Godric of Finchale was a twelfth century English saint who lived the last sixty of his one hundred five years as an extremely ascetic hermit. Several accounts of his life exist in typical hagiographic style portraying a person of great holiness and miraculous powers. In 1980 Frederick Buechner published a fictionalized account of the saint’s life in his novel Godric. Buechner’s Godric is that completely human mix of sin and grace, a person whose story, like our own, is filled with kindness and goodness, but also peacock pride and flagrant wrong-doing. Buechner, speaking through Godric, says, “nothing human’s not a broth of false and true, it was the two at once.”
In the novel the aging Godric is telling his life story to a young monk Reginald who will write it to preserve the life of this now well-known holy man. Godric goes into the caves of his hidden memories and tells it all, laying bare the “broth” that has been his life. Even though Reginald will censure it in his final book, we hear it all from Godric’s point of view.
And this is key to the spirituality of Buchner, an American writer and ordained Presbyterian minister – all our story is significant, even the pain and degraded moments, and that God had given us the gift of memory for a reason. Buechner writes in one of his non-fiction works Telling Secrets,
“The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. 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.” (Telling Secrets, 1991, pp. 32-33)
And Godric, seeing by the light of the candle of God, uncovers and tells us everything – the pain from a father who was too busy working to show love to his son, his own twice causing the death of someone by his careless behavior, partnering with a ship captain to take pilgrims to the holy land and defrauding them, and even after his conversion to Christianity and life as an ascetic being cantankerous, prideful, and falling prey on one occasion to a long mutual hidden lust between him and his sister.
But he also remembers his time in the Holy Land and walking into the Jordan River and feeling cleansed of sin, of daily submerging himself into the cold river near his English hermitage to battle lust and pride, of heartfelt prayers and writing poetry for God.
And he remembers God offering him possibilities of new life and healing all along the way. Once was amidst the gull cries and sea salt mist of the isle of Farne as a young man where a vision of Saint Cuthbert assured him of God’s forgiveness. Another time still as a young man when an angel named Gillian warned him that he had been living on Christ’s grace and charity for years and turning it to dung with his “lust and lies and thievery” and told him he needed to repent and mend his ways “lest all be lost.” And as a middle-aged man in his hermitage laying in the grass, lacking even the energy to loathe his latest sins, God gave him of a vision of Christ’s face in the tree leaves above. “When I deserved it least, God gave me most.”
Through memory Godric chooses all the healing God offered throughout his life though he missed it at the time. The last thoughts of Godric as he dies are “All is lost. All is found.”
Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me
Peggy Drew is a graduate student of Spiritual Formation at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Her particular research interest is the role of beauty in spiritual development. In addition to her studies, Peggy is a team leader and coach for software development teams in a financial services company. When not studying or working, Peggy enjoys writing about literature for her family and friends at peggy.drew.com. She has two grown daughters and four grandchildren and lives in rural northern Massachusetts with her husband, dog, and two cats.
ART: Illuminated manuscript, illustration of St Godric kneeling in prayer with rosary (undisplayed upper portion shows Virgin and Child, teaching Godric her song) circa 1400, British Library, MS Cotton Faustina B, VI part ii, folio 16v (see entry for Godric in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints).