Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Nearly a thousand years ago, there lived a man named Godric. 

He had been a seaman and merchant for many years when he cast anchor at the Island of Lindisfarne. There he had an encounter with St. Cuthbert, an event with such a profound effect that thereafter Godric devoted his life to Christian service. No matter that at the time, St. Cuthbert had been dead for nearly 400 years.

After many religious pilgrimages, Godric became a hermit on the banks of the River Wear—County Durham, England—where he spent the last 60 years of his life. He founded a hermitage dedicated to John the Baptist. Adapting a spartan lifestyle much like we might imagine for John, he lived outside and slept on the ground. Many men sought out this simple man for advice, including Thomas Becket and Pope Alexander III. Godric died on May 21, 1170, at the age of about 105.

The River Wear

I have read two accounts of the life of Godric. One was written by his contemporary, a monk named Reginald of Durham. Reginald visited Godric often and wrote down the history of his life. The other account is Godric, a novel written by Frederick Buechner, published in 1981. 

The first account—Reginald’s—presents Godric as a man so devout you get the impression that as a baby he spat up holy water and raised his pet gerbil from the dead. In Buechner’s novel, you get a very different picture—of Godric as a sinner, deeply in need of grace and deeply grateful to have found it.

"Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," said Picasso—and I must confess that I find more of the truth, more of the man in the novel than in the saint story told by the monk. As a monk, Reginald had trained himself to tune out the world around him, but Buechner, living 900+ years later, is an artist who has tuned in to the twelfth century world of Britain under Norman rule and tuned in to the authentic voice of a man living at that time. . . .

  • The heavy air was hard to breathe and swarmed with biting nits. Offal floated in the Tiber where poor folk drank. Dark windows stared at us like empty sockets. Rough stairs and archways beckoned us to evil courts. The reek of dung was everywhere. 
  • Here are the sounds of Wear. It rattles stone on stone. It sucks its teeth. It sings. It hisses like the rain. It roars. It laughs. It claps its hands. Sometimes I think it prays. 
  • What's prayer? It's shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike, if any, who's to say? It's reaching for a hand you cannot touch. 
                                    --quotes from Godric

Finchale Priory on the site
of Godric's hermitage

I celebrate this "unofficial saint" on this, the day of his death, because of the amazing portrayal in Buechner's Pulitzer-Prize-nonimated novel. A New York Times reviewer called Godric "Funny, touching, tender and compassionate . . .unforgettable." It challenges our prim, stained-glass images of holiness and shatters our pompous religiosity. It truly is "art that makes us realize truth."

13th century manuscript of Godric's Songs,
the oldest songs in English
with the original settings

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