Gilead

medium_Gilead.jpgI
have been meaning to mention Marilynne Robinson’s astonishing novel for
a while now.  I finished reading it in December with that sense of loss
that the completion of some books provokes in me (the last was, like Gilead, a Pulitzer prize winning novel, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.)

Of course, Gilead
connected with me because the central figure is a dissenting minister.
John Ames belongs to a bygone age, but his sense of calling, vocation
and duty are timeless and his vision of what ministry can be, both
poignant and compelling.  Here is Ames, reflecting on his sleepless
nights:

‘In the old days I could walk down every
single street, past every house, in about an hour. I’d try to remember
the people who lived in each one, and whatever I knew about them, which
was often quite a lot. . . . And I’d pray for them. And I’d imagine
peace they didn’t expect and couldn’t account for descending on their
illness or their quarreling or their dreams. Then I’d go into the
church and pray some more and wait for daylight. I’ve often been sorry
to see a night end, even while I have loved seeing the dawn come.’
(p.81)

But more than this, it is Ames’ perception
of the beauty in the world; a beauty that is not merely the breaking in
of divine light from heaven, but which is utterly inherent in the world
in all its worldliness.  Here is just one, exquisitely beautiful,
quotation:

‘I feel sometimes as if I were a child
who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will
never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again.  I know
all this is mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only
lovelier for that.  There is a human beauty in it.  And I can’t believe
that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we
will forget our fantastic condition or mortality and impermanence, the
great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole
world to us.  In eternity, this world will be Troy, I believe, and all
that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they
sing in the streets.  Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this
one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.’ (p.65)

The other thing Ames does when he can’t sleep is read Barth, and it shows:

‘When
this old sanctuary is full of silence and prayer, every book Karl Barth
ever will write would not be a feather in the scales against it from
the point of view of profundity, and I would not believe in Barth’s own
authenticity if I did not believe he would know and recognize the truth
of that, and honor it, too.’ (p.197)

I am not sure if I can think of a more authentic Christian voice in recent literature than that of the Revd John Ames.