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Gilead As Spiritual Reading PDF Print E-mail
Monday, November 28 2005 19:00
“Oh, I will miss the world,” says the 76-year-old Protestant minister John Ames, the narrator and central figure in the celebrated new novel Gilead. Reverend Ames has  spent almost all his life in Gilead, Iowa; he now has an acute sense that he will die soon. At the behest of his much younger wife, Lila, he writes the story of his life for his son, six years old.

He feels an enhanced appreciation for the things of this world, along with a sense of impending loss. Something as simple as the memory of playing catch with his brother in his youth is enough to stir that love of life. He speaks of “that wonderful certainty and amazement when you know the glove is just where it should be.”

Marilynne Robinson, the author of Gilead, probably does not consider herself a spiritual writer. Nonetheless, this fine book comes filled with deep insight into the human soul and can be valued as a beautiful expression of spirituality.

In the novel, John Ames tells of his family, especially his grandfather and father, both ministers. He looks back over his own relationship to God and to the church that he has served for decades. His abiding friendship with a fellow minister named Boughton also enriches his life.

Of the child born to him when he was almost 70, John says: “The children of old age are unspeakably precious.”  Of course, as he would agree, all children are precious and should be cherished by their parents and others. But the joy of being gifted by God in this way goes beyond his power to express in words.

Yet he also remains aware that “any father, particularly an old father, must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God.” He takes as a model of trust the patriarch Abraham who had to be prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, and actually sent his other son Ishmael off into the wilderness.

Another trait that characterizes John is his lively sense of the sacred. For objects to be seen as holy, as he envisions it, they must be set apart. That is why God set the Sabbath apart from other days so we can appreciate the holiness of every day and time itself.

That is also what God did with Adam and Eve in the garden: they are set apart as models of our father and mother whom we are commanded to honor. Honoring our parents, as Ames interprets it, is meant to teach us to honor every human being.

John envisions that his son in future years will be especially attentive to his mother and that, because of this, something marvelous will happen. “When you love someone to the degree that you love her,” John explains, “you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of Being itself.”

This venerable minister speaks of feeling the sacred almost every time he baptizes a child. On those occasions, he senses a special presence in his hand. He refers to this mysterious contact, “that sacredness under my hand that I always do feel, that sense that the infant is blessing me.”

This aging man also has a deep sense of the church building as an altogether special environment. This space creates for John a silence and a sense of peace in which he finds spiritual satisfaction. He tells of going into his church during the night hours and simply sitting there, praying, watching for the dawn to come, but sometimes falling asleep.

Of this sacred space he writes: “It is though there were a hoard of silence in that room, as if any silence that ever entered that room stayed in it.” Of course, it helps that John is devoted to prayer, and finds it a powerful help for sustaining his inner life. Like every other human being, he knows times of loneliness, but prayer keeps those times from overcoming his spirit.

This devoted man considers God’s grace a dynamic force in the world. He envisions it “as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.” For him, this free gift of divine love marks his whole life, making of it something precious and sacred.


Richard Griffin