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Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 261 pp.

LilaOh, Marilynne Robinson, how you move me! I think she (and especially her character Rev. John Ames) has become one of my favorite theologians in recent years. I have treasured the first two volumes of this trilogy, Gilead and Home, and waited longingly for Lila to finally be available.

Lila completes the trilogy with the story of Lila Dahl, the late-in-life wife of Rev. John Ames, a wanderer with an unknown past. In the previous two stories, she is a mystery. Finally we hear her own voice, and Robinson reveals–in her careful, slow way–Lila’s complicated past. Like Ames and Boughton, hers is a story of loneliness and isolation. Unlike the men, who also had to cope with disappointment, Lila never had any expectations for her life, so her struggle is not so much with disappointment as with emptiness. Her loss is not of an imagined future, but of any comfort and companionship at all.

Everything that happens here between Lila and Rev. John Ames is familiar to readers of Gilead and Home. She comes to church and he baptizes her. They meet and talk in their stilted way. They are married, and soon she is pregnant with his child. What we learn in this book is Lila’s perspective on their relationship, and the intricate back story that leads Lila to Gilead and breaks her heart open to love. Her story begins in poverty and abandonment, grows into love and wandering and being an outlier with Doll, the woman who raised her. When she loses Doll, she loses herself and falls into the realm of violence and abuse. Yet she escapes, she finds redemption, and together with Ames finds a frail happiness she can hardly believe is real.

As always, Robinson offers a deep sense of poetry and theology, even though our main character is not a preacher. Below are a few gems I want to remember.

She saw him standing in the parlor with his beautiful old head bowed down on his beautiful old chest. She thought, He sure better be praying. And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret. (93-94)

The next four passages are words spoken by Rev. John Ames, and they sum up much of my own theology.

I really don’t think preachers ought to lie. Especially about religion. (99)

Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way. (101)

“If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy. And probably a little bit surprised. If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us. Which is really much harder to accept. I mean, it doesn’t feel right. There has to be more to it all, I believe.”
“Well, but that’s what you want to believe, ain’t it?” (Lila)
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” (143-143)

‘Of course misfortunes have opened the way to blessings you would never have thought to hope for, that you would not have been ready to understand as blessings if they had come to you in your youth, when you were uninjured, innocent. The future always finds us changed.’ So then it is part of the providence of God, as I see it, that the blessing or happiness can have very different meanings from one time to another. ‘This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties. Instead, it is presented to us by a God who is not under any obligation to the past except in His eternal, freely given constancy.’ (223)

I mean, just, wow. That’s how I feel the whole time I am reading these books. The aching beauty, the grim loneliness, the frail joy, the probing faith, the way she captures the contour of the soul moves me every time. If you haven’t yet read Robinson’s trilogy, get to the library now and get started. These books will stand among the great works of 21st century literature, I’m certain.

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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