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.

Introducing: News from the Path

As I explained previously, I aim to publish my novel, Wilding, in October of this year.

As I explore the wild and daunting world of self-publication, one piece of advice keeps coming up: have an author newsletter. The idea is that this allows you to have a dedicated list of readers and fans whom you can easily connect with, giving them bonuses such as extra chapters from your books, or contests, as well as allowing you to inform them of your book’s progress.

So, I have taken this advice.  Today I am launching my author newsletter, News from the Path.

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I know that people hate to be spammed. And so I will endeavour to make this newsletter interesting, and hopefully useful, to those who sign up. I will publish about once a month, unless there is urgent news to share.

So…with all that in mind, here is what I propose to include in my newsletter:*

  • What I’m into this month: I’ll share something that tweaked my interest that month. It might be related to books or reading, or to 7th century Britain, or to writing; or it might be something completely different. But I hope it will be interesting to you!
  • Books I’m reading: I review some of the books I read on the blog, but not all. I thought you might like to see what other books I’m reading as well.
  • E-Books for sale: I’ll share a few of the treasures I’ve found of books on sale that either look interesting to me or ones I have read and liked. You might find some treasures of your own!
  • Just for subscribers: Occasionally subscribers will get perks that won’t be available elsewhere. Deleted scenes, opportunity to be on the launch team, special contests, and more!
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A little not-so-subliminal persuasion…

I aim to keep the newsletter short, but interesting! I hope you will sign up.  I think it will be fun!

To subscribe, you can sign up at the pop-up form that appears when you navigate to my page. If you are reading this on your phone, tap the banner to expand the form so you can fill in your details.

Also there is a link on the right of my page that will take you to where you can sign up. Finally, I will include a link in every post, to make it easy. You will see the icon below, hyperlinked to my newsletter sign up form.

Don’t forget, you can also connect with me on Facebook and Twitter @las_writer.  I’m not hugely active on those two platforms but I am trying to be more intentional of showing my face there more often. You will get notifications of my blog posts there but I also try to provide interesting information or just fun tidbits that you might not get here.

I’m excited about the possibility of connecting in a different way with my readers. I hope you join in!


*As I get going I may tweak these a bit, it will depend on feedback and on how I think it is resonating with readers. So don’t be afraid to let me know!

 

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Beowulf Basics

This post is one of a series of posts on literature from Dark Ages Britian. For the first post in this series, click here.


 

As I have explained here on the blog, there are not a lot of extant manuscripts from the Early Middle Ages. But surely the most well-known is the epic poem, Beowulf.

I will admit that I have thought about writing a post on Beowulf many times and have put it off. The reason being that I hardly know where to start.

It’s a bit intimidating, to tell you the truth. There are people who have had whole  careers built around this epic poem. Much better minds than mine have studied it and offered their interpretations on it, people who have read it in the original Anglo-Saxon language in which it is written. People like J.R.R. Tolkien. I feel wholly inadequate even discussing it. But, as it is such an important piece of literature originating from the times in which my novel (s) are set, I don’t feel like I should ignore it any longer.

But I chose to title this post Beowulf Basics for a reason. I’m not going to go too deep into this poem. And I certainly don’t have the knowledge to contribute to any of many scholarly debates about one aspect of it or another. I’m just going to discuss some of the things that I think are really interesting about it.

 

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The first page of the Beowulf  manuscript. You can see the damage from the fire at Ashburnham House in 1731 in the corner and along the edges. image from Wikicommons

When the poem was actually composed is a matter of some debate (there’s lots of debate about many things about Beowulf!). But there are a couple of certain facts. It was written down sometime between 975 AD and 1025 AD. The author is unknown, referred to by scholars as “the Beowulf poet”. The poem is written in Anglo-Saxon (Old English), mainly in the West Saxon dialect, but is about events in Scandinavia. It’s a mix of legends and historical events and include names of some Scandinavian kings and kingdoms. Most scholars agree that some of the events mentioned (battles and the like) in the poem are historically accurate, and occur in 6th century Scandinavia. Many of the people who appear in Beowulf also are mentioned in other Scandinavian works, but not Beowulf himself.

Out of the surviving 30,000 lines of Anglo-Saxon literature, 4,000 of them are contained in this one poem, which shows you its importance in our understanding of Anglo-Saxon literature. The poem is written in typical Anglo-Saxon alliterative style. Alliterative poetry is not rhyming poetry, but it generally is composed of lines of two short phrases which have stresses on various words in a rhythmical pattern. It’s a form of poetry that is not used much any more, but it is well-suited to poems which are read aloud, which of course was true of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon verse.

This is hard to describe, but easier to hear.  Have a listen to this short excerpt of the beginning of the poem, and you will get a sense of the rhythm of it. Note the repetitive sounds, like the “s”  “f” or “m” sounds, and the way the words lift and fall in a pleasing rhythm.* It’s easier to hear it the longer you listen. By the time this short section finishes you should start to feel the rhythm.

 

The poem itself doesn’t have a name, but it is called Beowulf after the main character, who is a great warrior of the Geats (a kingdom that is located in modern Sweden). Beowulf comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. whose mead hall is under attack by the monster Grendel. Beowulf kills the monster and then also kills Grendel’s mother, who comes to the hall looking for revenge. Beowulf goes back to Geatland in triumph and eventually becomes king of the Geats. After fifty years has passed, Beowulf battles a dragon but is mortally wounded, and is mourned with great fanfare by his people. That is the very bare nuts and bolts of the story!

 

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Grendel and Beowulf, by MunsonX, from DeviantArt

So, this thoroughly Scandinavian pagan hero is the subject of a thoroughly English poem, written in Old English, probably by a Christian Anglo-Saxon monk. Why was this tale treasured by the Anglo-Saxons?

It’s a fascinating window into the times. The Anglo-Saxons were of course the descendants of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, all Scandinavian people-groups who had begun migrating to Britain after the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century. These people-groups had their own legends, gods, and culture, that they brought with them to Britain. And through a process of immigration and conquest, a new society and culture began to form, synthesized out of the collision of the pagan Celtic Britons, Christian Celtic Britons, Roman Christian Britons, pagan Roman Britons, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon newcomers.

Beowulf includes hints and threads of both Christian and pagan cultures. Grendel and Grendel’s mother are said to be descendants of Cain. There are references to the flood, and to the importance of humility, generosity, and self-sacrifice. There is also a lot of references to fate, and fame, both of which were strong elements of the Germanic pagan culture of the Anglo-Saxons. Some scholars feel that the author of Beowulf is showing how the pagan culture and beliefs are much better than the new, Christian ones, while other scholars argue the opposite, that the poem shows the superiority of the Christian beliefs over the pagan ones. I’m not sure of either of these two positions, but I do believe that the poem certainly has a synthesis of both of these world-views, and is a glimpse into the mindset of the early Christian Anglo-Saxons. I believe it is because of this intermixing of old and new that this poem had such popularity among the Anglo-Saxons. Also, because don’t we all love to hear about monsters and and the heroes that defeat them, especially around the fire on a dark and stormy night?

Beowulf takes place amidst a typical Germanic warrior society, with the lords and mead halls vividly described. It has given us a snapshot of the culture of the Anglo-Saxons that has been verified by archeology and other literature from the time. In fact, archeologists have found a hall in Denmark which they feel corresponds with Heorot, King Hrothgar’s hall mentioned in the poem.

Beowulf may be one of our oldest pieces of literature, but it still fascinates us today. Even in the 21st century we are still interpreting and re-imagining this poem. In 2006 a live-action film called Beowulf and Grendel, was released, followed by a CGI version in 2007 called Beowulf (I’m not sure that Grendel’s mother was supposed to look like Angelina Jolie, but oh well…). Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands was  a short-lived TV fantasy series which aired in Britain and the US in 2016.

It seems as if this story is one that is going to be part of our heritage for many more years to come. And for that, I am glad!

 


*The last line of that section, Þæt wæs god cyning! leaps out to our modern ears. Did it sound to you like the reader said, “that was good kinging!” to you? Well, basically, he did. The translation for that phrase is, “That was a good king!” You will find phrases and words like this standing out to you when you listen to Old English read aloud. Amazing that even after almost two centuries we can still pick out a word or two that we modern English speakers still use today.

 

Featured image from vvilkelyte.wixsite.com

The Cotton Library

 Today’s post is the first in a series about surviving manuscripts from the Dark Ages. Look for posts in this series to appear on a regular basis. This series will join the other series I am currently exploring, called Society News, about the different classes of people who make up Anglo-Saxon society in 7th century England. I hope you enjoy!


I have often written here on the blog about the dearth of manuscripts from the Early Middle Ages, and it is true, there is not a lot of original material surviving from this time. There are likely three main reasons for this:

  1. While not everyone was illiterate, there were still relatively few who could both read and write. So there is not a lot of people actually producing manuscripts. Most of the manuscripts produced during that time were done at the hand of the monks. These were not all religious texts or Scripture, however. In general the Celtic Christian monks had a high view of learning, and held in their monasteries copies of works that survived from the ancient world, the accumulated knowledge from the Greeks and Romans. This is quite remarkable considering these works were not necessarily Christian. But the monks saw their value nonetheless, and preserved this knowledge at a time when much of that knowledge was being lost on the Continent after the collapse of Rome. Copies of these works were sent to various monasteries in Britain, and back to the Continent on their missionary journeys there.
  2. The Vikings invasions. Lindisfarne, on the north-east coast of England, was the first monastery to be attacked by the raiders in 767 AD. The monks were basically defenceless, and their monastery contained many beautiful items used in their worship, including silver chalices, bowls, and other such items. The Vikings knew a good thing when they saw it, and kept coming back, to Lindisfarne as well as to other monasteries. The raiders weren’t looking for books, particularly, but often Bibles or Gospel books would have jewel-encrusted covers, so the books, if not destroyed, would certainly be damaged. And of course fires were a risk during these attacks, as well. I have no idea how the monks at Lindisfarne managed to save their beautiful Gospel book during that first, chaotic, attack, but save it they did, and continued to keep it safe in the centuries that follow, so that we have it today.
  3. The Dissolution of the Monasteries. King Henry VIII, in his embrace of Protestantism, decided that the English Church needed reforms and that the monasteries, nunneries, priories, convents, and friaries had to be disbanded and destroyed (it was part and parcel of a whole wave of reforms sweeping across the Continent in the wake of the Reformation). It was also a way for the considerable wealth of the church, both monetary and land wealth, to be transferred to the Crown. Manuscripts which had been held safely by the Church through the centuries now entered private hands, and many were lost. For example, Worcester Priory had 600 books in its collection at the time of the Dissolution, only six have survived to this day.

And here enters the hero of our story, Sir Robert Cotton.

Born in 1570, heir of Thomas Cotton of Conington, Sir Robert was educated at Westminster School and studied under the antiquarian William Camden. He began to study antiquarian topics and began his life-long love of collecting historical objects; in particular, manuscripts.

As he progressed through his education, finally graduating as a lawyer, Cotton continued to amass his collection of ancient works, often by purchasing the estates of others who had amassed collections.  He entered Parliament in 1601, representing Newtown, Isle of Wight. Later he helped devise the rank of baronet, and was made baronet himself. He held various seats in Parliament throughout his life, but his major interest and most enduring legacy is of his wonderful library.

Along with his mentor, William Camden, Cotton was an early member of the Society of Antiquaries in London in the 1580s, and eventually revived the Society in 1598. He was much revered as an antiquarian (basically a gentleman historian) during his lifetime. Cotton’s house, near the Palace of Westminster, housed the ever-growing library and became the headquarters of the Society of Antiquaries. Unusual for the time, he allowed other scholars, such as Francis Bacon and Walter Raleigh, to use his library. He even loaned some manuscripts to others (also a rare occurrence at the time), with the result that some which belonged to his collection are now housed in other collections around the world (every library has a problem with returns, I guess!).

Cotton managed to amass a huge number of manuscripts, including some of the most rare and precious manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon era, including the Lindisfarne Gospels,  and the only copy (!) we have of Beowulf.

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Part of the Beowulf manuscript. Can you see the word “beowulf” on the same line as the big “D”?

The library was housed in a room twenty-six feet long by six feet wide, filled with book presses (an early form of bookcase) holding the manuscripts. Each press was surmounted by a bust of a figure from antiquity, namely the twelve Caesars and two Imperial Ladies. Cotton categorized each manuscript by the bust on top of the case, the shelf letter, and the position of the manuscript on the shelf.  The British Library continues that tradition, even though of course the books are not now stored in the same fashion. For example, the Lindisfarne Gospels are designated Cotton Nero D .iv, designating the fourth manuscript (iv – the letter four in Roman numerals) on the shelf fourth (D) from the top of the book press with Nero’s bust on it.

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First page of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This is the only surviving manuscript of this 14th century poem, acquired by Sir Robert and added to his collection. 

Cotton lived in perilous times, when the Crown and Parliament were wrangling over many disputes. Sir Robert got caught up in these wrangles when in 1629 he was arrested for supposedly circulating a seditious pamphlet (actually written fifteen years prior, by someone else). Even thought he was released and then exonerated, his library was closed., thus keeping all the official documents and historical manuscripts  he had amassed  safe from prying eyes who might want to use them to support rebellion, I suppose.

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Sir Robert in 1629, the year the library was forced to close. Image from Wikicommons

Sadly, Cotton never got to open the library again, as it stayed closed until 1631 AD, when it was restored to his heir, Sir Thomas Cotton. He added to the collection and expanded it, and passed it on to his heir, Sir John Cotton. At his death in 1702, he donated the entire collection to the British nation, and it formed the basis of what is now called the British Library. Interestingly, as early as 1598 Robert Cotton had petitioned the Queen to join his library with the royal collection, to form a national library, but the Queen refused.

It’s a good thing that Sir John donated the library to the nation. If it had continued to be passed along to the heirs it’s uncertain what would have happened to it. His grandsons, unlike the rest of the literary Cotton family, were both illiterate, and perhaps would not have seen the value of the treasures they owned, and could have starting selling it off to help finance their lifestyles.

Thankfully, the library was kept safe….but was it?

The collection found a home in Ashburnham House, along with the royal manuscripts, watched over by the royal librarian Richard Bentley, a theologian and scholar. But in October of 1731 disaster struck in the form of a fire. Up to a quarter of the collection was either damaged or destroyed. Bentley escaped, clutching the precious Codex Alexandrinus under his arm, a fifth-century manuscript of the Greek Bible which is one of the earliest and most complete manuscripts of the Bible that we have.

The manuscript of the Battle of Maldon* was destroyed, and Beowulf was heavily damaged. Thankfully these and others had been copied by this time, but not all of those destroyed had been copied. In the intervening centuries,  attempts have been made to restore and fix the damaged manuscripts, with some success.

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One of the manuscripts damaged, more by water than fire. The parchment has shrunk at the edges where it was exposed to water, and so it has been cut to allow it to be pressed flat again and fastened to paper. 

Today the Cotton collection at the British Library contains 1,400 manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls, and seals, dating from the 4th century to the 1600s.

And all thanks to the tireless efforts of one man. Here’s to you, Sir Robert!


*A tenth-century poem celebrating the Battle of Maldon in 991 AD, in which Anglo-Saxons unsuccessfully fought against Viking raiders.

Featured Image: Sir Robert Cotton, in a painting commissioned in 1626, by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen. Image from Wikicommons. 

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

After reading Buechner’s latest book last month to start of my Year of Reading Buechner, I decided that before going any further into his works I should read his first memoir, The Sacred Journey, so as to have a sense of who he is, and of some of his story.

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The photo on the front is of the author as a young boy with his father.

Buechner has written four memoirs all told. The Sacred Journey is his first, written in 1981, when he was fifty-five years old. He was at the apex of a busy and successful career as a lecturer and author, and decided that he would begin to set down the story of his life.

This first memoir covers the first part of his life, from childhood to just after the publication of his first and second novels, and includes his decision to become a Christian and to pursue the ministry.

Those few words are far too utilitarian to describe this lovely book, however. I was very glad to see that my hunch in reading last month’s book was correct. That book, The Remarkable Ordinary, was a compilation of some of his previously unpublished lectures. I found the writing style to be somewhat casual, more like a lecture than well thought out writing, but I was thought that his other books would likely have a higher writing standard.

I was not disappointed. This book captivates from the very first sentence.

How do you tell the story of your life–of how you were born, and the world you were born into, and the world that was born in you?

In Buechner’s case, he tells the story by weaving us a beautiful tale of grace-haunted moments, of sorrow and joy, of childhood and the larger-than-life characters that populate his world. And of failures and successes, and of the backdrop of his life, which was America in the 1930s to the 1960s, and how that era marked him.

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Warwick Academy, in Bermuda, the school Buechner attended in the 1930s after moving there with his family for a short while.  Of his time in Bermuda he writes, “I lived there…with a sense of the magic and mystery of things greater than I had ever experienced this side of Oz.”  Image from the Bermuda Sun

I don’t want to re-tell the story of his life, because I would really love you to read it for yourself. He tells it so much better than I could.

This is a short book, only 112 pages in my paperback copy, but full of wisdom and truth. I’ve starred or underlined something every two or three pages. It’s a book that weaves a gentle, contemplative spell.

As he explains,

Deep within history, as it gets itself written down in history books and newspapers, in the letters we write and the diaries we keep, is sacred history, is God’s purpose working itself out in the apparent purposelessness of human history and of our separate histories, is the history, in short, of the saving and losing of souls, including our own.

It is this most important history that Buechner addresses in this book. God is speaking through our lives, he writes. What can the events and ordinariness of our lives tell us of what he has said, and what he is saying still?

I am reading this book in my 55th year, so I understand perhaps some of the motivation he had for writing this book. As you get older the past becomes both more significant, and less. The people who populate it, especially those who live only in your memories now, are mythic beings. The events you have lived, some epic, some ordinary, are signposts along the way. You get feeling that you want to make sense of it all, and there must be some sense to make, if you could only spend some time to figure it out.

I love that he took that yearning and turned his life story into so much more than just a story of events, although you certainly get those. But woven throughout all of it is the question of not just what happened, but what it means. And therein is an even more interesting tale.

This wider scope is what makes this book both so very intimate but also so very relevant to the reader. As he says,

My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.

Indeed, in the telling of his story Buechner invites us to look with new eyes upon our own story, to see those grace-haunted moments that we may have been oblivious to when we lived them.

This book has many, many glowing reviews, and I will confess that although I didn’t disbelieve the authors of the reviews, I couldn’t quite understand why people said it was a book they returned to again and again. Why would you want to read a memoir of someone’s life over and over? Once you had read it, wouldn’t your curiosity be satisfied?

Now I understand. This is a book that is meant to be read, and re-read, and savoured.  Buechner gives you much to ponder, and a light to shine on your own path. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 5 stars. Or however many stars you would give to one of the best books you have read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Repost: To Lent, or not to Lent?

Note: I originally published this in 2015, in the first year of my blog, and it didn’t get a lot of traffic. As we have just begun Lent, I thought this post would fit in nicely this week. It explains one of the key controversies in Northumbria in the 7th century. I hope you enjoy! 


Believe it or not, this was a vitally important question back in 7th Century Britain. Not so much whether or not to celebrate Lent, but when. The whole question of when Easter began, and thus, when to start celebrating Lent, was the source of great division and controversy.*

It may seem silly to us now, but it was a serious problem for the Church. It’s a difficult one to encapsulate in one blog post, but I’ll give it a shot.

Christianity first arrived in Britain with the Romans, who conquered the island (or parts of it, anyway) in the early parts of the 1st century. By the time the legions withdrew somewhere near the end of the 4th century, the Church had established a presence in the island, but it was not a major presence, just a religion among the other pagan religions that people followed, and it likely might have died out as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded and brought their own pagan religions with them. But the Celts in the South-west and North resisted those invasions as they had resisted the Romans, and Christianity survived and indeed began to flourish in those corners of the island.

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Image from Pixabay

However, they were cut off from Rome, and their practice of the faith began to take on a decidedly Celtic feel. The Irish and British priests and Bishops still venerated the Roman pope, but in all practicality their allegiances were much more tribal, and the Abbots of the monastery  had more sway in spiritual matters than the Bishops of the dioceses. In some cases, the Abbot was both Abbot and Bishop.  The Abbots were often descended from ruling Irish families, and held great influence over their people.  The practice of the faith was very much centred around the monasteries, as opposed to the diocesan, urban model developed in Rome.  Due to their influence, the monastic lifestyle was held up as the ideal of Christian living in the Celtic church.

Unbeknownst to the Celts in Britain, the Roman church had abandoned the original method for dating Easter, making some changes based on astronomical calculations (and other considerations, such as wanting to distance the resurrection of Christ from the Jewish passover) which are too complicated to get into here. Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Britain in 597 AD to convert the southern Saxon kings of England, which gave the Roman Church a firm hold on the southern parts of the island. But the it quickly came into conflict with the established “Celtic” church in the north as their differences in practice came to light.

All this brings us to the date of my  novel, set in 642 AD, and the situation in of the northern kingdom of Bernicia, which illustrates some of the difficulties in having two sets of practices. King Oswy of Bernicia, who, although a Saxon, had been brought to the Church through his exile in Dál Raita, and the influence of the monks at Iona, the island monastery off the west coast of what is now Scotland. For political reasons he married Eanflead, a princess of Kent, who was a Roman Christian. Therefore, at Easter, one spouse could be celebrating Christ’s resurrection while the other was still practicing Lent. It was all very awkward and, I imagine, confusing for the lay people.

There were other differences as well, including the style of tonsure worn by monks. The Roman monks shaved the top of their heads, leaving a ring of hair, echoing Christ’s crown of thorns. The Celts shaved the front of their heads from ear to ear, in what some surmise was the same haircut that the Druidic priests once wore.

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The two tonsures: on the left, the Roman style, and on the right, the Celtic. Or is it? It’s a bit obscure from the explanations we have that come down to us from this time. “Shaved from ear to ear” could also mean shaving all the back of the head and leaving hair in front. We’re just not sure.  Image from Church History for Everyday Folks

 

This conflict between the two approaches to the faith continued until the Synod of Whitby, in 664 AD, instigated, interestingly enough, by King Oswy. He wanted to determine once and for all which practices would be the ones to follow for the Church in Britain as a whole (one wonders how much pressure his wife put on him to get it all sorted out!). Based in part on the influence of the charismatic Bishop Wilfred, Oswy ruled in favour of the Roman practices and the Celtic style began to be phased out, although the Church in Britain retained a couple of hold-overs from its Celtic monastic past, including the emphasis on missionary work and its dedication to intellectual pursuits. Pockets of resistance to this change lasted until the 9th century.

It may seem a tempest in a teapot to us, but at the time it was a vitally important matter as power, politics, and religion were all stakeholders in this conflict. The upshot of the whole thing was that the Church in England remained staunchly Roman until the marital shenanigans of Henry the VIII brought a whole new religious controversy to Britain.


*Interestingly, there is still a difference today between the Eastern Orthodox church calendar and the Western (Roman) one, but for different reasons than the ones delineated in this post.

Photo credit: Celtic Cross at Ballinskellig Priory by Ulrich Hartman

 

The Final Push?

Occasionally I give updates on my book’s progress, and seeing as we have just barely started this new year, I thought it was a good time to let you know where I am at.

Just as a recap, I am in the process of writing a historical fantasy novel(s) set in 7th century Northumbria. I finally finished the first draft about 4-5 years ago…but soon realized that I had a problem. I had way too many words for one book. So I divided the MS up into three books and began work on revision of Book 1, rewriting and revising that book to make it work as a stand-alone, and beginning the process of looking for agents and submitting the MS to publishers.

I got some nibbles, but no “yes”, and began to look seriously at self-publishing. In the meantime, in 2016 I hired a professional editor to help me polish Book 1.

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Oh, this is SUCH a danger!!

I’m not going to lie, getting her suggestions back was painful! I knew I would need some more cuts, and was ready for that. But she suggested a lot more cuts, even to the point of making what I thought would be three books into one.

Hmm. Well, after I moped for a bit I picked myself up and looked critically at her suggestions, and began to try to implement them. Gone was the POV chapters of anyone but the main character. Out came the Save the Cat book and its suggestions for pacing. And hack, hack, hack, I did.

I began to see some improvements on the book, and was warming up to the editor’s ideas. But I had real doubts that I could actually compress the story into one book. Until I actually made the attempt, however, how would I know? So throughout last year I continued to revise the book/s.

However, an interesting thing happened last year. Through the course of my Year of Fun Reading, I read (by accident, not design) several Young Adult books. Now, I’m not a big fan of Young Adult books, just because I prefer books with a little more depth, both in characterization and in plot. And as I read these YA books, I began to get the feeling that what my editor was really trying to do was to turn my adult fantasy into a Young Adult book.

This is tricky. She did a good job on the edits, and I definitely appreciate her comments and suggestions. And I don’t want to make it sound like she was totally wrong in what she suggested to me. There was lots of draggy bits that needed help. And I needed to cut some of the extra POV chapters. But on the other hand…

I’m winding my way to the end of the revisions now. I’ve cut a lot out, and I’m reworking some plot details. Especially as I’m now at the end of the story, I’m hitting places that I haven’t really looked at since my first revision. There’s a lot that needs work.

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Definitely NOT recommended….

So. Where does that leave me?

Well, I have set up a revision schedule that has me revising 10,000 words per week. That’s a little ambitious, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do it, but I’m hopeful. If I can keep that schedule up I should be done my revisions by mid-May.

Then I have to take a long, hard look at what I have. One book? Two books? Probably not three, at this point. I will send it out to beta readers to get some feedback. I’m also considering sending at  Book 1 out for another professional edit, but I’m not sure about that, yet.

I’m starting to learn about book launches, and self-publishing, and how best to do all that. With that in mind, I am starting an author newsletter. All the advice out there to authors is that having your own email list is the best way to keep your readers engaged and to grow your base of readers. I will be launching this in the next couple months, so keep your eyes open!

I’ve been going back and forth on when I want to publish Book 1, tentatively called Wilding. Would it be better just before summer, or just after? Or should I try for December? What date gives me the best chance to realistically get everything in place before publication?

I finally settled on an answer. My book opens on Halloween night, so….why not target that day? Or sometime in October?

It feels right, so that is what I am aiming for. Here’s hoping I can get there! In the meantime, watch this space. I’ll keep you posted as I go. And yes, I know I have mentioned possible publication dates in the blog before, and those dates have come and gone. So sorry. All of this is a work in progress, and I’m learning as I go. For now, I’m holding to October 2018 sometime and working towards that.

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We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, thanks to all who take the time to read my blog. Your support means more than you know!


Featured Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash