Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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On my way to Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel “Lila,” I came across her 2004 “Gilead”. What detained the interest of this aging pastor is its story of an ailing pastor, who sits down to write down his life and ministry reflections for his young son. Recently told that he has a coronary malady that may imminently take his life, Pastor John Ames hopes that his son will grow up with enough maturity to read and understand his heart-felt letter. “Gilead” is that letter.

Much contemporary fiction on religious life is wanting. Mostly, the dramas turns to polemics and the comedies become parodies. Or its characters are usually tissue-thin caricatures of dimwitted goodness or of guised hypocrisy. All together, these individuals are dull and uninviting. Ms Robinson’s “Gilead” provides a refreshing change. Her novel is a comparative  reminder of two other monographs on the life of a cleric. Both are also written in diary formats. Georges Bernanos’ “The Diary of a Country Priest” is fiction; Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic” is non-fiction. Like these, “Gilead” is a meditation on being a well-intentioned minister in a world that is broken, sinful and impervious to the presence of God.

During year’s end holidays recently, my wife and I attended our grandson’s Carols and Lessons worship at his school. Many parents attended because their children were performing. The rector tried in earnest to call the presence of God into the consciousness of the congregation. But we were distracted every which ways. During singing and reading, with anxious devotion to our children, we waved and clicked photos indiscriminately. With tenuous attention, the sudden wailing of sirens outside turned our heads mindlessly. When the benediction was offered, in collective chaos, parents and children scurried hurriedly looking for their loved ones.

That recent religious experience at my grandson’s school reflects Pastor Ames’ parish in Gilead, a fictitious small town in Iowa. His parishioners’ lives are pervaded by pains and penitence. His sermons and prayers, in the thousands, seek to bring God’s grace-full presence into their pervasion. He relives his own family history, time and time again, attended by brokenness. He remembers the death of his first wife and child, the legacy of his fiery grandfather, a controversial clergy in the abolitionist movement, and his father, a pacifist pastor, who was egregiously estranged from Pastor Ames’ grandfather. He relates resentment against John (Jack) Ames Boughton, his namesake and the wayward son of his good friend. The younger John’s life is trailed by crimes and punishments. His unexpected returns to Gilead causes clashing emotions of empathy and animosity in the older John. He confesses to his own son, “He could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I’m afraid theology would fail me.”

Ms Robinson’s beautiful prose is lucid and poetic. Her notion of religious life is realistic and redemptive.  She beckons, maybe demands, the reader to pace slowly and enjoys the beauty of her syntax. Yet her prose is fierce. It laments the burdens of being truly human in a broken world. Even in Biblical faith’s redemptive reality, all of us are in need of forgiveness, reconciliation and acceptance, from God and from one another. The shadows of the prodigal son parable dances throughout her narrative. Every relationship in “Gilead” is a revival of Jesus’ parable of undeserved grace. Pastor Ames simply ends with, “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”

Picador, New York 2004