Godric by Frederick Buechner: Of Love and Loss
We last saw the top of his tousled hair as he bounded down the planks just before the moss pulled him under. He was six years old. I was only a few years older.
We were racing to the bridge on the other side of the lake. We had just arrived and the adults were busily unpacking food for a picnic when suddenly, from within the muddling piles of boys (who were stalking off in wandering directions), a tiny voice boomed with a charge, ‘Last one to the bridge is a rotten egg!’
The adolescent gauntlet thrown, every idle hand and wandering foot sprang in the same direction, finding uniformity onto the long and winding jagged dirt path that led to the bridge. Big and small, fast and slow, a rancorous mob flew across the field. Laughter and howling splashed among the jibes and jeers. Jousting elbows thrusted and parried while little Tracy with his lithe, diminutive stride, slipped through the clamor, pulling away, unscathed, his head thrown back toward the sun, laughing.
‘You have to touch the water’ one of the boys yelled from the back of the pack in resignation. We thundered across the wooden planks of the long pier, trying not to finish last, the acrid heat driving us to the edge. But Tracy reached it first. He thrust his small hand through the algaed, olive green glass and in so doing, pushed beyond the threshold of living; by the time we understood what had happened he was gone.
That evening, assembled in our stocking-feet pajamas, we stared bewildered, straining to comprehend the words tumbling from the Chaplain’s lips: heaven, love, God. And Tracy. My little mind could not connect the meaning with his absence; each word seemed interstellar. Distantly fixed positions on a map pointing somewhere, opposite poles, remote. Aeons away from our huddled confusion. In my thirty years since, I have carried with me a soft but smoldering anger at the inexplicableness of death, a suppressed fury at the futility of words, but also frustration at my failed memory: for some reason I want to remember those words from that dark night.
It is with this burden that I opened the beginning pages of Godric.
‘So, by the reckoning of men, one half my life has been an empty box. Yet if they only understood, it’s been the fuller of the two. Three things I’ve filled it with: what used to be, what might have been, and, for the third, what may be yet and in some measure is already had we only eyes to see.’
‘Nothing I’ve ever written came out of a darker time or brought me more light and comfort,’ writes Frederick Buechner regarding his Pulizer Prize nominated novel Godric, ‘ … I knew that the book was not only a word from me -my words painstakingly chosen and arranged into sentences by me alone- but also a word out of such a deep and secret part of who I am that it seemed also a word to me.’ If Godric springs from a dark shadow in Buechner’s life, it is to the shadows we return.
Godric was a 12th century saint, one whom even Thomas Beckett and Pope Alexander II consulted, a hermit who was fond of animals and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for his historical contribution to music (four of his songs are the oldest songs for which the original music settings survive). He was also a saint hewn from iron and clay rather than gold and silver. If religious topics, particularly saints, flare your skepticism or if you fear author-as-acolyte-hagiographies (their stained glass vision painting only hallowed varnish), Buechner’s not one of them. His account of Godric, told in autobiographical first person, drubs the famed ascetic’s life to dross; the saint we encounter is of the most earthly, salty sort. Godric will shatter your contrary notions about hermits and the lives of holy men. Buechner wrote a definition of Saints in his Dictionnaire, Wishful Thinking: "In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints," to which one hears Godric reply:
‘That hermit Godric! people say. ‘How holy must he be to rest in one place, rooted like a tree, so he may raise his shaggy arms to God along while holy thoughts nest in his leaves like birds’. They do not guess that in my mind I’m never still. Seven times seven are the seas I’ve sailed in less times than it takes to tell. I can draw my breath on Dover Road and puff it out again in Rome. And of the thoughts that come to roost in this old skull!’ … And what has Godric done for God or fellowmen through all of this? Godric’s war is all within.’
Unlike modern faux self-deprecation, Godric’s contempt of his reputation as a holy man is vitriolic and hostile, the genuineness of which endears him to followers (and readers). Godric himself declares his name a portmanteau: God’s Wreck. Venerated by those who seek him -despite the baudy and carnal tales from his past- he is revered as a holy man, to his horror.
However, if the novel were merely a searchlight revealing through darkness the sanctity of a man, its narrative would blind. Godric is not a work of art about a hallowed being but rather, a creative tapestry in which beauty is revealed on the rough side, the back of the tapestry facing forward, the worn fabric woven fragile and in its fray the resemblance of friendship. It is the sacredness of Godric’s relationship with those close to him the tapestry portrays, with both front side and back side revealing, in variegated hues, love and loss.
Of Godric’s friends: Reginald, the scribe that the holy man Ailred sent to him, as Ailred says to ‘put your life on parchment’. Reginald suffers the brunt of Godric’s scorn and derision but eeks out his ‘treacle with his scratching quill’ just the same. ‘What’s friendship, when all’s done, but the giving and taking of wounds?’, Godric states. Gillian, whom he loved, who ‘vanished in a Dover wood … (and) took with her all but the husk of Godric’s joy’. Mouse, his prurient friend, who, before Godric’s becoming a monk together plowed the seas as sailors and business partners, Godric’s abiding affection for his friend as deep as the ocean they subdued. ‘We loved each other, Mouse and I, and our love was born of need, for so it always is with mortal folk.”
‘The waves are like the years the way they melt!’ Mouse called against the wind. ‘Great Alfred’s arse, while yet we can, we better … ‘ and then when a gust blew off his nether words, he sang it out for fair. ‘LIVE! LIVE!’ he cried. And such was Mouse. He lived and gave me lessons in the art.’
The novel traces the life of Godric in a rough timeline but Buechner creates a historical novel of such believability that you feel it is memoir. Beyond biography, the story is suffused with the tenor of love and the inevitable dark shadow the light produces: loss. Godric is not only a novel of the lost and found but a novel for those who find themselves between the lost and found, the wounded ones, those who have been blindsided by the senselessness of tragedy and who reel from its aftershocks, those who walk about life on back-heels within. Godric is a book for those who move trepidatiously, who understand life’s fragileness, and in so doing refuse to blithely exist at surface level but who also counter the inevitability of death with (of all things) celebration. Beside his mother’s deathbed, Godric sits:
‘Do you remember when we went to Rome?’ she said. Her voice came quiet now. She took me by the hand. / ‘Mile after mile we tramped. Green hills. Blue sky. Sometimes you hauled me on your back. Remember Cherryman, the priest and Peg? How was that mason called?’ / I said his name was Ralph. / ‘And dainty Maud, she said. ‘She had an ivory spoon, I think. You plucked me figs.’ I said, ‘How many years ago that was.’ / ‘As many as a dog has fleas,’ she said, then seemed to doze a while as Burcwen smoothed her sparse, white hair. Snow beat upon the roof. / ‘Come, let’s away,’ my mother said at last, her eyes still shut. Hitch on your pack. Who knows what dangers lie ahead, but in such godly company as this we’ve nought to fear’. / ‘We’ve nought indeed,’ I said.
Godric carries the gift of second sight, a prescience that beholds mens’ deaths before they occur. ‘Sometimes in the midst of talking to some folks sent by the Durham monks, I’ll suddenly break off and start to weep. The think I’m weeping for their sins or mine or gone stark mad, but that’s not it. It’s watching men and women lost in gales. It’s hearing little children cry in fear as waves wash over them or suck them down to make some monster’s feast … This second sight of mine has ever much to do with death, for either I see wrecks at sea like this, or else I’ll look upon a man and see how he’s to end his days. While Flambard still was stout and hale, for one, I saw him carried down the aisle and laid beside the altar. There, like a fish unswallowing a hook, he tried to choke out all his sins but choked his life away instead. And then there’s he I cannot name for grief. He wasn’t any higher than my knee when I beheld him dead upon a hillside strewn with other fallen men and steeds. He had an arrow in his chest. He held a dagger in his hand. His other arm was crooked across his face, and thus, praise God, I never had to look upon the lad’s green eyes that else had shone so bright with life, now blind in death. I never tell them what I see. It’s hard enough to live not knowing when you’ll die.’
Godric is a book for the reader who yearns for life without pain and suffering yet whose very life bears the deep, indelible marks of violence. Godric’s benediction expresses the raging compulsion to become unfettered by grim reality: ‘‘Be thou in us and we in thee that Godric, Gillian, Ailred, Mouse and thou may be a woundless one at last’
Lovers of language will find in Godric an affectatious journey. Rather than the wooden language of a 12th century saint, Godric breathes the fiery locution of a prophet/poet through the earthbound desperation of a seeker. But if Godric is about the life of a saint storied through and with the life of his friends, his reflections and reminiscences reveal something of the author himself as thoughts percolate in the voices of his characters. For example, through the first person voice of Godric, there is a passage where Buechner describes Godric’s loquacious brother, William: ‘Words were the line that moored him to the world, I think, and he thought if ever the line should break, he’d be forever cast adrift.’ And perhaps Buechner speaks for himself and perhaps he speaks for all of us: The books that line Buechner’s shelves (his ‘Magic Kingdom’ as he refers to his library), the multitude of stories the author has shared through the years, the narratives and poems we all absorb: are they lifelines? Buechner compels me to ask: Are the words we share and seek from each other a secret plea for sustenance? Even words as arrows, the wounds we give and take?
I have read all four of Buechner’s memoirs, The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, Telling Secrets, and The Eyes of the Heart, each book marred and highlighted as much as the scarred and enlightened person from which ring the remembrances' refrain. They are words the author self-administers for his own well-being and in so doing, shares the healing salve as page by page he pours his words over our wounds: ‘All the words your characters speak are words that you alone have put into their mouths, just as every situation they become involved in is one that you alone have concocted for them. But it seems to me nonetheless that a book you write, like a dream you dream, can have more healing and truth and wisdom in it at least for yourself than you feel in any way responsible for.’ Godric the novel affirms like Buechner’s memoirs.
The most oft-quoted passage from Godric is lifted from a scene where Godric describes mortifying his flesh in the icy river Wear. In his infirm age he can no longer walk to the river and must have Reginald bring the river to him in a bucket. Godric kneels down beside the pail full of Wear, gazing, until in its depths he can see a star: ‘Sometimes the star is still. Sometimes she dances. She is Mary’s star. Within that little pool of Wear she winks at me. I wink at her. The secret that we share I cannot tell in full but this much I will tell. What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup’, to which I lay my finger in the pages, set the book in my lap, and ask Buechner and his Godric: Stalingrad? Antietam? Rwanda? Auschwitz? … little Tracy?
This is the penultimate theme in Godric: Life against death. The contrasts and contradictions of the fullness of living against the vacuity of dying. The irreconcilable fact that those closest to us will someday, suddenly, be gone. The boldness of Godric is that this anguish is told through the life of a religious ascetic who should have the answers, certainly more answers than us spiritual plebeians. What strikes most ironic is the near-salvific power of empathy through the seeming deadness of words. Words through Buechner, words through Godric. Buechner funnels his words through Godric’s mind and Godric parcels a portion of Buechner’s mind and I, the reader, inward-turn each word like a rosary, seeking from the preacher-poet answers, all the while understanding it preposterous to suggest any author solely contains the secret keys to unlock such mysteries (my imagination disallowing reason full consent).
This is steep terrain that we embark upon. Rung by rung, serif by serif, Buechner, Godric, and reader, heave together the clumsiness of letters to assimilate words into sentences, sentences into thought, thought into meaning, meaning into hope until, mystically, we arrive at the summit where the air is clear but the oxygen thin, and the life-in and life-out, hard. ‘The answers are not here!’ we cry as we turn to look back. The answer is all around: behind us, with us now, in the fullness of the moment thereof and in the memory before. It is what we missed while climbing. It is what we miss now through our tears. The world still turns in its confusion and turmoil, both below and before us but somehow, we link the letters together in strands of forbearance and we understand better. And we’ve reached this understanding together.
Concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl wrote, ‘Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisreal on his lips.’
I return to that evening thirty years ago when we sat in the small playroom to fidget and strain under the load of words, bearing in our endurance each vowel and consonant along with the confused stares from adults. I realize now that the dissonant message from the chaplain was his attempt to transfer, out of his meager means, compassion for those caught in the whirlwind of the inexplicable. Perhaps this is why now, as I write this, I am surrounded by a few thousand books in my library, the little-boy-in-the-man still trying to discern answers between the opaqueness of white pages and the murk of black letters, bounding between the syllables of the lost and found like Buechner in his Magic Kingdom library, finding even among inventive fiction anchors and lifelines, discovering (especially among the poets) fragmentary answers like prayers, words carried along Godric’s shooting shafts of light:
What’s prayer? It’s shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike, if any, who’s to say? It’s the reaching for a hand you cannot touch. The silence is so fathomless that prayers like plummets vanish in the sea. You beg. You whimper. You load God down with empty praise. You tell him sins that he already knows full well. You seek to change his changeless will. Yet Godric prays the way he breathes, for else his heart would wither in his breast. Prayer is the wind that fills his sail. Else waves would dash him on the rocks, or he would drift with witless tides. And sometimes, by God’s grace, a prayer is heard.’
Perhaps it is to words we turn in order to seek? To formally lodge protest? To attempt to vitiate death? Or, as literary critic Harold Bloom writes of Tolstoy, to rage against the cessation of living? ‘Immensely courageous as he was, Tolstoy was moved not so much by a commonplace fear of dying or death as by his own extraordinary vitality and vitalism, which could not accommodate any sense of ceasing to exist.’ At the least, are words our anti-solipsistic plea or are they only sentences as salve and balm for our souls? The answers arc upwards. Or -as in the progression of words in this sentence, as in the lean of italics- at the very least, forward.
Centuries after Godric passed into eternity, his hermetic descendants (the poets) still scribble quills to parchment for understanding, still beam their letters as lights upon a darkened page. Czeslaw Milosz, the polish poet, once wrote that he ‘has been addicted since childhood to grief over transitoriness’. His poetry is imbued with this anguish:
It appears that it was all a misunderstanding.
What was only a trial run was taken seriously.
The rivers will return to their beginnings.
The wind will cease in its turning about.
Trees instead of budding will tend to their roots.
Old men will chase a ball, a glance in the mirror-
They are children again.
The dead will wake up, not comprehending.
Till everything that happened has unhappened. What a relief!
Breathe freely, you who suffered much.
In The Eyes of the Heart, Buechner tells of the final call made to him from the deathbed of his close friend since childhood, the poet James Merrill, Buchener writes ‘ever since then the ground I stand on has felt less sure and solid beneath my feet.’
Upon reading this, I closed my eyes tightly, swallowing back the knowing lump rising in my throat, fighting that too familiar vertigo. I want to encourage Buechner as he has me these many years. If he were here I’d say, ‘I am nearing the close of your book, Godric. The pages thin in my right hand and as I thumb the final part of your monk’s memoir, my eyes scan the dwindling lines that culminate in that epitaph you know so well: ‘All’s lost. All’s found. Farewell.’ I smile, muse to you out loud, ‘those contrasts of yours again.' I contemplate the loss I’ve seen with my own eyes, the tragedies, few but deadly. I buttress lost against found, weighing the amplitude of living. A flash of words come to me in a blink. A sculptor friend of mine has a sign-off in his signature, its simplicity startled me when I first read it as he and I were not writing to each other about matters of significance. We were not wrestling with existential meanings or religious topics; but his words, like Godric’s brother’s babbling, anchored me. Perhaps you and I, Fred Buechner, are like Godric’s sister who finds in her brother’s blithering much more than monotonous syllables; we rescue, in and through the voluble, something much more: ‘It gave her peace (William’s chatter) to gather back the bits and pieces of herself the day had scattered.’
The chatter from the pen of the poet ignites the words of the prophet which light the mind of this reader, the illumination of which spills over into memory and I recall the words of the chaplain that night, I realize now what they are all saying, all of them – Buechner, Godric, the chaplain, my lost loved ones, and the sign-off in my friends goodbye-for-now signature: We live in hope.