ST. GODRIC OF England is not a name to conjure with.
(Strictly speaking, no saint's name is much use in conjuring. You use demons, afreets and other dark spirits for that.)
What I mean is that hardly anyone has heard of him. He has none of the glamour of St. George or St. Patrick or St. Anthony of Padua. He's just another obscure medieval hermit. Admittedly, he got in an unusual amount of hermiting. He is said to have lived from the year before the Norman Conquest to more than a century after it, 105 years in all. And this may well be true, since his life is quite thoroughly documented. Germanus, prior of Durham, who knew him, did all sorts of checking. St. Ailred, abbot of Rievaulx, who knew him even better, has left detailed testimony. And the monk Reginald, who spent much of the period from 1150 to 1170 researching and writing his biography (Libellus de Vita et Miraculis s. Godriev: 481 pages of close-packed Latin), knew him best of all.
Now, 810 years later, the novelist Frederick Buechner has written another life of him, cast as fiction. At first this would seem to be excessively minor news. The lives of the saints, however edifying, tend to make dull reading. Lives of the saints, as we all vaguely know, consist mainly of three elements: descriptions of their extraordinary piety (St. Nicholas, now best known as Santa Claus, is said to have refused, when a baby, to nurse his mother on Fridays); accounts of the miracles they performed; extended versions of their holy deaths. In this late 20th century, a little of that goes a long way. Lives of the sinners are what we gobble down.
This makes it all the more to Buechner's credit that he has written an enthralling book about St. Godric -- and one, as far as I can tell, would be about equally enthralling to a Christian, an atheist, and a follower of Bahai.
There are many reasons that the book is so marvelously interesting. One of them is owing to Godric himself rather than to Buechner. Unlike St. Nicholas, who was holy from the start, Godric began as a thoroughly carnal man. The son of a Saxon tenant farmer, he grew up to be peddler at 11th-century fairs. Among other things, he peddled false relics. Later he was a somewhat piratical sea captain and shipowner. Of the women he slept with, the one he loved best was his own sister Burcwen. Only at the age of 40 did he turn Christian hermit. When he died 65 years later, the historical Godric was still hotly denying to people like Brother Reginald that he had any saintly qualities at all. In short, Godric's life has plenty of conflict and drama.
But many human lives offer conflict and drama. Seen with a perceptive eye, perhaps all do. Most of what makes this book an event comes straight from the novelistic skill of Frecerick Buechner.
Buechner, who is a Christian (and an ordained minister) himself, has been writing novels for 30 years. A Long Day's Dying, published when he was 24, made him an instant reputation. This, curiously, has not grown much since, even though he has written one good book after another, especially his series about Leo Bebb, religious con man and true prophet. Top rank has consistently just eluded him.
With Godric, that almost has to change. What Bueschner has done is to have Godric, in his 105th year, narrate his life ("from both its ends at once," as he says himself), more or less as Huckleberry Finn does at a much tenderer age. This compels Buechner to write in the colloquial style of the 12th century -- and he does so with stunning success. Godric's spare, rhythmic, earthy language is a triumph. Edmund Spenser once praised Chaucer as a "well of English underfiled." Somehow Buechner has dipped deep down into that well. It is a moving book to read.
But it is not in style alone that Buechner has captured the 12th century. The old saint is so real that it's hard to remember this is a novel. With bits of Reginald's pious prose for counterpart (Reginald appears in the book, and naturally enough wants to read bits of his biography aloud to Godric), you get the utterly uncensored thoughts of a mystic who truly reveres the Virgin Mary, and has truly met her in visions -- but who can also lustfully remember Burowen's breasts.
I can think of only one other book like this: Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner. That's the story, taken from medieval legend, of another carnal saint. It, too, is a triumph of style. But Mann chooses to stay at a distance, telling his story through a monkish chronicler, never going into the mind of his saint, staying with the cultured, playful, baroque side of the medieval mind. Buechner gives its immediacy.
Godric is not without flaws. Even granted that spareness is its essence, I wanted more -- wanted a book twice this long. When you meet someone as interesting as Godric, it is frustrating to part company so soon. There are stretches of his life just hinted at that I wish Buechner had told more fully. Another flaw may be the handling of poor Reginald. He emerges as too nearly a caricature, too easy a mark for satire on standard piety.
But I think with this book Buechner has produced two new names to conjure with his own and that of Saint Godric the hermit.