Author: Marilynne Robinson
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Page Count: 247
By Rev. Mark Ralls
(UMCom) -- Gilead is the newest book by acclaimed novelist Marilynne Robinson. If you haven’t heard of Marilynne Robinson there is a good reason. Her last (and first) novel appeared almost twenty-five years ago. Housekeeping won both the PEN/Hemingway Award and the hearts of many enamored readers who have been pining ever since for a follow up. Gilead is worth every bit of the wait. It is as if Robinson has spent the past two decades collecting the most beautiful phrases in her mind, polishing them into shimmering prose. Through the voice of Rev. John Ames of Gilead Iowa, Robinson has achieved a rare feat. She has crafted an inspiring story of faith that avoids both the sentimental and the sanctimonious.
John Ames lives in the twilight. Seventy-six-years-old with a failing heart, his days are coming to a close. He looks back on the two great blessings of his life – his ministerial vocation handed down from his father and grandfather before him and his late, almost miraculous marriage that produced a beloved child. Alongside his gratitude for these tangible expressions of grace, lies the shadow of regret. Ames realizes he will never see his son grow to maturity. He will not be allowed to share the kind of fatherly advice that takes a lifetime to provide. So, in a daily journal kept throughout three seasons in 1956, Ames writes a long letter he hopes his six-year-old son will read when he is grown.
Gilead is this intimate epistle. In it Ames recounts the quotidian joys of parish life; the "peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday" that feels to him "like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain;" the singular mystery of each baptism he performed; even the "molded salad of orange gelatin with stuffed green olives … that has dogged my ministerial life." Ames recalls how he consoled himself during the long loneliness that preceded his marriage with fried egg sandwiches, books of theology and radio broadcasts of baseball games. He even describes for his son what dying is like: "I really feel as though I’m failing, and not primarily in a medical sense … as if I am being left out, as though I’m some straggler and people can’t quite remember to stay back for me."
Ames’s deeply personal reflections serve a higher purpose. They provide religious instruction for his son, and by extension, for us. They are meant to help us see the eternal significance of our lives. This highly unfashionable goal may be Robinson’s greatest gift as a novelist. It places her in the company of earlier writers like C. S. Lewis, Jane Austin and Ames’s favorite poet, George Herbert. In one of his poems, Herbert expresses what I believe Robinson is after when he speaks of "heaven in ordinarie." Her goal is to peel back the layers of our materialist worldview, allowing us to see our spiritually charged universe once again. Every ordinary event is soaked with grace. Each moment, even the most mundane, is imbued with the sacred.
In an earlier essay, Robinson describes the intensely religious experience of her childhood: "It seems to me I felt God as a presence ... long before I knew words like faith or belief. I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me, barely restrained." Through her character, John Ames, Robinson suggests that such heightened awareness is possible throughout the course of our lives. For Ames, two lovers under a canopy of trees, his young son playing catch, the laughter of "two rascally young fellows propped against the garage wall" are all signposts of God’s presence in the world. Yet, such visions are also painful reminders that part of what makes life sacred is that it is fleeting.
Out of this ambivalence, a delicate plot emerges nearly halfway through the novel. The ne’er-do-well son of Ames’s best friend returns to town. Ames becomes convinced that Jack is waiting for him to die so that he might snatch up the elderly minister’s young wife and child for himself. With this turn, Ames not only struggles to interpret his past; he must also imagine a future when he will be absent. When Ames reaches out to his friend’s son and blesses him, the overriding theme of his personal narrative is completed. It is an illustration of the spiritual counsel he leaves for his son: "Precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm."
Gilead is no page turner, and some readers will be frustrated by its deliberate pace. Interspersing her delicate plot in the meandering recollections of an old man stalls the momentum that compels readers forward. Yet, one of the gifts of this quiet, meditative novel is that it requires its readers to slow down and pay closer attention. For those who are willing to do this, reading Gilead will feel like thumbing through an old family album filled with black and white snapshots, each with its own story to tell.
The Rev. Mark Ralls is senior pastor of St. Timothy United Methodist Church, Brevard, N.C.
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