Year of Reading Buechner: Lion Country

Frederick Buechner published Lion Country as a stand-alone novel in 1971, to great acclaim. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction in 1972. Buechner would go on to write three other novels featuring Leo Bebb, one of the main characters in Lion Country: Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974) and Treasure Hunt (1977). These were all compiled together and published as a one-volume tetralogy called The Book of Bebb, in 1979.

Lion Country wasn’t the first novel Buechner had written (it is his sixth), but it does come before the other novels I have read in this series. I was greatly anticipating reading it, based on some reviews and comments I have read about it.

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The original 1971 cover

Unfortunately, I have to say that I struggled with this book.

Buechner’s fiction is often populated by slightly grotesque figures, and this book is no different. He delights in writing about odd, deeply flawed people who nonetheless, have a hint of the holy about them. It’s a stock character that he first encountered as a boy in King Rinkitink, in the Oz books, but continued to be haunted by throughout his life. He explains his attraction to these characters in his memoir, The Sacred Journey, writing about the whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s  novel, The Power and the Glory:

…what Greene fathomlessly conveys is that the power and glory of God are so overwhelming that they can shine forth into the world through even such as one as this seedy, alcoholic little failure of a man who thus, less by any virtue of his own than by the sheer power of grace within him, becomes a kind of saint at the end…

Buechner’s characters, from Godric to Brendan to the biblical patriarch Jacob (in Son of Laughter) all have this hint of the “holy fool” about them.

Leo Bebb, the holy roller diploma-mill charlatan, is definitely cut from this mold. He is a slippery character to pin down, sometimes heroic, sometimes foolish and vain, and with a shadowy past of jail time for exposing himself to children, hovering over him. And to be honest,  this last part of the book is where the novel fell down for me. Perhaps the times have changed too much from 1971 until now. This possible scandal of Bebb’s past, which surfaces again in the novel’s present time action, is too fraught with pain and sorrow and agony, in our modern-day reality of pedophile priests. Especially since Buechner uses it as a sort of strange comic relief at the end.

The main character, Antonio Parr, is pretty much a regular guy, although slightly neurotic, and drifting through his life. He has a girlfriend that he hasn’t been able to commit to for seven years; he has tried teaching, writer, and artist as a career, never getting too far with any of those. He is a man very much waiting for something to happen to kick him out of his rut, and Bebb comes along just in the nick of time.

Antonio answers an ad in the paper which states “Put yourself on God’s payroll–go to work for Jesus NOW”, and after enclosing a love offering and a self-addressed envelope, receives an ordination certificate in his name, from the Church of Holy Love in Armadillo, Florida. Antonio writes back, offering to meet with Bebb the next time he was in New York to discuss various ministries he might do, but secretly planning on exposing Bebb as a charlatan.

The novel opens with their meeting in New York, and Antonio is immediately captivated by Bebb, with his odd appearance and mannerisms, and his strange way of speaking. I am here to save your soul, Antonio Parr, Bebb tells him. How could Antonio not be intrigued?

Antonio ends up making a trip down to Florida to do more in-depth research for himself, leaving gloomy New York with his dying twin sister and his stalled relationship, and finds himself in sunny, hot Florida, where he meets Bebb again, along with his assistant Brownie, wife Lucille, and their adopted daughter Sharon. All of these characters are odd in their own ways, and it adds to the circus-like atmosphere of the world surrounding Bebb.

The action of the book moves between these two worlds, Florida and New York, and takes us along with Antonio on a journey of doubt and faith, but not in the way you might think. This is not a story of an unbeliever who has a dramatic faith conversion. Far from it. This is a glimpse at the beginning of someone’s faith journey, of those first few musings, the beginning back and forth between belief and doubt, when doubt very much has the upper hand.

There are a lot of ambiguities in this book. Is Bebb a charlatan, or no? What happened to Bebb and Lucille’s infant daughter, exactly? Are the “silvers and golds”, as Bebb calls them, really aliens from outer space? Did Bebb really resurrect Brownie from the dead? And when Bebb exposes himself during Herman Redpath’s ordination, was it done on purpose, or not? And if he did, why would he?

I suppose there are layers in this book that I am missing. Perhaps I need to read the rest of the books and get Bebb’s whole story.  I probably will, but not just now.

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Just to give you another view….This fellow obviously got more out of the book than I did. 

So, I can’t say I loved it, which I’m sad about. It’s the first thing of Buechner’s that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend.

But that’s ok. There’s more Buechner to read, and I’ll be diving into more of his non-fiction this month. Look for my next Year of Reading Buechner post at end of November, where I will be discussing Eyes of the Heart, his fourth (and last) memoir.


For more posts in my Year of Reading Buechner series, see 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: A Room Called Remember

Full disclosure: I haven’t finished this book. In fact, I am not even close to being done. My Kindle tells me I am at the 33% mark, so you might wonder how I can possibly review a book I haven’t even finished halfway yet.

It’s because of the kind of book this is. A Room Called Remember is a collection of essays, addresses and sermons, published in 1984. I chose this book as one of the 12 Buechner books to read during my Year of Reading Buechner series because it was one of the lesser-known of his titles, and because it contained an essay on writing and language that I was interested in reading.

So, it’s not like it’s a book that has any kind of narrative arc or central theme, it’s very much a book that can be picked up and put down. The different chapters themselves could be read in no particular order, although in general I am working my way through the book from beginning to end, with the exception that I read the essay on writing so I could include some thoughts about it in this review.

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It’s quite a long book. Which is another reason why I haven’t made it through to the end. But the main reason for my slowness of reading the book is because it’s not the kind of book you can read quickly, in big chunks here and there. Each chapter invites careful reflection by the reader. It’s just too much to keep barreling through the book without stopping to appreciate the truths and perspectives Buechner offers us here.

So, with that caveat in mind, I do think that even though I haven’t read the whole thing, I have a good sense of what the book is like. And in a word, it’s marvelous. This collection is full of profound truth and honest reflections on faith, God, and life, and as such is a wonderful opportunity for the reader to ponder these things as well. Buechner is a wise friend and mentor in these writings, coming alongside us to point us to profound insights. He is never pushy or dogmatic, but carefully, with sensitivity, pulls back the surface layers to show us deeper meanings we may have missed in the ordinary events of our lives.

The first essay, from which the book gets its title, A Room Called Remember, is a great example of Buechner at his finest. It is based on a profound dream he had, in which he searched for a hotel room he had found that was the most comfortable of all, just right for him in every way. The clerk tells him he can find the room again if he could ask for it by name, and tells him that the name of the room is Remember. Upon reflection on the dream, he concludes that,

The name of the room is Remember–the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.

The room called Remember is the place where we reflect on our lives. “Listen to your life”, as Buechner puts it, a theme that resonates through much of his writings that I have read so far. In this room we search for glimpses of what has sustained us, the hand that has led us thus far. As he says,

Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond our power to love has kept our hearts alive.

This book is full of thoughtful insights like this. Buechner is a lovely writer, using his words to challenge, delight, and comfort us. He is one of the most quotable writers I have read, and that’s saying a lot. It’s hard to go more than a page without finding something you want to underline. This is true of this book and of all the books i have read of his so far. Many of the chapters begin with Bible verses, the accompanying text (presumably sermons) a reflection on the verses, giving a richness and depth to both his words and the verses.

The essay on words, language, and writing, called “The Speaking and Writing of Words”, is where Buechner develops a theory that language developed out of humanity’s need to understand the world more deeply and to share experiences with others

He goes on to say, there is no world for us until we can name the world. In other words, the things we see and experience do not fully exist until and unless we name them, and even more profound than that, time itself has no meaning without the words to understand past, present and future.

Ultimately, he postulates that the whole purpose of language is so that humanity may speak to God, can look beyond the events of our lives and ask the question, why.

From the spoken word he moves on to writing, exploring how the written word is both like and unlike the speech, becoming more powerful by the fact of its permanence. He explains,

Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much of this power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves…not even across great distances of time and space do they ever lose their capacity for becoming incarnate. 

This is a a powerful and humbling thought for us writers. I suppose, if we are honest, its one of the reasons we attempt to write anything at all.

I am only 33% through this book, but I am not finished with it yet. Nor, I suspect, is it finished with me. I am looking forward to reading the rest of  it, and to rereading it in the years to come. It’s not a book that lets you go lightly.

In the last paragraph of “The Speaking and Writing of Words”, Buechner writes,

…a library is as holy a place as any temple is holy because through the words which are treasured in it the Word itself becomes flesh again and again and dwells among us and within us, full of grace and truth.

It’s a fitting epitaph for this book, too.


For more posts in this series, click 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: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

So far in my Year of Reading Buechner series I have read two of Frederick Buechner’s four memoirs: A Sacred Journey, and Now and ThenThese two books cover Buchner’s early childhood, marred by the suicide of his father, and the beginning of his career as a professor and writer.

This month it was time for the next memoir, Telling Secrets. This book was written in 1991, when Buechner was 65 years old, and in it he discusses the impact of two great secrets in his life. First, the alcoholism and suicide of his father when he was very young, and secondly, the struggle his teenage daughter had with anorexia during the time that this memoir was set.

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Once again, Buechner’s aim in writing this memoir was not only to tell the story of his life, but to tell it in such a way that the reader is brought to a reflection of their own. So, in this book, he begins in the introduction by saying,

It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are–even if we tell it only to ourselves–because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. 

The book begins with Buechner discussing the impact of his father’s suicide. This has been a theme in other writings of his, but in this book he explores how his family’s unwritten rule of keeping the secret of that death had profound implications for him. Keeping that secret in a very real way not only erased the sadness and horror of that event but also in many ways erased his father himself from Buechner’s life, such that very quickly he could not even remember what his father looked like or sounded like. Interestingly enough, it was through the writing of Godric,  reviewed here on the blog last month,  that he began to understand an important truth, namely that,

…although death ended my father, it has never ended my relationship with my father–a secret that I had never so clearly understood before. 

Godric allowed him to explore that relationship again, and to say things to his father in that fictional setting, through Godric’s relationship with his father, that he was never able to say in real life.

Another theme of this memoir is the power and role of memory in our lives. He explores how through memory we can revisit the old hurts of the past and gain healing.

It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may  have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later. 

So many of us have hurts and secrets that we run from and stuff deep inside. I love this idea of revisiting the past and having a chance for a do-over, for making peace with all those people and events  that have scarred us.

The second secret explored in the book is that of his daughter’s anorexia; her slow starvation almost to the point of death, and his utter helplessness in the face of it. On the outside, they were  a happy, prosperous family, and in many ways that label was true. But it masked the sadness, grief, and fear of this terrible illness. It forced Buechner to comes to terms with how his desire to control his children (so that no terrible thing would happen to them and cause them to leave, like his father had left) resulted in his daughter’s symbolic grasp for freedom through her illness.

It’s utterly honest and told with sensitivity and even some self-deprecating humour, which is characteristic of Buechner’s voice in these memoirs. And as always, through his writing not he only reveals his own life but takes us by the hand and encourages us to ponder our own. What secrets are we carrying around with us? How are those secrets crippling us? Can we face them, and tell them, and so be freed from their powerful hold over us?

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The Little Ease was a tiny room in the Tower of London where prisoners could neither stand up fully nor lie down properly. Buechner uses this  as a metaphor for how he spent so much time, spiritually and psychologically speaking, bound up in dark, cramped, airless rooms of his own making. He contrasts this with the Chapel of Saint John, right above the Little Ease, a place of serene silence, peace, and holiness. Telling Secrets describes his journey from the one to the other during the course of years detailed in the book. 

Telling Secrets also covers some of Buechner’s professional life as well. During these years he taught a couple of courses at Harvard University’s Divinity School, which he describes as a difficult time, given that many of the students didn’t even believe in God. He contrasts this with a joyful time teaching a course at Wheaton College in 1985, which is Billy Graham’s old alma matter, and where he found the practical and open faith seen in the students’ lives refreshing and encouraging.

Around this time, in 1987, Buechner wrote and published Brendan, to great acclaim. And around that time as well, he discovers the power of attending an Adult Children of Alcoholics Anonymous -type group, which, along with some innovative therapy, brought much healing to the wounds of his past.

This book is another wise and gentle memoir, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It gives you much to ponder long after you read the final sentence. The two memoirs I have read so far are ones that I will definitely re-read, and this one will be the same.

 

 

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: 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.

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