I recently read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and I was surprised to find myself unmoved. Surprised because Gilead is beloved by many friends whose literary tastes are trustworthy. Surprised because Robinson is a good writer and Gilead is well-written. But it did not grab me. I could not surrender to it. It is a book of much spirituality, perhaps not surprising because the main character is a preacher and has fifty years' worth of sermons to draw on when the narration needs a little religious boost. Our narrator, John Ames, is an old man hastening toward death, writing his testament to his seven-year-old son. Impending death concentrates the mind wonderfully, we are told, and the book is suffused -- no, drenched -- with wonder. We are, to be sure, as Fanny Price says, a miracle every way, but the wonder of it began to wear on me long before the end of the book.
There are several possible reasons for this. One is that, in my corner of the Catholic internet, there are many fine writers who are able to find the grace of the everyday, so that Robinson's reflections are not as novel as they might be to a reader who encounters no other medium through which to examine the manifestations of the next world in this one. I am used to reading the fine writing of Elizabeth Duffy, for example, and Robinson's writing reminded me of Elizabeth's, only Elizabeth is rather more hard-hitting than the mild John Ames, casting a clear eye on rinse/lather/repeat efforts to find grace in the mundane and often unflattering details of life.
I remember going to watch my sister at one of the state meets, where the girl who was favored to win, I think her name was Jenny, ran the first two miles well ahead of the pack, then not one hundred feet from the finish line, clenched up. Her jaw went tight, her legs stiffened. You could see her force a few steps before she fell down. People passed her, my sister among them, and the gal finally crossed the finish line on all fours.It seems like I was just getting into competitive running at about that time, and I never was very competitive, because I was very precious to myself and concerned about the onset of pain. Sometimes, when running, I’d start to get a little tight, and think about Jenny and pull back–because her crawling across the finish line seemed like one of the greatest tragedies that could befall anyone. And of course it’s not, I now know, but back then I only knew one kind of glory–and that was staying comfortable. Also…winning, if the two could be combined.It wasn’t until I had kids that I received my first hint of what my sister gleaned from her endurance–that there’s a point between fatigue and falling down that’s quite lovely, an out-of-body experience. Close your eyes, keep going, and the body just does what it needs to do with the tacit prompt of mind. I’ve felt it in childbirth during transition, and every so often, when I think I have no energy left for putting kids to bed and whatnot, somehow it just gets done.This weekend we put in the garden. I’ve abandoned a large garden way out back that’s so far away from the house that I forget about it, so my husband made frames for three raised beds right outside the kitchen. In the course of the weekend, we dug out sod, turned over a lot of dirt, loaded and unloaded long boards. I’ve felt a little beat up, with scratches on my ankles and forearms from hard to handle boards, sore back, and restless leg syndrome at night. And none of this is complaint, but rather exultation. I got tired, but I kept working–like people who have babies, run long distance, write novels, or become saints.Back in the days when I tried to write poetry, I wrote down a phrase in my little notebook, “I want to give glory to God without fear.” I kept thinking something would occur to me to follow that line, but over the years as I’ve looked at it here and again, I can’t think of anything with which to chase it. It’s still a concern of mine, but it’s more of a singular concern rather than one impression among many. I want to give glory to God without fear.In so many of my endeavors (having babies, running, writing, trying to become a saint), I still hold myself very dear.
Another reason for my less-than-perfect engagement with Gilead is the grace vs. wonder divide. I didn't find the book so much full of grace as full of wonder, the gentle wonder of a old man seeing life through the lens of death. So much goodness, so much beauty, if only everyone knew how beautiful they were. All very good things. But I've heard Robinson accused of having universalist tendencies, and I can see that in several instances. There is some ugliness in the book, some bad blood, but none of it manifests in the main character needing to make a moral choice right now, this moment, to rely on grace. In fact, what seemed like a crucial situation, in which John Ames fears that he might be leaving his wife and son to the predations of a malicious character, just melts away into a distant topical problem related to the 1950s setting. Ames does not, in the end, have to confront the necessity of depending on the grace of God to protect his family when he cannot. He has written reams of spiritual guidance and explication over the years, and yet when he appealed to as a preacher for counsel, he repeatedly wiggles out of having to give any concrete testimony to his beliefs. No one's really all that bad, it seems, and the malicious impulses of the heart, sin and evil, go, in my opinion, mostly unexamined, and we settle back into the predictable wonder of every day being the last day.
Robinson is, as I have said, a fine writer, and her wonder-ful images are memorable -- a young couple walking down the street, shaking raindrops off trees; a father and son neatening an abandoned, unloveable graveyard; the image, much dwelt on, of Ames's sooty father giving him a biscuit in the lull of helping to pull down a fire-struck church, an image that seems to resonate more with Robinson that with me because bread of affliction, communion actually has a literal meaning to me. But again, it's wonder, rather than grace, that jumps out at me. Taking a book's cover blurb as any kind of meaningful analysis is an iffy proposition, yet in retrospect, this sentence sums up the book well:
This is also the tale of another remarkable vision -- not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation.The lack of the corporeal vision of God is a problem because the main wonder of creation is that God became his own creation in a corporeal way. The body becomes a literal, not a metaphorical, conduit of grace. A vision of life as a wondrously strange creation without a corporeal vision of God tends to descend into treacle and nostalgia and soft soap.
Robinson is, of course, a gifted writer, skilled enough to keep her Pulitzer Prize-winning book from straying into the romantic and the purely picturesque. And then, and then, there's the wonder of Ann Voskamp:
Mama can kick leaves in the woods like she’s tearing back the crumpled paper wrapped over the surface of things.
She walks with a stick.
She dragged it out from under some maple saplings. And then she pins that trail under her right down.
Like there’s no loud and flippant way she’s letting anything make her miss the now right under her, no way that that now could just up and slip out from under her.
You could be a sophisticated cynic and miss your whole life that way.
You walk a bold, amazed way when you know the destination is right here.There is, apparently, a variety of wonder-drenched writing which drifts into a precious and almost unintelligible aestheticism, the sort of writing someone described to me as "'the tea-kettle's all dancy on the stove' shit".
What had Mary Oliver defiantly scratched down with an inked stick of her own?
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.”
Everyone’s wild to stop feeling overwhelmed – but nobody ever wants everything to stop and be over.
Mama walks like that through the woods. Like she knows it’s going to be over someday… all over. That your face will come tight right up to it and there’s no stick you can fine anywhere to fight time off.
And then there’ll be that stark moment when you turn and see what you were married to. You can live your life as the bride married to Hurry, having affairs with Not Enough, Always Stress, and Easy Cynicism.
Yeah, I guess we all get to choose our own bedfellows.
Mama always said it and she didn’t care what anyone thought of it: God was her husband. And that ain’t just some metaphor to get the Pharisees all in a prudish knot – it’s brazen Scripture. Take it or go ahead and leave it. We all get to choose our own bedfellows – and who we’ll give our soul to, who or what will get our life.
Mama’s standing there, already decided.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement, vowed to Awe Himself, covenanted to Christ –and I took the whole of everything He gave in this gloried world into my open arms with thanks.
Because really? Yeah, I guess so — Anybody can be a cynic. Cynicism is laziness in every way.
The real heroes are the ones who never stop looking for the possibility of joy.
“Here is good. I think we should do it right here.” Mama taps the ground of the trail with her stick, holding here down. Here always has some good if you look at it long enough.
“Good light.” Mama looks up.
So that’s where Levi and I drag the tables to. Haul in stumps to stand in as legs for plank benches. Throw old quilts down as tablcloths and lay out the plates.
“Are we crazy?” I tug at the end of one of the quilts. Mama raises her one eyebrow — “I mean, not in a general, yes, obviously-we-are-crazy sense — but in a specifically in a trying- to- have- a- Thanksgiving-dinner in- the- woods- sense?”
Mama grins. Winks. Knowingly.
Yeah – she doesn’t have to say it.
Wherever you are – Thanksgiving is always for those crazy enough to see grace for the trees.
Thanksgiving is always for the courageous and Grace is always for the risky.
We lay out the table and string up the banners and make up our Thanksgiving Tree —-
And it’s all ridiculous enough to be meant to be —This is the sort of lush wonder that never requires one to develop it in a whole paragraph, the kind of cray-cray-crazy abandonment! that's so adorably luminous that to examine it with any kind of critical eye and ask, "What does this even mean?" makes one the laziest of cynics. It's the sort of Pinterest-ready spirituality that makes a brand of turning grace into a species of wonder, a packaged Christianity that makes you feel that maybe your life could achieve the pretty standard set by the author if only you buy her NY Times best-selling gratitude journal and accompanying devotional.
Robinson is better than this. Her wonder actually stands up to cynicism. But for once, for once, I actually yearn for the gritty ugly grace of Flannery O'Connor, because she dares to strip away the coatings and the veneers and the prettiness to show grace in all its raw and destroying beauty. The grace that sanctifies the tedious without stripping it of its penitential reality is a good deal more potent and enduring than the dreamy wonder of a "radically subversive" picture-perfect Thanksgiving table in the woods. The grace that stands in the face of evil and declares that it shall not triumph is more heart-wrenching than the broad and easy path of universalism. Wonder, yes. Enchantment, sure. But only as ancillary to grace, not as its totality.