Seasonal song
This week's portion: strange fire


Last week I read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It's been out for some time, and I imagine many of you have read it already; it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2004, and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005. It was recommended to me by a minister friend, and had been on my Amazon wishlist for a while when my friend Emily gave it to me for my birthday. I sat down to begin reading it the day before Pesach began, and found it so compelling that I invented excuses to pick it up again that day, and again. I had finished it before the time came to make matzah balls for the first seder.

Gilead is a thoughtful and meditative novel. It takes the form of a letter written by Congregationalist minister John Ames, a man of seventy-seven whose heart is failing, to his seven-year-old son. The letter is meant to be a kind of replacement for his presence in the years he knows they won't be able to spend together. John tells his son stories; he reflects and reminisces. When I began the book, I thought that was all it was, and that was okay by me. The writing is clear and fine, and peppered with observations about God, faith and ministry that spoke to me for all the obvious reasons. Like this one:

That's the very strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things.

Or this one:

For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough.

Or this:

There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily.... Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position.

How could I not feel immediately at-home in the presence of a narrator who says things like these? John is well-spoken, and the stories he chooses to tell his son coalesce into a vivid and believable life.

Of course, there is more to the book than that. John's grandfather and father were also both ministers, and both fought in the Civil War, though his grandfather came away filled with the righteous fire of the abolitionist and his father came away convinced that no war, however just at its root, can be a Christian enterprise. There are darker stories hidden beneath the benign exterior of the surface stories John tells, like tunnels dug to conceal escaped slaves beneath the dusty streets of a midwestern town. There's another story woven through here, too, about the son of John's best friend Boughton, who Boughton named for John when it appeared John would never have a child of his own. But that one is revealed in skillfully-measured increments, and I would do it a disservice in summarizing.

Robinson's simple and measured prose serves Gilead's narrative. These are deep waters, but there's a lot going on beneath their surface stillness. In a funny way, once the book had grabbed hold of me it was a real page-turner; I was desperate to know what might be revealed next. The book's tone is consistent throughout -- what changed, in the reading, was me.

I feel a natural affinity toward books which show the lives of clergy in interesting ways, like Jonathan Rosen's Joy Comes in the Morning, which centers around a young female rabbi (and which I posted about a while back -- and which, come to think of it, also came to me via my friend Emily.) I have more in common with Rosen's protagonist than with Robinson's, obviously, but there are similarities between a rabbinic life and a ministerial one. I feel kinship with anyone for whom faith is central. And this year I've come to regard the ministers in my CPE program as brothers and friends. Perhaps these are part of why Gilead resonates for me so strongly.

"Readers with no interest in religion will find pleasure in this hymn to existence," wrote the reviewer in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This excellent review in the Christian Science Monitor notes that "There are passages here of such profound, hard-won wisdom and spiritual insight that they make your own life seem richer." Ann Hulbert, writing in Slate, calls it "as spare, and as spiritual, a novel as I think I have ever encountered." The review in the San Francisco Chronicle points out that Robinson is often asked to preach at her home church; after spending a condensed lifetime with her creation John Ames, I can see why.

In a way, I can't say much "happens" in the book. It's a meditative ramble through an old man's life and memory, not an action thriller. In another way, of course, everything in the world happens here: love, loss, death, conflict, sorrow, fear, joy. "There is a balm in Gilead," says the hymn, and after reading this book I can't help but agree.

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