Recently, I finished re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. So that I could go on to read Home for the first time. So that I could then have clear decks to read Lila, which releases this month. Some things have to be done in the right order, you know.
The first time I read Gilead, it took me a while to get into it. The plot is a leisurely ramble rather than a mad dash, after all. I didn’t have the same problem second time round, perhaps because I knew what to expect. Or perhaps because I was more ready to read the sort of book Gilead is? Or both. Or neither. Anyway, it was a delight to read the memories and reflections of elderly pastor John Ames–words that come across as so genuine and believable that it’s amazing that Ames’ voice is only a creation of Marilynne Robinson.
“The memories and reflections of an elderly pastor” doesn’t sound very inspiring, does it? Yet it is–and not simply to a Christian audience. After all, Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. Can that woman write!
Here’s a beautiful example that stuck with me from my first read:
“That mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”
There’s more to Gilead than beautiful words and descriptions, though. I think one of the things that makes it what it is is that it shows what goodness can look like in the small, the everyday, the comparatively uninteresting. Sometimes we need to read things that remind us of the earth-shaking-ness of the struggle between good and evil, like The Lord of the Rings. Other times we need to read things that showcase qualities like goodness in the everyday, where many of us will be more likely to encounter them. And things that remind us that goodness isn’t always glamourous. Ames is a good man, and–as he struggles with his attitude towards Jack, the prodigal son of his dearest friend–he becomes an even better man. But it doesn’t always feel like that to him. At one point, he writes, “… I had spent the morning darkness praying for the wisdom to do well by [Jack], and then when he woke me, I was immediately aware than my sullen old reptilian self would have handed him over to the Philistines for the sake of a few more minutes’ sleep. I really despise the pathos of being found asleep at odd times in odd places.” When I look at people that I think of as good, godly, or so forth, it can seem that they must be as lovely on the inside as they are on the outside–that they are far above the anger and annoyances, the bitterness and the barrenness that is so often a feature of my inner life. And in a sense I am sure they are–that they have a deep goodness beyond mine. But the thing to remember is that it won’t appear that way to them. They still have ugly inner landscapes that they alone survey, as I alone survey mine. Which isn’t to call them hypocrites or to degenerate their real goodness, but rather to remember that even those who are truly good and godly don’t necessarily feel that they are so. Which should be a hopeful thing for the rest of us to ponder.
I love Gilead for its the lovely ways in which Robinson uses words. For Ames’ spiritual insight. For his joyful embracing of life even as he faces death. For the compassion that he develops towards Jack. If I were to choose one word to describe it, I would choose the word exquisite.
“Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”