For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘gilead

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Picador, 2004, 247 pp.

gileadAfter a difficult season of ministry, I needed something good and redeeming and holy to read, so I pulled Marilynne Robinson’s magnificent Gilead off the shelves to read for the second time, thanks to a Facebook post from a friend who was rereading it herself. It is one of those books that gets better every time you open it.

Gilead tells the story of Rev. John Ames, in the form of rambling notes written in his elder years for his young son. There is a loneliness, a deep sorrow that hangs over the whole book, which spoke to the pain of my own heart. I relate to Ames as a fellow pastor, and love reading and rereading this book for the subtle, poignant portrayal of the parson that Robinson creates. She is able to capture much of the beauty and heartache of ministry, and the peculiar life inside and outside the community that we clergy lead. Her passages on writing as prayer, baptism, sermon-writing, spending time in the empty sanctuary–they are too beautiful to comprehend.

But Gilead is not just a story for preachers, about preachers. It is the story of multiple generations of struggle and redemption, of conflicting paths of faith and disbelief, of seeking home and family, of struggles and betrayals between fathers and sons. Ames’ grandfather and father were both preachers too. His grandfather’s support for John Brown in Kansas forever broke his relationship with his son. The story stretches on into the future, to Ames’ son and his neighbor and fellow pastor Boughton, and his relationship with his son and grandson.

This is a book that’s nearly impossible to review, because it’s like poetry from beginning to end–simply elegant, profound and rich with meaning. Read it. Especially if you are a preacher/pastor/minister yourself, but even if you are not. Just read it, slowly and deliberately. Then put it aside for a few years and read it again. I know I will.

Home by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008, 325 pp.

Marilynne Robinson is the master of tension. In Gilead, the tension is all internal, as she dissects the mind of Rev. John Ames, the Congregational preacher haunted by loneliness, history, guilt and grudges. Home moves down the road in the town of Gilead, to examine the family of Rev. Ames’ best friend, Rev. Robert Boughton. Rev. Boughton is the Presbyterian pastor and father of a brood of children, including his eldest son the perpetual troublemaker and disappointment, Jack. The story in Home takes place as Rev. Boughton has reached the age of infirmity, and his daughter Glory returns to take care of him. While she is there, Jack returns home after an absence of 20 years.

The tension in this story is no longer contained inside one man. Robinson writes with such subtlety and beauty that she creates a tension between Glory, Jack and their father that made the book almost agonizing to read, as I felt every small slight, strain and stress between them. Both characters and readers are rewarded, however, when the ice slowly begins to thaw between them, and Robinson treats us to glimpses of true grace, forgiveness and love. She explores what it means to be “home,” the place that seems to exist only in recollection, and is therefore both permanently fixed and constantly elusive. In the end, Glory, Jack and Rev. Boughton  find home with each other, if only for a short while.

One of the great gifts of Robinson’s prose is its ability to capture a level of spiritual honesty, born of a long friendship with God. She records Rev. Boughton’s prayer on the first evening of Jack’s return, as they gather awkwardly around the table for dinner and forced ease and familiarity:

Holy Father…I have rehearsed this prayer in my mind a thousand times, this prayer of gratitude and rejoicing, as I waited for an evening like this one. Because I always knew the time would come. And now I find that words fail me. They do. Because while I was waiting I got old. I don’t remember those prayers now, but I remember the joy they gave me at the time, which was the confidence that someday I would say one or another of them here at this table. If I lived. I thought my good wife might be here, too. We do miss her. Well, I thank you for that joy, which helped through the hard times. It helped very much…

The prayer continues, but that is just a taste of the intimacy and beauty of Robinson’s language. I want to write an entire sermon about hope based on that prayer—the way that prophecy and hope help us find joy in the hard times, trusting that the joy will come from God someday.

Another insight on prayer, as Glory struggles to deal with the complexity of her love, anger and frustration at her brother:

Her father told his children to pray for patience, for courage, for kindness, for clarity, for trust, for gratitude. Those prayers will be answered, he said. Others may not be. The Lord knows your needs. So she prayed, Lord, give me patience. She knew that was not an honest prayer, and she did not linger over it. The right prayer would have been, Lord, my brother treats me like a hostile stranger, my father seems to have put me aside, I feel I have no place here in what I thought would by my refuge, I am miserable and bitter at heart, and old fears are rising up in me so that everything I do makes everything worse. But it cost her tears to think her situation might actually be that desolate, so she prayed again for patience, for tact, for understanding–for every virtue that might keep her safe from conflicts that would be sure to leave her wounded, every virtue that might at least help her preserve an appearance of dignity, for heaven’s sake.

There’s an entire sermon on prayer in that paragraph—about honesty, about God’s ability to hear the things we cannot say and see beyond the words we can utter, about taking our brokenness to God, and on and on.

The novel is full of incredible moments like these, passages that call out for further contemplation. It should be savored for all its rich layers of flavor and meaning. Home is a thing of beauty, and so is Home.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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