Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead has been around for a few years, but I only recently read it. I’m glad I’m finished with it now, not because it wasn’t good, or even transcendent. It’s both. But upon finishing it, I felt like Moses on Mount Sinai, and I wasn’t sure I could look at the Lord any longer.
Gilead has much to recommend it: a Pulitzer; a textured, narrative defense of a life of faith; characters who are endearingly real and human; and a quietly compelling plot line. In truth, this book is about too many things–grace, family, beauty, honor, love, work, faith, place–to possibly grapple with in one reflection.
And that is the frustrating part, because all of those aspects of an ordinary life that Robinson captures so extraordinarily are enmeshed with what we so prosaically call “creation care.” And what Robinson does in this piece of fiction is translate the truth of that weave of life that we are inextricably sewn into so that the reader sees it from a new perspective for once and recognizes the gift that it is. I believe that the ability of any work of fiction to both echo and affect a reader’s life in such a way marks it as a true masterpiece.
I could tell you about how beautifully Robinson portrays the glory of the natural world and her characters’ wonder in the face of it. She does. But she never isolates that glory and wonder from friendship and the Bible and honor and work and family and struggle and all the other things that make life full. I would need another eight blog entries to explain the truth of the interconnectedness so perfectly, and naturally, woven into the story of Gilead. But there is a better way, and it comes in the forms of these words from the novel’s narrator, a dying minister, to his son:
It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance–for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. That is what I said in the Pentecost sermon. I have reflected on that sermon, and there is some truth in it. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. 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?
… There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us.
… Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave–that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing. But that is the pulpit speaking. What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and hope? Well, as I have said, it is all an ember now, and the good Lord will surely someday breathe it into flame again.
- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (Picador, 2004)