Christian Themes

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What does it mean to be holy? Godric considers this question as it breathes new life into many familiar Christian tropes. The theme of life as a spiritual journey is introduced early in the novel when a priest tells Godric, “This life of ours is like a street that passes many doors. . . . Every day’s a door and every night.” Eventually, he tells Godric, “you’ll reach the holy door itself,” which is not so much the door to eternity as it is the door to communion with God in this world. Holiness is seen not in keeping oneself unspotted from the world but in embracing God’s presence in the world and responding to his calling. Godric’s subsequent experiences suggest that he is continually in the process of finding God, even when he does not realize it. In many of his works, Frederick Buechner indicates that this communion is what all people hunger for, even when trying to satisfy that desire with other pleasure, and Buechner’s view of life, according to one critic, is that “every part [of life] is sacred and may become in any moment and in unexpected ways a window through which we see God. . . .”

Godric’s mighty struggles with sin recall Saint Augustine’s battles in his Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620). Wracked by grief for his sins, the aged Godric wears an iron vest and submerges himself in freezing water to mortify his flesh. Yet Godric’s life is far from misery, as he shows in rejecting Elric’s view that good in this world is illusory. Though he revolts when Reginald declares him a saint, Godric maintains an ironic, self-deprecating sense of humor, amazed and amused by God’s insistence on making him an agent of grace to others. Godric becomes a minister of reconciliation in spite of himself, recognizing that others yearn for the same spiritual blessing that he seeks. This amazement—that God would use deeply flawed, sinful human beings to accomplish his will, is addressed in an interview printed in The Door Interviews (1989), edited by Mike Yaconelli, in which Buechner speaks of “the subterranean presence of grace in the world that haunts me. . . . And the mystery of the mysteries at the bottom of the well . . . is the mystery of God, of Christ” in the world.

Social Concerns / Themes

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Godric was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. It is a novel of only 175 pages which, despite its compressed form, manages to elaborate strikingly on the themes of life and faith Buechner has expressed throughout his writing career. The novel is a fictional interpretation of the life of an Anglo-Saxon merchant who later became a hermit. Such was the historical Godric's reputation for holiness that he was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Although Buechner includes a historical note on the real St. Godric at the end of the novel, the biographical date and spiritual life of the actual Godric have been freely interpreted and embellished by Buechner's creative imagination.

The novel purports to be the autobiography of a hermit of the Middle Ages named Godric. After retiring to a forest hermitage, Godric's reputation as a holy man attracts even the notice of Bishop Flambard, who summons him to an honored seat at mass, and the adulation of the monk Reginald who prepares a glowing account of Godric's life. Reginald's most fervent desire is that the elderly recluse bestow a blessing on his work. The novel, which is the hermit's straightforward, unexpurgated recounting of his life, is Godric's rebuttal to Reginald's manuscript. An important theme in Godric is that no one can be...

(This entire section contains 532 words.)

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authentically spiritual until he acknowledges the whole truth about himself. Godric, therefore, embarks on his autobiographical task determined to reveal his strengths and weaknesses, his spiritual awakening, and his inability to escape temptation. For Godric, the truth about himself is complex. As he reminds his brother, the nameGodric can be interpreted as either "God's reign" or "God's wreck." As a young man, Godric experiences the "wreck of sin" by following the life of a brigand, selling false relics, negligently causing an innocent man's death, and serving a corrupt nobleman who oppresses the peasantry and fills his child-bride with terror. The young Godric, however, also experiences moments of God's presence and guidance. He encounters St. Cuthbert on the Holy Island of Fame, has a vision of the Blessed Virgin who bestows a song upon him, and has a mystical experience with a mysterious young woman named Gillian. Although Godric acknowledges that even hermits remain human — "her mits sleep like other men . . . and in the dark all men go mad" — he is sincerely devout. When Godric receives communion he is emotionally overwhelmed.

The mysterious Gillian expresses another of the novel's central themes: "We are all pilgrims on this earth." God works through every moment of human life, through sin and virtue, prosperity and poverty, whether a person is aware of God's presence and grace or not. Godric experiences the greatest test of his life, which he fails, long after he has retired from the world. He succumbs to the temptation of an incestuous affair with his sister Burcwen. Yet even then all is not destroyed. Godric's final words assert that through God's grace, "All's lost. All's found."

Godric includes commentary on the oppression of the Jews and the peasantry. The corruption of the Church as a materialistic institution obsessed with power is noted by Godric. For the hermit, however, the greatest battle he is compelled to undertake "is all within."

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