Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Saint Godric

Saints aren't as saintly as their biographies might have us believe. If they are forgiven, it is because they have great sins that need to be forgiven. This is the message of Frederick Buechner’s Godric, a historical novel about the real Saint Godric.

The novel’s unusual prose style depends on ambiguity. In his narration, Godric refers to both "Godric" and "I," for instance. To give another example, he begins his account by saying that two of his friends have been snakes and then calls a third one Mouse; as it turns out, the snakes are actually slithery animals, while Mouse is a human. And you're never sure about the people who show up in the anecdotes Godric relates: Are they real humans? Demons? Dreams? Fantasies? Ghosts of saints?

As well as lending to the narrative’s misty tone, the ambiguity serves a symbolic purpose: Godric leads an ambiguous life. Is he a saint? Is he a sinner? The truth is that he’s both, just like all saints. He struggles and sins and doubts, and since he tells his life’s story out of order, we’re not quite sure whether some particular sins happen before his mystical, sin-releasing self-baptism in the Jordan River or after. But does it matter? The lifelong duration of Godric’s struggles means that he continually turns to and depends on God, more so perhaps than if he had had a more naturally pure heart. Like Wordsworth’s “Happy Warrior,” he is
More skillful in self-knowledge; even more pure,
As tempted more; more able to endure,
As more exposed to suffering and distress.
Near the end of Godric’s life (but near the beginning of the novel), an official biographer comes to hear and record stories of the great saint. For months or perhaps years, Godric harumphs and belittles the scribe for not understanding the ugly truth behind the sunny stories he’s determined to record. But in turn, Godric, by dismissing his sainthood, is almost incapable of seeing the beautiful truth that comes out of his darkness. For sainthood is not about the life of a saint but about the life of Christ.

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