Despite its modest size and appearance, Gilead is a big book. Despite its apparent simplicity, it is full of wisdom. It is a tender love story and a paean to creation equal to anything found in the Old Testament. If you were somehow able to shake this book so that all the words associated with joy and happiness and beauty were made to fall out, there would be considerable white space remaining.
Not that Gilead is all sweetness and light. There is a goodly amount of sorrow to be found in these pages. The book is kind of built on sorrow, in fact. Reverend John Ames is growing old and knows that his end is near. He has experienced an unexpected love late in his life, from which a son has been given to him, and what we read as a work of fiction is a letter to his son, explaining his life. This is done not out of cowardice but because his son is only seven and he knows he won’t be around to tell him his story once his son is old enough to understand and appreciate what he is hearing.
In order for us to understand and appreciate what Reverend Ames says, it is necessary to take our collective foot off the accelerator and take our time savoring the images that Ames (Robinson) lays out for our enjoyment and edification. Here’s an example:
The mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago as I was walking up to church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she was a little disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
“The prose of Gilead acts with unusual power to evoke in its readers the capacity for experiencing the moment, to hold the moment steadily in mind before it loses its immediacy and vanishes into time.” [The Living Moment, p. 100]
One of the things that troubles me about organized religion is that it always looks beyond our earthly existence to what is to come in the next life. For Evangelicals, the life of Jesus is just a prelude to his death (and resurrection), never mind that his life and teachings are enough to absorb any theologian. When they deal with life at all it is sordid, full of temptation and sin. Of course they all talk about forgiveness and redemption but the overall thrust of contemporary Christianity is that life is an insignificant footnote in a much greater work yet to be discovered.
Reverend Ames is clearly an exception. He doesn’t deny that life is transitory but he attaches a great deal of importance to the significance on the things of this world: the beauty, the the sorrow, the joy, the pain, and above all, the love. He has laid the groundwork for a new kind of theology, almost zen-like, which admits to not understanding the life to come but is careful to look for clues in the world around us.
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens his eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what waits us, but is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that mean the world to us. In eternity this will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.
“The state of consciousness sometimes achieved by John Ames lets existence be, experiences it as possessing the philosophical category of Being, the experience of which is the core of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. That verb, Being, a gerund, is going nowhere, is doing nothing beyond itself, but simply and intransitively is.
“Ames understands the psychological fact that impatience and irritation, so familiar to most of us, are obstacles to seeing the world in this way; indeed they are versions of the sin of anger, one of the seven ‘deadly’ sins, and as such prevent us from seeing the truth of the world as it really is, having a mysterious weight and importance, which leads to the wonder that there is this, rather than nothing at all.”
Cited: The Living Moment: Modernism in a Broken World, by Jeffrey Hurt.