Year Of Reading Buechner: Eyes of the Heart

Throughout this Year of Reading Buechner series, I’ve made a point of reading his memoirs. This month I come to the fourth, and last, memoir, Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found, published in 1999. 

At the time of publication, Buechner was seventy-three years old, and we discover that his only sibling, his younger brother Jimmy, has just died. So I’m sure he was feeling the weight of years upon him, and the sharpness of loss, as he wrote this book. Little did he know he would still be alive, here in 2018, at ninety-two! However, this shadow of death is very much present in this memoir, giving it a darker feel than the others. 

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The book is also in a slightly different format than the other three memoirs. They told the story of his life in more or less chronological order, each one picking up from where the other one ended. 

The Eyes of the Heart goes back into older history, the story of his mother and father’s early lives and marriage, and revisits in greater detail some of the other periods he has already written about in the other books. It delves deeper into the personalities of the people he knew, giving us a fuller understanding of who they were. 

The book begins with a description of his office/study, which he calls the Magic Kingdom, the place where he keeps all his books and where he does his writing. In this space he stores his book collection and his important family papers, and as he gives us a tour through the room and its objects he also gives us a tour through the times and people in his life that are represented by the objects, papers, and books.

He also continues an element that he has included in other books, that of his discussions with his beloved grandmother, whom he calls Naya, who of course is long dead. As in previous books he brings her to life again, sitting  her down in his study/office and allowing us to listen in on their conversations.

It’s an effective thread that helps to hold the book together as he skips from one person to another, and from one time to another. 

This memoir helps to fill out some of the previous stages of Buechner’s life, but honestly I will have to say that it is my least favourite of the memoirs. I got bogged down by some of the details and personalities. If I had never read any of the others, I’m sure I would have liked this one more. But because I know what he is capable of when writing this style of book, I came away somewhat disappointed. 

The charm and genius of the other memoirs was that, although he wrote of his own life in those books, he also managed to make them about all of us, about how we see the world, and about how the small and sometimes insignificant things that happen to us can have profound and lasting effects. 

There is only a hint of that in this book, and I missed it. I got bogged down in the stories about people I don’t know, ancestors of his and friends long gone. I didn’t find much of the sparkle in this book that had captivated me in his other memoirs. 

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There is some of that sparkle in the last chapter, however, and it was my favourite. In it Buechner wraps up the thoughts that he has sprinkled throughout this book on death and what happens after, by having a conversation with Naya about it. 

I have to admit that there were also things that bothered me about this chapter. One of the things that I have appreciated very much about Buechner as I have read his books this year is his ambiguity when it comes to faith. I like that he leaves some room for questions, and some room for doubt. That is realistic, after all, and he allows readers some space to wrestle with their own doubts and questions because of it. That is all well and good. 

But at times I wished he would not be quite so ambiguous about it all. He presents an almost Universalist view of the afterlife – in other words, it doesn’t matter what god you worship, all of us will get there in the end. I think this is both intellectually dishonest as well as being absolutely anathema to the orthodox teachings of Christianity. On even a surace level it doesn’t make sense. As soon as you examine any religion, you will find that their views about who God is and how to live your life in light of that are pretty much incompatible with each other. They can’t all be true. Buechner writes about the Buddhist philosophy, for example; about how, in the end, a person will dissolve into the great emptiness. That is an entirely different thing from the Christian view of a personal God who calls each of us individually to a life where we will become more and more the people that he always meant for us to be. 

Buechner does admit in this chapter to his reluctance of stating things too plainly: 

I have never risked much in disclosing the little I have of the worst that I see in my mirror, and I have not been much more daring in disclosing the best. I have seen with the eyes of my heart the great hope to which he has called us, but out of some shyness or diffidence I rarely speak of it, and in my books I have tended to write about it for the most part only obliquely, hesitantly, ambiguously, for the fear of losing the ear and straining the credulity of the readers to whom such hope seems just wishful thinking. For fear of overstating, I have tended especially in my nonfiction books to understate, because that seemed a more strategic way of reaching the people I would most like to reach who are the ones who more of less don’t give religion the time of day. But maybe beneath that lies the fear that if I say too much about how again and again over the years I have experienced holiness–even here I find myself drawing back from saying God or Jesus–as a living, healing, saving presence in my life, then I risk being written off as some sort of embarrassment by most of the people I know and like. 

I understand his reluctance, and in many ways, share it. But there’s reluctance to speak of it and then there’s speaking of it in such an oblique way that the truth of it is distorted. 

In the end, however, I don’t want to be too harsh with my comments. Buechner has a gentle, self-deprecating way of helping us wrestle with our own thoughts and feelings. He gives us other lenses with which to view our lives. And in sharing his stories of the insights he gleaned from the things that happened to him in his life, he encourages us to find insights of our own in ours. Especially the insight that, as he says, it was all of it, all of it, and forever and always, good.


If you want to read more of my reflections on Buechner’s work, you can find the posts at the links below.

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

Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

Year of Reading Buechner: A Room Called Remember

Year of Reading Buechner: Lion Country

Society News: Women

In this series on Anglo-Saxon society, I have covered various parts of Anglo-Saxon society during the Early Middle Ages in England, including Kings (and Queens), The Upper Crust, The Church, Weregild, and Coerls.

In this post I’m tackling another group of people: the women. What were the roles and status of women in Anglo-Saxon England?

As it turns out, our female Anglo-Saxon counterparts had much more power and status than you might think. We tend to think of medieval women in general as being dominated by men, with little rights and power. That is certainly true of the women after the Norman Conquest in 1066, but before that, women had more rights and status than they would until the modern age.

However, Anglo-Saxon England from the 5th to 10th centuries was definitely a patriarchal society. It was a culture of warriors and kings, strong men who had a huge influence on their society on both the local and larger levels. But that doesn’t mean that the women of the day were stripped of all rights and responsibilities.

Once again, a small caveat is needed before we go any further. As with all things Anglo-Saxon, there is some debate about all this. It’s tricky to determine exactly what the roles of women are from the existing literature, as it mainly is about aristocratic men (kings and warriors, or priests and bishops) and the women are more often than not shadowy figures, mentioned here and there without much substance. One exception, of course, is the poem, The Wife’s Lament, covered here on the blog earlier this month. If you missed that post I would urge you to read it, as you will get the opportunity to hear one woman’s voice speaking to you from long ago.

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Amazing! This is a facial reconstruction from the skull of a 6th high-status Anglo-Saxon woman, aged 25-30 years old,  whose grave was found in Gloucestershire, England. Her grave is one of the richest Anglo-Saxon era graves found in Britain. She was buried with over 500 objects, including a lot of jewellery. A reconstruction of her grave with her grave goods is found in the Corinium Museum, in Cirencester. Image from messagetoeagle.com

Women’s roles in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England included the making and repairing of clothing, along with related tasks such as spinning wool, weaving, and embroidery. Baking or cooking did not seem to be a particularly female task, as there are records of both women and men involved in the preparing of food. It is possible that there were some women who were involved in entertainment such as singing or otherwise participating in travelling groups of entertainers.

One role of women that is quite clear from the ballads and heroic poetry from the time is that of cup-bearer. In these you see women, including queens and other female relatives of kings or other high-status men, serving mead at the mead-hall to the victorious men at their victory feasts. In other words, it wasn’t just the female slaves or lower-class women who served the mead, although they would have done this, too.

Women were also known as “peace weavers”, perhaps a reference to marriages that often brought peace to warring tribes or kingdoms. Perhaps it is also a nod to the diplomatic skills women brought to her marriage and family, a balance to her warrior husband.

Another place where the roles and rights of women are specifically mentioned are in the law charters and the surviving wills from the time. Here we can see that the weregild for a woman was the same as that for a man in the same social class, whether coerl or aetheling. Gender did not determine your worth in a legal sense, class did. The Old English word mann referred to “adult human being”, with no reference to sex. Men were called weras and women, wif, Both had equal legal status in the community.*

We can see from these wills and charters that women could inherit land from their

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This magnificent embroidered stole, found in Cuthbert’s grave, is the work of talented women. Interestingly, this was ordered made by Æthelfæd, Queen of the Mercians 

fathers or their husbands, if he died. Women could also run the estates that they owned. Property was distributed equally among sons and daughters, according to age rather than sex. This is an important distinction from the medieval women who lived after the Norman invasion, where they lost all property rights and in a sense became the property of her husband herself.

There are hints that a woman’s wishes were taken into consideration in choosing a husband. In other words, she did not necessarily have to marry someone of whom she disapproved. When she married, the groom was obliged to pay her the morgengifu, or “morning-gift”. This was given directly to the woman, and was could consist of a considerable amount of money, and/or land. The woman had complete control over this and could use it or bequeath it as she saw fit. A famous example of this was the fortress (and land around it) of Bebbanburg. In 600 AD, Æthelfrith, King of Bernicia, gave the fortress to his wife, Bebba, and it subsequently was known as Bebbanburg.  This replaced the original Celtic Britonic name of Din Guarie. 

Divorce was allowed in Anglo-Saxon society, particularly in the case of adultery or abuse. And in a divorce the household goods were divided equally among the partners, with the children being put in the care of their mother. Any goods the woman brought to the marriage she was allowed to keep.

Certainly the Anglo-Saxon Christian church, under the influence of its Celtic Christian roots, held women in high esteem and gave them much more power and authority than later church women were to enjoy. I have previously mentioned the double monasteries, which housed both women and men in separate living quarters but who came together for worship. These were run by strong and capable women such as Hild of Whitby, the famous saint of early Medieval Britain. Nuns were educated in these monasteries just as the men were, and also participated in the creation of manuscripts.

There is even an intriguing hint that women, like their Viking counterparts to come, could also take part in battles. King Alfred’s daughter, Æthelflæd, became Queen of the

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A 13th century depiction of Æthelflæd. 

Mercians in 911 AD, and it is reported that she led her army in battle against the Vikings and was a great military strategist. She is quite an unusual woman of the times, however, in that she is the only female ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom that we know of, and she also passed the throne down to her daughter. But that’s not to say she was the only woman of the times who participated in battles. She’s just the only one we know about!

Anglo-Saxon women had a considerable amount of status and rights in their society. It’s just one more way in which the so-called “Dark Ages” are not as dark as one might think.

 


*The word wif  is of course where our word wife comes from, denoting a married woman. The Old English word wif is related to words that connote weaving, referring perhaps to the women’s role of making cloth.

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My first novel, Wilding, a historic fantasy set in 7th century Northumbria, is due to be published in January of 2019. To keep up with publication news, get exclusive bonus material, and find out more tidbits about the Early Middle Ages or whatever else strikes my fancy, sign up for my newsletter! I send one out about once a month, and I won’t spam you, I promise! If you sign up now, you will get the first chapter of Wilding as a thank-you! 

Book News, and An Apology

First, the apology. 

My summer has been over-the-top busy. My husband’s job ramped into overtime, and, being his trusty side-kick, so did my life. Helping on that front took over everything, like The Blob, leaving me no time for anything else, including posting here on my very own corner of the inter web.

 

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If you haven’t seen this, you don’t know what you’re missing….

I realize that the earth won’t come to a halt if I don’t keep up my schedule here.  Hopefully you all had better things to do over the summer than breathlessly await my latest posts.

But still, I feel a twinge of guilt that the Traveller’s Path was looking down-right spooky and uninhabited this summer.

The good news is that things have settled down around here. Hubby’s job has scaled back, and along with it, the necessity for my involvement. Phew! I’m looking forward to getting back to a more regular schedule for the blog.

When I first started The Traveller’s Path, I posted on Fridays. Which worked pretty well for me. This year I switched to Mondays…but you may or may not have noticed that I’m having trouble with getting the posts ready for Mondays. My posting days have been all over the place. I’m going to stick with Mondays as a hoped-for day for the rest of the year, but will revisit this come 2019.

I have some great content planned for this month. You’ll see a new post in the Society News series, this one on the ceorls, the overworked backbone of Anglo-Saxon society. I’ll be introducing the Celts to set the stage for my series on them, and will round out the month with my Year of Reading Buechner entry for this month. Unfortunately I missed my entry in that series for August. I’m going to try to make up for it in the next few months and sneak in two in one month at some point. I don’t want to cheat myself of any of my planned books of his!

As for the book….

Sigh. Having to put everything on hold over the summer has meant that my two months of getting ready for book launch went out the window. This has set me behind schedule as I look at my targeted date of October 31st for publication.

However, I am making a wee bit of progress. I have FINALLY finished my re-read and am working on fixing a few things that stood out, and then will get the MS to my beta readers this week or next. I am also almost done my book description for e-book sites, which will also serve as my back cover copy for when/if I get it ready for print. And I am searching out a proofreader to hire for the final edit so I can make sure the final version is as good as it can be.

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Don’t want this guy on my case!

But I still have a lot to learn about the whole self-publishing process, and marketing, and print-on-demand, etc. I don’t want to rush publication, but I also don’t want to keep putting it off. The truth is I am sure that no matter how hard I try to prepare, there will be things I do wrong and things I could have done better. It’s very much a learning curve, right? So I can’t put expectations on myself that everything has to be “perfect”.

However, there’s a balance between “perfect” and “I have no idea what I’m doing”. I’m definitely leaning a little too hard on the second point of that scale on the moment. All this to say that I’m contemplating moving my launch into early 2019.

I’ll keep you posted!

Thank you for your patience, and thanks once again for joining me here on The Traveller’s Path. Your support and companionship on this journey means more to me than you can imagine.


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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 Launch Blues

So…my revisions are done! Kinda. Basically.* I have come to the end of The Whole Thing and lifted my fingers from the keyboard. Phew. The next immediate tasks are to read it all over myself and look for obvious flaws and problems in the MS, send it out to beta readers for feedback, and *maybe* a final professional edit.

While that is going on, however, I do need to start focussing on the next phase of this whole she-bang, which is planning out my book launch.

It’s not easy, let me tell ya. First, just for clarity’s sake, when I say “book launch” I don’t mean a party where I invite a bunch of people and we sit around and celebrate and everyone buys my book and goes home happy. I might do that, but that’s not exactly what I mean.

“Book launch” means the process of getting your book ready for publication, and then planning the marketing activities that will happen both before and after the date it goes live at e-retailers (Amazon, Kobo, etc) to ensure people know the book is available for purchase.

This process may or may not consist of the following:

  • cover design
  • book formatting
  • seeking endorsements
  • distribution strategy
  • marketing tactics
  • budget
  • building a book launch team
  • creating pre-launch content for blog and newsletter
  • create a book review campaign
  • create a social media campaign
  • create a pre-order campaign
  • set up giveaways and contests
  • get busy networking with other authors, readers, and influencers in your book’s genre
  • plan blog tours or book tours
  • plan ad campaigns on social media sites

I could go on, and on, and ON. These are just a few of the tasks that various experts recommend for self-publishing authors as they get ready to publish their books.

I don’t know about you, but that list (which I emphasize again is only a partial list) makes me want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. Each one of those tasks is a big job in themselves. And I have to do all of it, and more?

The great part of self-publishing is that you have control over the entire process, and the success of your book is entirely in your hands. The bad part of self-publishing is that you have control over the entire process, and the success of your book is entirely in your hands.

Let me be brutally honest here. The reality is that there are a LOT of books out there for people to read. And it’s very, very difficult for an author to be noticed, hence all the marketing stuff. So I certainly am under no illusions that I will be the next bestselling debut author. I mean, if it happens, yay me, but I’m not holding my breath, here.

But I am excited to get the book out there into the world and into the hands of people like me, who enjoy historical fantasy books.  That means I need to do some marketing so that people like me know that the book is available, at least. There’s no law saying I have to do any of it, of course. I could just upload it to Kindle tomorrow and wait for the sales to begin. But that is not the best strategy. I would sell a handful of copies to my family and friends and that would be about it.

So somehow I have to figure out what I can realistically do and what I am willing to let lie on the way to publication. I wish I had someone to tell me to do “this, this, and that, and leave the rest”, but I don’t. I just have to figure it out myself. I have to be realistic about how much time and money I have to spend on this, and then just get going, one step at a time.

It’s exciting, but daunting. October is four months away. Which doesn’t feel like a lot of time, given what I need to do. But I’m sticking with that date, unless something drastic comes along to make me change it. I could fiddle around with all this forever and use it as an excuse to put off publishing (which is alternatively an exciting and terrifying idea). More than likely I’ll miss some important marketing strategy along the way. But it will all be practice for Book II of the series, right?

Here we go. Thanks for being along for the ride. And if any of you wants to be part of my book launch team do let me know in the comments below or by sending me an email. I’d love to have you on board!


*There is a section in the middle that I struggled with for a couple of weeks that I finally threw in the towel on and moved on, because I was going around and around in circles and getting nowhere fast. I’ll have to go back and fix that section. I hoped that when I moved on that when I got back to it, the problems that I was struggling with would magically resolve themselves while I was away. Heh. We’ll see.


Want to read more on my book and my writing process? Check out the links below:

What’s It All About, Then?

A Sign – a chapter from Wilding: Book One of The Traveller’s Path

Stuck In the Middle

Bechdel Blues

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

Revision, or, In the Trenches

The Final Push?

Featured photo by Serge Kutuzov on Unsplash

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