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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love.”

[To read introduction notes about the novel, click here]

Gilead tells the story of ordinary people in a very ordinary Iowa town. John Ames is an old pastor writing to his very young son. He wants to leave a memoir, to tell his story, to trace his history. “Every life is built on the ruins of prior civilizations.” (p. 197)

There is very little that is sexy about the life of John Ames, his beloved little town of Gilead, Iowa, or the life he lived and the stories he shard. Gilead at points is sluggish and the stories lack gusto or any intense drama. Yet within it all, the novel captures the intersection of American politics, religion, and the relationships between fathers and sons in a profound way. Indeed, in a way that makes us realize that life, no matter how ordinary, is too deep for us; its sacredness is beyond the reach of our courage. The more I reflect on Gilead, the greater my sense of depth about the holiness of all of our very ordinary experiences. In fact, what is ordinary is always extraordinary. It is permeated with the sacred.

John Ames was born in 1880. He is now 76 years old and has resided in the little town of Gilead, Iowa his entire life. He married a much younger woman and now has a young son. But John Ames knows that he is dying, and so he writes to tell his son about the stories of his father and his grandfather, pass on the wisdom of the years, and open his heart in reflection. John Ames’s grandfather was a wild abolitionist, and the town of Gilead was founded (in part) as a stop for runaway slaves. His grandfather was a preacher. He was an uncompromising individual who gave to everyone in need and stole from his parishioners when he was in need. He saw visions and dreamed dreams. He was intense and a bit crazy. John Ames’s father was not impressed. He also became a minister, but he was a pacifist.

John Ames also becomes a minister. He married when he was young, but his wife dies without leaving any children. Through this his heart is deeply wounded. He becomes something of a recluse, burying himself in his books and his texts. He studies, he contemplates, he reflects. But he is deeply lonely. Years go by. He becomes wise, but he feels a deep disconnect from the world: “No matter how much I thought and read and prayed, I felt outside the mystery of it.” (21)

“You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. (7)

“I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly.” (56)

The Prodigal Son

His close friend Boughton has a beautiful family, and in an act of love and affection Boughton names his youngest son after John Ames: John Ames Boughton. And, in a spiritual sense, he gives the child to John Ames. At the blessing, Ames was going bless the child, Boughton surprises Ames by only then revealing that the child was to be John Ames’s namesake.

“But then when I asked Boughton, ‘By what name do you wish this child to be called?’ he said, ‘John Ames.’ I was so surprised that he said the name again, with the tears running down his face.

“It simply was not at all like Boughton to put me in a position like that. It was so un-Presbyterian, in the first place. I could hear weeping out in the pews. It took me a while to forgive him for that. I’m just telling you the truth.

“If I had had even an hour to reflect, I believe my feelings would have been quite different. As it was, my heart froze in me and I thought, This is not my child—which I truly had never thought of any child before. I don’t know exactly what covetise is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue of happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it….

“I’ll tell you a perfectly foolish thing. I have thought from time to time that the child felt how coldly I went about his christening, how far my thoughts were from blessing him. Now, that’s just magical thinking. That is superstition. I’m ashamed to have said such a thing. But I’m trying to be honest. And I do feel a burden of guilt toward that child, that man, my namesake. I have never been able to warm to him, never.” (188)

In this novel of fathers and sons, the primary focus is on John Ames and this namesake of his, whom everyone calls “Jack.” Jack lives a troubled life and returns to see the old Boughton who is sick and dying. Much of what John Ames writes is grappling with this prodigal son, Jack. In this case, however, John Ames must confront the fact that he has never been able to open to the prodigal, even though Ames is “the father of his soul.” (123)

Old Boughton, the biological father and the one who raises the prodigal, loves Jack more than all of his other children.

“And old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound….he would utterly pardon every transgression, past, present, and to come, whether or not it was a transgression in fact or his to pardon. He would be that extravagant.” (238)

But what Jack needs is not the love of his biological father. What he needs is the open heart and soul of John Ames. This creates the scenario where the father (Boughton) cannot be the father. Old Boughton has extravagant love for Jack, but Jack needs extravagant love from John Ames. This is a love he never receives, and he spends his life acting out his sense of lovelessness, never able to establish love in any other area of his life.

To me this raises an important theological and spiritual question: Is God the father who cannot be a father? Is God, like old Boughton, the father who wishes to bless but cannot? God, the giver of all love, extends love unconditionally, like old Boughton. “Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true.” (246) But the love we search for is first and foremost from our earthly fathers and mothers. God, like old Boughton, gives children to fathers and mothers, their own namesakes. As such, the open hearts we most need are those to whose care we have been entrusted.

In this sense, the sons and daughters of humankind all live as prodigals. We need the blessing of the fathers and mothers of our soul. But the fathers and mothers of our souls are broken. John Ames coveted the sons of Boughton. This covetousness was resentment, as Ames says: “it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue of happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it…” As such, even when presented with the gift of a son, Ames could only reject the son. The son was an offense. The beauty of the gift was offensive. It was too much.

But Ames had his own difficult dynamic to work out. He was the good son, not the prodigal.

“As I have told you, I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father’s house—even when his father did, a fact which surely puts my credentials beyond all challenge. I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained. That’s all right.” (238)

In the story of the prodigal son, the good son feels outside of the father’s love. He sees the good things lavished on the prodigal and he desires this extravagant expression of love.

Love, concludes Ames, has no proportion. It cannot be controlled or attained. It may be given to those who do not desire or need it, or it may be withheld from those who crave it the most.

“There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?” (238)

“Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” (209)

Sacred beauty

“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 insufficiency to us.” (245)

Many of John Ames’s observations are reflections on the sacred beauty of ordinary life. There is no more ordinary place than Gilead, Iowa. But this only enhances its depth. “To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded.”

“You never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature.” (95) Life for John Ames amounts to an acknowledgement of the inherent sacredness of all things. His father eventually leaves Gilead, but John loves the beauty he finds in the ordinary. Or perhaps it is partly cowardice that keeps him in Gilead. Perhaps there is something of both, but there is certainly deep love.

True religiosity and spirituality is found in the normal. In the silence of an old, unadorned chapel, for example.

“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 also believe he would know and recognize the truth of that, and honor it, too.” (173)

“We participate in Being without remainder.” (178)

Even our transience and human mortality is a part of this sacred world: “our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence.” (57) This comes clearly to fore in a deeply profound way when John Ames decides he is going to burn his sermons. Every sermon he delivered was written out in full. He spent the better part of his life and energy studying and meditating in order to write out each sermon. This was an act of prayer and devotion for him. And yet he decides, as his life is nearing its end that he wants the sermons burned. In a beautiful line of simple spiritual insight he says, “They mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.” (245)


“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?” (246)

This comes as John Ames closes his reflections. It takes courage to acknowledge that there is more beauty that our eyes can bear. It also takes courage to recognize that “precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.” This is the point at which the two themes come together. This is where our openness to sacred beauty and the relationship of fathers and sons intersects. Life is a precious thing put into our hands. Sons are a precious thing put into the hands of fathers. Fathers, perhaps also, are precious things put into the hands of sons. To do nothing to honor that which is sacred is to do great harm.

But there is too much that is sacred. It is too great for us. And this is the root of much of the harm in our world: it is too sacred for us. Even the sacred beauty of the most ordinary families in the most ordinary towns is a sacred beauty too great for humanity to grasp. It requires courage. Our courage fails, and the world becomes a broken place. Generations come, generations go.

At the beginning of his memoir, John Ames says, “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 power in that.” (23) There is power in blessings because they acknowledge the sacred. And yet when the time came to bless his spiritual son Jack, John Ames lacked the courage. He was caught in his “covetise,” as he puts it. He rejected what he had coveted. But as grace would have it, John Ames gets a second chance. Near the end of the novel he relays this experience:

This morning I saw Jack Boughton walking up toward the bus stop, looking too thin for his clothes, carrying a suitcase that seemed to weigh almost nothing. Looking a good deal past his youth. Looking like someone you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry. Looking somehow elegant and brave.

I called to him and he stopped and waited for me, and I walked with him to the bus stop….

Then he stopped and looked at me and said, “You know, I’m doing the worst possible thing again. Leaving now. Glory will never forgive me. She says, ‘This is it. This is your masterpiece.’ He was smiling, but there was actual fear in his eyes, a kind of amazement, and there might well have been. It was truly a dreadful thing he was doing, leaving his father to die without him. It was the kind of thing only his father would forgive him for…..

“I understand why you have to leave, I really do.” That was as true a thing as I have ever said….

He cleared his throat. “Then you wouldn’t mind saying goodbye to my father for me?”
“I will do that. Certainly I will.”…..

Then I said, “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.”
He shrugged. “What would that involve?”
“Well, as I envisage it, it would involve my placing my hand on your brow and asking the protection of God for you. But if it would be embarrassing—” There were a few people on the street.
“No, no,” he said. “That doesn’t matter.” And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers, of course—“The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter. Then, when he didn’t open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, “Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.” Then he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream.
“Thank you, Reverend,” he said, and his tone made me think that to him it might have seemed I had named everything I thought he no longer was, when that was absolutely the furthest thing from my meaning, the exact opposite of my meaning. Well, anyway, I told him it was an honor to bless him. And that was also absolutely true. In fact I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment. He just studied me, in that way he has. Then the bus came. I said, “We all love you, you know,” and he laughed and said, “You’re all saints.” He stopped in the door and lifted his hat, and then he was gone, God bless him.


Jason Hesiak said...


Cynthia said...

Wow is right! That is one heck of a summation. I read only a little bit of this book as it is not exactly what I need right now. But I was struck instantly by the stark contrast of the sort of monotone quality of John ames life to his depth of insights about life. There truly are many profound moments in this book. Don't know when I will pick it up again. Reading Tale of two cities, which is awesome.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thank you.

tamie marie said...

Can you put into words the feelings you had while reading the book? Did you feel like the book changed you or opened something in you, in any particular way?

This is a beautiful summary of the book, Jon.