Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Gilead is one of those books that I can’t recall how I happened upon – must’ve seen it on a list somewhere and read a review or summary that grabbed my attention, so I put it on my wishlist, and was later fortunate enough to snatch it up for 50 cents at the library bookstore. As I started reading it, I really had no idea what to expect, but right away I was struck with the unique perspective from which it is narrated. This book doesn’t follow an obvious plot-line and there are no chapter divisions. It is written in a rambling, stream-of-consciousness style as the writer records his memories and thoughts as they come to mind. It’s not one story, but a collection of them. Marilynne Robinson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 for Gilead, which is loosely based on the life of her own grandfather.
Old Reverend John Ames had his son late in life – in fact, he’s in his mid-70’s, and his boy is only 6 years old. Ames lived alone as a widower for many years before his second wife, more than 30 years his junior, walked into his church and life in Gilead. The Iowan minister is keenly aware that he won’t be around to provide his son the love, encouragement and counsel that a dad usually has the opportunity to contribute to his children’s lives, so he is keeping a journal — writing down the stories, observations, reflections, and advice that he wants to leave his son after he is gone. Although Gilead is a work of fiction, I felt as if I had discovered an old diary and was reading the private thoughts of a man sharing his heart with his loved ones.
Ames begins his journal by stating his purpose for writing it. He explains that he has lived a long life, but the doctors tell him that his heart is failing. He writes to his son,
I do regret that I have almost nothing to leave you and your mother. A few old books no one else would want. I never made any money to speak of, and I never paid any attention to the money I had. It was the furthest thing from my mind that I’d be leaving a wife and child, believe me. I’d have been a better father if I’d known. I’d have set something by for you…I regret very deeply the hard times I know you and your mother must have gone through, with no real help from me at all, except my prayers, and I pray all the time.
Later he comments,
I’m trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I’m trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you.
I think it’s so true that some of the most meaningful moments in life may be the ones we pass over and forget about. It made me realize that a person who is dying gains an entirely new perspective on life. Which also reminded of that song by Kris Allen that reminds us to, “Live Like We’re Dying.”
While Ames regrets that he must soon leave his family, his source of comfort and peace is his faith and understanding of God’s providence. On one occasion, he contemplates the biblical story of Hagar, who is sent away from Abraham’s family with her son Ishmael. Rev. Ames explains how the story provided him comfort:
The story says that it is not only the father of a child who cares for its life, who protects its mother, and it says that even if the mother can’t find a way to provide for it, or herself, provision will be made…That is how life goes – we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s.
And it made me think, this is a good reminder for any parent who has a rebellious or prodigal child. To know that God has a plan for their life (one which we may not have chosen) and is working according to His purposes is a great comfort. He is able to protect, help and provide for them even when we can’t.
As Rev. Ames thinks about leaving his son he also thinks about their reunion one day in heaven. Haven’t we all at some time or other wondered what we will be like in heaven? How will our loved ones that have gone before us appear when we see them again? Ames considers this with regard to his son,
I believe that as you read this I will not be old, and when I see you, at the end of your good long life, neither of us will be old. We will be like brothers… Sometimes I imagine your child self finding me in heaven and jumping into my arms, and there is a great joy in the thought. Still, the other is better, and more likely to be somewhere near the reality of the situation, I believe. We know nothing about heaven, or very little, and I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us.
Rev. John Ames came across to me as a man of prayer and devotion to God, as well as humility and compassion towards his fellowman. As he reflects on his history and upbringing, his relationships and his church, his thoughts often turn to the goodness and graciousness of God throughout his life. He takes life seriously, but at the same time has a sense of humor. Ames isn’t perfect and is well aware of his faults and weaknesses; but he is a man who is striving to know and please God and to live in peace with men. He tries to understand where others are coming from and to give them the benefit of the doubt, something he particularly struggles with when a young man with a questionable past re-enters his family’s life.
As he struggles to find forgiveness for a man who has caused pain to several people he cares for, Rev. Ames writes the following:
I fell to thinking about the passage in the Institutes where it says that image of the Lord in anyone is much more than reason enough to love him, and that the Lord stands waiting to take our enemies’ sins upon Himself. So it is a rejection of the reality of grace to hold our enemy at fault…It seems to me people tend to forget that we are to love our enemies, not to satisfy some standard of righteousness, but because God their Father loves them.
And Ames passes advice on to his son regarding difficult relationships, like this:
When you encounter another person, when you have dealing with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate…He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.
This passage reminded me of a statement I read in Equipped to Love by Norm Wakefield: “Every relationship is an opportunity to love, and every situation is an opportunity to trust.”
There were also passages that brought a smile or chuckle, for example,
I did a strange thing this morning. They were playing a waltz on the radio, and I decided I wanted to dance to it…Remembering my youth makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it…So I decided a little waltzing would be very good, and it was. I plan to do all my waltzing here in the study. I have thought I might have a book ready at hand to clutch if I began to experience unusual pain, so that it would have an especial recommendation from being found in my hands. That seemed theatrical, on consideration, and it might have the perverse effect of burdening the book with unpleasant associations. The ones I considered, by the way, were Donne and Herbert and Barth’s Epistle to the Romans and Volume II of Calvin’s Institutes. Which is by no means to slight Volume I.
I got a kick out of that and after reading it, I thought to myself, Now I like that idea. I’d like to die with a significant or favorite book clutched in my hands.
Gilead is a moving piece of literature which uses beautiful language to express deep insights about life and death, God and people. It really serves as a reminder of how much we take for granted in the busyness of life, all that we fail to notice or appreciate in the world around us, especially in regards to people. May we learn this lesson before we are handed our life sentence. I leave you with this final reminder from Reverend Ames: “Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.”
Note: I have included this text on my list of fictional works that I think every Christian should read.Is there anything that you do to help you appreciate life and “enjoy the moment?” What have you done in an effort to pass the seemingly insignificant memories on to the next generation?
- Faith and Theology: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (www.faith-theology.com)
- Tim Challies’ Review of Gilead (www.challies.com)
- Gilead: A novel view of pastoral ministry (thegospelcoalition.org)
- Marilynne Robinson: The Art of Fiction (www.theparisreview.org)