I re-read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead this week with my Christian Ethics class. It’s a book that takes my breath away every other page or so, but I wasn’t sure how the students would react to it. It’s not overtly about Christian Ethics (though, in a way, it’s really only about the essentials of Christian Ethics), and its main character, a 76 year-old Congregationalist pastor, is not the kind of guy you’d expect to hold the attention of your average 19 year-old.
Aside from a few frivolous complaints (where the heck are the chapters in this book? why do the old man’s thoughts skip around so much?), most of the students seemed genuinely engaged. It probably helped that I had told them earlier in the week that, regardless of how they “felt” about this book, Gilead is a literary masterpiece, a novel of superior craftmanship, a stunning work of art. I know: very subtle on my part.
(This is not a new book, of course, and last year Robinson published the critically-acclaimed Home, a companion piece to Gilead).
At the root of the many pleasures of this beautiful book is the way in which the narrator, the dying Rev. John Ames, sees and describes the world sacramentally. Writing in a journal that will be given to his young son when the child is grown, Rev. Ames sees beauty and blessing everywhere — the world and all its inhabitants infused with divine grace:
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.
Robinson, an astute reader of theology, supplies Rev. Ames’s character with a deep and abiding love for the mysteries that are human existence and divine sovereignty. He is a Calvinist, after all, but one who sees and seeks to bear witness to gentleness not severity, subtlety not rigid certainty:
Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense . . . I suppose Calvin’s God was a Frenchman, just as mine is a Middle Westerner of New England extraction. Well, we all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little.
But it’s the notion of “blessing” that preoccupies the Rev. Ames — that defines his vocation — and which Robinson returns to again and again in the book.
There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that.
That feeling of a baby’s brow against the palm of your hand — how I have loved this life.
Rev. Ames refers to grace as “a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.” Robinson is a writer of astonishing giftedness who, herself, “takes things down to essentials.” But the essentials more than satisfy: there is healing power in Gilead — a book of blessings, a blessed book.