in our own. We owe a lot to them both, and in this book you will find out why.

I highly recommend The Private Lives of the Saints. I learned a lot, but never get bogged down in dry history. Dr. Ramirez has brought these people and the era in which they lived into bright relief. I really appreciate her careful and thorough scholarship throughout, as well as her knack of making it all so very interesting.

I give this one 5 stars. Perfect for lovers of history, especially of the Anglo-Saxon era, but really for anyone who wants to understand more about these fascinating people who have shaped the world we live in today.


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Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

American writer Frederick Buechner has written four memoirs: Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (1982); Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation (1983); Telling Secrets (1991) and The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found (2000)

Throughout the course of this year’s reading series, A Year of Reading Buechner, I am working my way through the memoirs. I read the first one, A Sacred Journey, a couple of months ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and so it was with great anticipation that I settled  down on the couch to read Memoir #2, Now and Than: A Memoir of Vocation. 

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I was not disappointed. Like the first one, this second memoir is short, but full of rich meditations on life and vocation.

A Sacred Journey finished at the point where Buechner is going off to seminary to become a Presbyterian minister, and this book begins right where he left off. He details his life at college, and the beginning stages of his career as a college professor and a writer.

However, “details” is probably the wrong word. Unlike The Alphabet of Grace which took readers through one day in detail, this book is more of a bird’s-eye view of about thirty years in his life, in which he began as a student and ends as a best-selling author and successful lecturer.

The book is broken up into three sections. The first, New York, details his life as a student at Union Theological Seminary, his wrestling with the decision to give up writing to become a minister, and his marriage to his wife, Judy.

However, as it turns out, he doesn’t exactly have to make the choice between writing and the church. Shortly after his graduation, when he had resolved to set writing aside and embrace his call as a minister, and was waiting to find a church at which to serve, he received a letter from a colleague who was trying to organize a full-time religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, and asks Buechner if he would take it on. The second section of the book, called Exeter, takes place here, where Buechner and his wife move and he accepts the job as Head of the Religion Department.

It’s not exactly the same as being the minister of a local church, but he finds out it is very much like it. As well as conducting classes at the Academy, Buechner is called upon to preach at the (then mandatory) chapel services, where he encounters a congregation of young, bright, skeptical, and even hostile youth who attend services only because they are forced to be, as part of their requirement for their degrees.

And these students, who share, with all of us, the same dark doubts and wild hopes, in turn force Buechner to be on his toes. As he explains,

what little by little I learned from those years at Exeter was that unless those who proclaim the Gospel acknowledge honestly that darkness and speak bravely to the wildness of those hopes, they might as well save their breath for all the lasting difference their proclaiming will make to anybody. 

During his nine years at Exeter, as the Religion Department grew under his leadership, his family grew, too. Three daughters came along, and with them, a cosy family life. But after about four years, he takes a year off to do some writing, out of which comes a novel, The Final Beast. 

It is also during the years at Exeter that he encounters Agnes Sanford, whose teachings on healing prayer had a great influence on many Christians both then, and now. From her he learns how to pray, how to listen in prayer, and the importance of faith in prayer. And for one whose early childhood was marred by the suicide of his father, her teachings on the healing of memories must have struck a profound chord.

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Phillips Exeter Academy, where they still have a Religion Department. It includes a course called Faith and Doubt, which requires the students to read one of Buechner’ s works, The Alphabet of Grace. I think he must be pleased by that. Image by JeffL on Flickr

The final section of the book, Vermont,  is about the time after Exeter, when he left the thriving Religion Department and moved to Vermont. There, crippled by doubt that he was making the right choice, he lays aside his busy academic life and begins to write in earnest.  It is during this time that he comes face to face with a character who will engage him like none other before, Leo Bebb, who becomes the main character of The Book of Bebb, published originally in four parts (1971, 1972, 1974 and 1977) and finally bundled together and published together in 1979.

During this time Buechner’s daughters grow up and move out, and as he says,

Life went on, of course, and I managed to get around much as before, but there were times when it felt like trying to get around on broken legs, and there are times when it feels that way still. 

As one whose children have left the nest to follow their own adventures, I can very much relate.

This book is engaging and thought-provoking.  Buechner revisits the theme he explored in A Sacred Journey, that of looking at our lives as not only “what happens to us” but as how God is speaking to us through the events in our lives.

Listen to your life, he writes. All moments are key moments. He further explains,

What are the words, what is the meaning, that this living alphabet of events spells out?–not meaning in the sense of a lesson to be drawn, a moral to be appended, but meaning in the sense of what your life means to you, of what your life is telling you about yourself? 

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It’s a good reminder to stop and ponder these things, and to think about how God arranges your life, and the decisions your make and the paths you take, along with the ones not taken, and how it all becomes more than the sum of its parts.  Not a movie, but more like a stone that Joshua took from the Jordan as the Israelites passed over and set on the side of the river as a remembrance, for the Israelites to revisit and remember their great escape. There are a great many of these remembrance stones to be found along the path of our lives, if we would just look for them.

In this book Buechner also touches briefly on the craft of writing. I found a couple of good pointers.  One, to use words in your writing that are the most accurate and alive that you can find. This is great advice for any writer, whether of fiction or non-fiction.

I also like this advice:

If you have to choose between words that mean more than what you have experienced and words that mean less, choose the ones that mean less because that way you leave room for your hearers to move around in and for yourself to move around in too. 

All in all, this is a graceful, poetic, interesting memoir that is not only about Frederick Buechner and his life as a lecturer and author from the 1950s to the 1980s, but it is also about every one of us. As he says in the introduction,

If you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story. I do it also in the hope of encouraging others to do the same–at least to look back over their own lives, as I have looked back over mine, for certain themes and patterns and signals that are so easy to miss when you’re caught up in the process of living them. 

I think he succeeds, and so I highly recommend this book.

Listen to your life. You may just hear God’s voice speaking to you, too, and be surprised and delighted at what He says.


Other posts in this series:

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

 

Cynewulf the Poet

There are only a few Old English poets known by name, and Cynewulf (pronounced “kin-eh-wolf”) is one of them. We can definitively ascribe four poems to him, which may not seem like a lot, but these four poems together comprise several thousand lines of poetry. There are a couple more which are possibly his, including The Dream of The Rood, which I blogged about here.

It is difficult to determine exactly when Cynewulf lived. His poems appear in two of the manuscripts that survive from the Early Medieval period, the Exeter and Vercelli books, both of which are a collection of poems and other works.  These date to the second half of the tenth century, so we know he lived before then. Dates as early as the 8th century and as late as the 9th are given as to when he actually lived and wrote his poems, with perhaps more credence being given to the 9th century dates, for reasons I don’t have space to catalogue here.

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Lindisfarne Island, Northumbria. Home of Cynewulf? We just don’t know for certain…. CC image courtesy of David Newman on Flickr

Little is known about the poet himself, but he does leave a few clues behind. First of all, linguistic evidence in his poems tells us they are written in the Anglian dialect of the Anglo-Saxon language (our Old English), as opposed to the Saxon dialect. Therefore scholars believe that he lived in Northumbria, and possibly Mericia,. The Saxon dialect was more prominent in Wessex and Kent.

Secondly, he was a learned man, as we see a high level of sophistication in his poetry. As the poems are religious in nature, he was likely a monk or priest. That he came from the Church is also surmised by the fact that his poems referenced other Latin works, and only the people in holy orders knew Latin.

Scholars disagree as to who, exactly, Cynewulf was. His name is of Anglo-Saxon origin, so he was likely not a Celt. There was a Bishop of Lindisfarne named Cynewulf, who died around 780 A.D., who is named as a likely candidate. Others postulate he could be a priest of that name who lived in Dunwich in the 800s, or even Cenwulf, the Abbot of Petersborough, who died in 1006 AD. But this is all speculation, based upon these figures having the same name and living Northumbria or Mercia, so we can’t say for certain.

From the autobiographical epilogues in the poems, we know that at one point in his life he enjoyed the favour of princes and the gifts of kings. He could have been a thegn or a high-ranking scopScholars also presume he was a warrior at some point, and as well that he knew much about sea travel, based on the content of his poems. Other than these tantalizing tidbits, we do not know anything about the poet himself.

 

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The Old English and modern English translation from the beginning of Christ II. Image from Mere Inkling

You might wonder how we know that four poems in particular, namely, Juliana, Christ II (both found in the Exeter Book), Elene, and the Fates of the Apostles (both found in the Vercelli Book), were actually written by Cynewulf. Well, it’s simple. He signed his name to them.

Not just any old signature, though. In the poems’ epilogues in which he gave some of the story of his life and asked for prayers,  he included a runic acrostic containing the letters c, y, n, (e), w,u,l,f. The “e” is not included in all four signatures.

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Runes are the characters used in Anglo-Saxon writing. In the poems these runes both spell his name and stand for a word, so it is not necessarily easy to see that he has signed his name to the poems. However, he does leave us a clue, for in one of the epilogues he says, Here anyone who takes pleasure in songs, if he is sharp of mind, may discover who composed these verses. 

The  Vercelli Book languished in a dark corner of the Capitulary Library of Vercelli, in northern Italy, until it was re-discovered in the late 1800s and translated by scholars. One of these, John Kemble, is credited with discovering Cynewulf’s acrostic signature in one of the poems and subsequently it was found in the other three as well.

Interestingly, this is thought to be the first “signed” work in English literature. Previous to this, writers of such works preferred to remain anonymous, so as to give God all the glory for their acts of creativity.  However we shouldn’t assume that by signing his name  Cynewulf  sought personal glory. He states that he wished others to pray for him, thus perhaps emphasizing spiritual rewards rather than material ones for his work.

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I have been unable to find a picture of Cynewulf’s acrostic runic signature as seen in the original MS, but here is a typed version of the autobiographical epilogue in Elene, where you can see how he integrated the Anglo-Saxon runes into the Latin characters of the other words. Image from Pgenglish2015

The four poems are written in the typical alliterative style of Anglo-Saxon poetry, such as BeowulfElene is the longest poem, comprised of 1,321 lines, and it is about the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. It not all poetry, it also contains a prose section. It is thought to be his finest work, and because of that, some speculate it is the last one of the four to be written, but of course we do not know this for sure. Juliana (731 lines), is another hagiographic poem, about St. Juliana, who was martyred for refusing to marry a pagan man. Christ II (427 lines)also known as the Ascension, is a meditation on a sermon given by Pope Gregory, on the resurrection of Christ. It is the second part of a trilogy on the advent, ascension, and second coming of Christ, all of which are by different authors. The Fates of the Apostles (122 lines), is a poetic telling of the life and death of the twelve apostles of Christ.

Aside from the hidden runic acrostic signature, which I think is pretty cool, the other cool thing about Cynewulf is that he is responsible for one of the most iconic terms in our modern day. As many of you know, J.R.R. Tolkien, aside from being an author, was first and foremost an Anglo-Saxon scholar. He, of course, was very familiar with Cynewulf and his poems, and it is in the poem Christ II where he found the term middangeardwhich translates as, “middle-earth”.

The lines read:

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, above the middle-earth sent unto men, and true radiance of the sun, bright above the stars – thou of thy very self illuminest for every season!

Very Tolkien-esque, no? Earendel can be translated, “radiance of the dawn”, and is a reference to John the Baptist in the poem. But these words had a profound effect on Tolkien, inspiring him to write the “Lost Voyage of Earendel” in 1916, where the character Earendel is transformed into a voyager who carries the morning star on his brow across the sky.

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Earendil, by Alarie Tano, on DeviantArt

Amazing that this long-dead, obscure poet could still have such a profound impact on our culture today. I’m sure he would be stunned if he knew.

But maybe he does. Perhaps Tolkien and he have had great discussions in the world beyond this world. I’d like to think so!


This post is one of a continuing series on Anglo-Saxon literature. You can see the other posts by clicking the following links: 

The Dream of the Rood

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Cotton Library

Beowulf Basics

 

Featured image is the Exeter Book, from Wikicommons

 

 

 

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

In 1968, Frederick Buechner had just moved with his family to a farmhouse in Vermont, after concluding a successful stint as a the department head of the Religion department at Philip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Buechner began working on a new novel, but making the transition from writing amidst a busy career to focussing solely on writing was a challenge, and he soon found himself struggling. He writes in his memoir, Now and Then, that the writing of it…was so painful that I find it hard, even now, to see beyond the memory of the pain to whatever merit it may have.

In the midst of this struggle he received an invitation from the Chaplain at Harvard to present the Noble Lecture series in the winter of 1969, a proposal which both flattered and intimidated Buechner. Previous presenters had included luminaries such as Richard Niebuhr, and Buechner was uncertain he was up to the task.

However, the Chaplain, Charles Price, upon hearing Buechner’s concerns, wrote back, suggesting that he write something about “religion and letters”. And out of that thin sliver of inspiration, The Alphabet of Grace was born; first as the lecture series, and subsequently published as a book.

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Buechner’s idea was to write about the everyday events of life,

…as the alphabet through which God, of his grace, spells out his words, his meaning, to us. So The Alphabet of Grace was the title I hit upon, and what I set out to do was to try to describe a single representative day of my life in a way to suggest what there was of God to hear in it.

The book is broken up into three sections: Gutturarls (6:45-7:30 AM); Sibilants (7:30 -8:30 AM), and Absence of Vowels (8:30 AM – 11 PM). At the time Buechner’s family was growing up around him, and he writes of ordinary things such as getting up in the morning, having breakfast, dropping the kids off at school, and going to work–which in his case was to the nearby church where he co-opted a Sunday School room in which to write–followed by going home and finally to bed.

An ordinary day, in other words, such as is lived by many ordinary people. But don’t be fooled. Out of this ordinary day Buechner has crafted an extraordinary book, which will linger with you long after it is finished. It is a long meditation on how to see God in the midst of an ordinary life, and the difference that makes to the person living it.

The first sentence of the book is this:

At its heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. 

His point is that people understand concepts through the lenses of their own experiences, whether that be the concept of family, love, or friendship. And so it is with our understanding of God and faith. We meet Him in the daily ordinariness of our own existence, or not at all, and this is the theme that runs through this book.

Right at the beginning he quotes a passage from one of his own books (The Final Beast) in which the character, a young clergyman, lies down in the grass, praying a fervent prayer of only one word: Please. A prayer of longing, not entirely sure of what he is asking, until he clarifies it. Please come, Jesus. 

And nothing happens, at least, nothing that anyone would notice. Except for the young man, who, in the midst of an extraordinary moment of timelessness and significance, hears two branches of an apple tree strike together in the wind: clack-clack.

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Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

 

This was not just a moment in Buechner’s novel. He explains in The Alphabet of Grace that this was a moment he lifted out of his life and put in the novel. And it perfectly describes the way in which a person can be moved out of unbelief into faith, in ways that are hard to explain to anyone else but real, nonetheless.

The quote from the novel continues,

It was an agony of gladness and beauty falling wild and soft like rain. Just clack-clack, but praise him, he thought. Praise him. Maybe all his journeying, he thought, had been only to bring him here to hear two branches hit each other twice like that, to see nothing cross the threshold but to see the threshold, to hear the dry clack-clack of the world’s tongue at the approach of the approach of splendour. 

This idea, of the ordinary moment being transformed into one of transcendence, is the idea that Buechner explores throughout the book. The clack-clack of those branches are interwoven in and out of the ordinary events of his day.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Buechner is a giant of faith, who has it all figured out. Part of his great appeal is that he shows himself just as he is, doubting, confused, and weary, hanging on by the skin of his teeth, so to speak. And yet, he cannot even now turn away from the path.

Cannot is not the right word. If faith is anything, it is a choice. God comes to us with his hand outstretched, and it is up to us to take it, or not. In the moments of his day, through the interactions with his wife, his children, through the struggle of putting words down that convey exactly what he means, Buechner shows us how the choice to take that hand is presented again and again. It’s so easy to forget, in the midst of the minutes passing, that at every moment is a moment in which we can take that hand.

Doubt is not fatal to faith. In fact, doubt can strengthen faith, through an honest wrestling through the questions that plague us. Buechner writes of doubt, and the longing for a miracle that would put all the doubts to rest. But then he muses,

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. 

And so, through the ordinary day of an ordinary man, we see his journey and gain a new understanding of our own., We hear the clack-clack of the branches, signalling the approach of the approach of splendour. 

And with him we say, praise Him.

Society News: The Church

This post is part of an ongoing series, in which I look at various classes of 7th century Anglo-Saxon England society. For previous posts, click the links below. 

Society News: Introduction

Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

Society News: The Upper Crust


I am working my way down through Anglo-Saxon society in these series of posts, and this week I will be discussing the church.  First, just to clarify terms, when I say “the church”, I’m not writing about the average everyday people who might attend a service on Sundays. In particular, I am writing about the men and women who made up the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the seventh century.

The men and women of the Christian church had a bit of a dual identity in terms of where they stood, society-wise. The church was made up of individuals who came from various classes of society, and so there you would find the sons and daughters of kings rubbing shoulders with those who were further down the social ladder. Monks and nuns could be just about anyone, and in theory, so could the abbots and bishops and abbesses, given that they were taken from the ranks of the regular clergy.

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The Anglo-Saxon church at Monkwearmouth, which, together with its “twin” at Jarrow, was one of the earliest monasteries in Britain. The bottom part of the tower and the west wall are from the original building, built in 674 AD. It is where the Venerable Bede lived and worked.

However, it is true to say that many of the higher-ranking clergy also came from the higher ranks of society. Both St. Aidan and St. Columba were from the Ui Neill clan of Ireland, a very powerful and influential clan, and it is likely that both of these men were high-ranking men in their clans, perhaps even of royal blood.  There were exceptions, of course. St. Patrick of Ireland started off as an English slave in Ireland, you don’t get much lower class than that! Depending on which story you believe, St. David may have been the result of a rape, and grew up in a nunnery. Both these men became the most-respected clergymen in their countries, and so you can see that in the church hierarchy a person’s worth was not necessarily tied to their original status in society.

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Beautiful stained glass commemorating Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, found at St. Michael Church, Workington. Cuthbert is one of those whose original status in society is disputed. Some scholars suggest he came from noble birth, others that he came from a poor family. Either way, he became of one England’s greatest saints. Photo from Wikicommons. 

As the Christian church began to get established in Northumbria, it began to amass land, through gifts from kings who wanted to see the church succeed. Most notably, we can see that the monastery Lindisfarne was begun by the Irish bishop/abbot Aidan, who was granted land by the Bernician King Oswald in 634 AD  to start a monastery close to his royal seat at Bebbanburg. Oswald had converted to Christianity while in exile in Dàl Raida, and when God granted him victory over King Edwin in 633 AD, restoring his family’s claim to the Bernician throne, he wanted to make sure his fellow Angles in Bernicia were converted to the new faith as well. As Aidan and his monks spread out through Northumbria in their missionary journeys and people began to accept Christianity, more monasteries were established along with more gifts of land.

The abbots and abbesses in charge of the monasteries (the Celtic Church allowed for double monasteries, housing both monksand nuns in separate buildings, often presided over by women) became local agents of the king, in many cases, although in theory, their ultimate obedience was always to God. The monasteries were centres of learning, operating schools for the sons and daughters of the local nobility as well as for the novices who joined the monastery, looking to one day become monks and nuns themselves. They also were orphanages and hospitals, taking in the sick or homeless. And so the local people had a certain amount of respect for the clergy which was tied to what they did as well as who they were socially, in terms of what family they originated from.

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St. Hilda (Hild) of Whitby, the important double-monastery of which she was Abbess. Hild’s father was the nephew of King Edwin, so she certainly came from an upper class Northumbrian family.

The locals gave tithes to the monasteries in terms of food, services, land rent, etc, just as they gave tribute to the kings each year (the concept of taxes goes a long ways back!). A priest had the same rank in society as a thegn, and a bishop was seen as equal to an eoldorman.

Although the life of a monk or nun was not an easy one, they certainly were able to have a fairly secure life, and had a mainly respected role in society. This may help to explain why the monasteries grew so rapidly in the Early Medieval period, with some of the major ones boasting a population in the thousands. It was a fairly unusual place in that society, where someone from a very low class could end up being as highly respected as a king or queen. This opportunity for upward social mobility may have attracted some to the church. But bottom line, spiritual devotion was still very important. There may have been some of the excesses in the church that characterized the institution later in the Middle Ages and beyond, but at this time devotion to God and obedience to the monastic rule was still very much emphasized.

The next post in this series will not tackle a certain social class, but I will pause for a moment to explain something that was integral to this whole idea of societal ranking: the concept of weregild. 

That post will be coming up in the next month or so…I hope you join me!

 

 

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

I have really been enjoying the non-fiction books I have read so far in my Year of Reading Buechner, but this month I turned my eye to one of Buechner’s fiction books. I have been eager to read Brendan: A Novel, for a couple of reasons. One, because a few years ago I read and really enjoyed Son of Laughter, his fictional account of the life of the Biblical patriarch, Jacob; and secondly, because this book was all about one of my favourite people from the Early Middle Ages: Brendan the Navigator.

Brendan

Brendan was published in 1987, and won the Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize that year. As I mentioned, it is the fictional account of the life of the 6th century Irish saint, Brendan the Navigator, whose story of adventures and miracles encountered during a sea voyage with fellow monks was one of the most popular stories in medieval times.

The tale is told from the point of view of Finn, Brendan’s companion and best friend, and is set in a realistically dark and dirty sixth century Ireland. Brendan is no polished saint in this book, in fact far from it. Finn is a nominal Christian at best, and he casts a skeptical eye on some of Brendan’s tales, because he knows how much Brendan loves to embellish the truth. But there are times when Finn sees Bren performing a miracle himself, and is unable to explain away the occurrence except as a miracle.

There is a great tension in this book between truth and lies; faith and doubt. Brendan himself struggles between these dichotomies. He makes his way with great self-confidence at times, but at others he is racked by doubts. This novel does not allow you to think of him as a saint in the way we normally think of them, as people who are so advanced in holiness that they have left us behind in the dust.

I love the way Buechner portrays the people of sixth century Ireland in this book. They feel like real people. And I appreciate they way he shows how Christianity met and mixed with the old religions that the Irish Celts practiced.  Even Brendan himself, when sent to pray in a cave overnight as penance by the Abbot Jarlath, also turns to the Celtic god Dagda.

He knew it was the one and only true God he was supposed to call on for mercy but he thought it would do no harm to call on the Dagda as well. He only whispered his name in his heart instead of speaking it out loud though. The last thing in the world he wanted was for the Dagda to turn up there in the cave lugging his terrible great club and his brass cauldron. All the boy was after from him was a bit of luck. 

And when Brendan sets off on his voyage, he does so in order to reach Tir-na-nog, a kind of earthly Paradise, the land of the young, where the gods of the Irish Celts lived. It eventually morphed into the idea of the Otherworld, the land of the Elves. These tales  abounded in Celtic folklore, but it is not exactly a kosher concept from a Christian point of view.

But this was an age where the old beliefs were meeting head-on with the new, so this juxtaposition of pagan and Christian is very realistic for the times.The Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, says that Brendan was trying to reach the Promised Land of the Saints. The idea is of an earthly Paradise, such as the Garden of Eden. The stories of Tir-na-nog could certainly have been meshed with that idea, in the minds of Celts who are new to the faith. So I like this insertion into the book, although it is not strictly true to the stories of Brendan.

There is also quite a bit of comedy in this book. The “holy fool” is a theme you find often in Buechner’s writings, and in this book Brendan takes on that role. He is a braggart, full of wild tales and exaggerations; and odd-looking, with his mis-matched teeth, pointy head, and large derrière. He stumbles through this book, at times serenely performing miracles and at others cowering in unbelief and doubt. And so in this way Buechner makes a larger-than-life saint a person we can relate to.

Other characters also have their comedic moments. Finn himself is cheated out of going on Brendan’s first voyage because as they set sail a sudden squall comes up and he falls out of the boat, the others not noticing in the dark.

In the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, the saint only takes one voyage, but in Buechner’s book, he divides it into two. Finn accompanies Brendan on the second voyage, and finds both miracles and heartache along the way. In the end, we are again left with uncertainty about exactly what they encountered, and where, and how much was truth, and how much exaggeration.

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An illustration from the Navigatio from a 14th century manuscript. It shows one of the stories in the tale, of Brendan and his monks staying on an island which they later discover is actually the great whale Jasconius. Image from Wikicommons.


Many of the other famous people from this time appear in this book, such as Saint Brigid, and Saint Malo. I particularly like the appearance of Gildas in this book, near the end, after Brendan is back from his voyages and goes away to Wales to escape his fame.  Gildas is a sour and bitter monk, which actually kind of fits the work for which he is best known today, called De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), in which he details the many sins and failing of kings and churchmen alike.

As Finn says,

He spent his days in his hut with a quill in his hand scratching out on his parchment the nastiness of his times. 

But through Gildas, Brendan gets to meet the great king, Artor, an old man now, still serving as king at Caerlon. Brendan and Finn go to meet him, as Brendan wants to bring him God’s peace after he hears the tale of the betrayal of his queen Gwenhwyfar and the child Artor had with his half-sister. Finn doesn’t hear what Brendan says to Artor, but Artor is grateful for his visit. As they leave Caerlon, the small, wizened figure of the king stands at the battlements, his hands raised over his head in farewell.

Finn says,

I pictured him standing there all the rest of the day and the night as well with his arms in the air and his beard blowing. If I went back in a thousand years it wouldn’t surprise me to find him standing there yet if there’s anything left standing by then in the world. 

I love this picture of King Arthur, watching over Britain throughout the ages.

During a conversation with Gildas, as Brendan reflects on this voyages and expresses the fear that perhaps he had missed the point of what God had called him to do, it comes out in the conversation that the old monk only has one leg.

“I’m crippled as the dark world,” Gildas said.

“If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear?” Brendan said.

Gildas with but one leg.  Brendan sure he’d misspent his whole life entirely.  Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy.  The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths.  We was cripples all of us.  For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

“To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said.  “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.”

This book comes at you sideways. It is a window into the life and times of Brendan, well-researched and imaginative. But it’s more than that, too. Brendan’s voyages, both physical and spiritual, mirror our own voyages through life, with their ups and downs, their triumphs and tragedies. The book contains many treasures, but not all of them are ones that you find along the surface. It forces you to dig deep and ponder a little bit. Not a bad thing, nowadays.

The New York Times Book Review called Brendan: A Novel, “Strikingly convincing…sinewy and lyrical.” I agree.  There is a lot that is earthy in this novel, but at times it will take your breath away. It reminds me a lot of Son of Laughter in that way.  It  took me a few chapters to get into it, but by the end I knew it was one I would have to read again.


Other posts in my Year of Reading Buechner series can be found here:

 2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey