This past week I found myself revisiting one of my favorite books, Frederick Buechner’s Godric. I’ve read it twice already, and was not disappointed to realize recently that Now would be an excellent time to use the book as an illustration in my classroom.
My students and I are smack in the middle of the Middle Ages, and imagining a pre-Reformation, pre-Enlightenment conception of the world is a challenge, at best. But Buechner imagines this for us in his slim and powerful book. He gives us the self-spun narrative of an 11th century saint, a hermit in Durham, England who, in the final days of his (over 100-year-old) life, recalls the events that made him what he is.
Despite daily entreaties from a local monk, Godric loathes relating these details anywhere but in his mind, as he knows what this monk will do: sanitize everything, sprinkle it with holy water, and turn Godric into the saint he knows he isn’t.
Says Godric (and this is a quote attributed to the saint himself, not coming from Buechner’s pen): Know you this: Know Godric’s no true hermit but a gadabout within his mind, a lecher in his dreams. Self-seeking he is and peacock proud. A hypocrite. A ravener of alms and dainty too. A slothful, greedy bear. Not worthy to be called a servant of the Lord when he treats such servants as he has himself like dung.
The chapter that I asked my students to read covered four short pages, pages on which Godric relates how he is revered by common people, how people travel from miles around in the hopes of sitting in his cave, of standing in his presence. Some of them think that a touch from his hand will heal their diseases; some of them believe that a piece of his beard will keep warts at bay; some of them want to stare at him like they would the tatooed lady in the circus.
And some of them believe that getting nearer to Godric will get them nearer to God.
My students scoff at this. How absurd! We all know– for starters– that a beard has no healing powers of its own. And in this age of irony and post-modern disappointment, we learn early not to put our faith in spiritual leaders. We watch them, waiting for the hypocrisy to expose itself. It’s only a matter of time.
Godric is an old, old man when our story begins. The power for fighting has long since abandoned his arms; his sexual potency dried up ages ago. And yet. Even as he settles his thoughts for prayer, Godric’s mind is haunted with images of his youth. He rages; he lusts. So ever and again young Godric’s dreams well up to flood old Godric’s prayers, or prayers and dreams reach God in such a snarl he has to comb the tangle out, and who knows which he counts more dear.
Do we need to be so old for this, I wonder? How many times do my prayers, breathed into my pillow, my palm, the carpet of my bedroom floor, become tangled before my knowing it with the thoughts, the worries, the self-fixated passions of my day, so that what reaches God’s ear is a snarl of selfishness wrapped in ignorance– ignorance of that very selfishness, ignorance of my need, ignorance of the God who bends his ear to listen?
I asked my students to parse this line– maybe more for myself than for them. What, I asked them, does this mean: prayers and dreams reach God in such a snarl he has to comb the tangles out, and who knows which he counts more dear?
Which does He count more dear: the sin, so uniquely my own and yet so familiar in others, so easy to spot because I know it (how I know it!) as my own? Or the prayers, the faint praise, the hopes for what I could be, for what others could be? Or does it come to Him– all of it– as need, real, persistent and, on the good days, consuming?
I’ve read Godric twice over, cover to cover, and now some passages three times, and always it’s his honesty that holds me: the compelling need, the compelling sin, the God that compels him to Himself.
Odd to think that God would accept the snarl I send his way; that He would take from me the distraction and appreciate the effort; that like a mother, He pulls into his lap the child that is His: the willful one, the angry one, the distracted, wayward, selfish one.
I am going there again today, to That Lap, to that Infinite Patience.
What I have learned, and what I am learning, and what I am beginning to learn is this: my need is all I have to offer.