Gilead. Marilynne Robinson.

Reading Gilead was like eating a sweet fruit — but in the form of an onion.  Imagine a fruit as sweet as a kiwi, but with each bite, another layer is revealed.  As you read Gilead, layers of the characters and plot are subtlety pulled away.  The story is of a 76 year old man, writing to his young son, about his life, and it is fascinating.  The father is a preacher, and is insightful into his own character as well as life in general.  I’ll leave it at that.

I must admit, I had much higher expectations for the last quarter of the story than what was actually written.  The possibilities for the main conflict, for the characters to grow and overcome, were so strong.  But what happened was a bit of a let down after my expectations had built during the first three quarters of the book.  Still, the story was good, and the writing exceptional and beautiful.

Quotes

  • You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.
  • But I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books
  • When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the “I” whose predicate can be “love” or “fear” or “want,” and whose object can be “someone” or “nothing” and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around “I” like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else.
  • A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way. There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought—the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider
  • People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives.
  • Each morning I’m like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes—old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable.
  • Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time
  • I’m trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I’m trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all.
  • Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.
  • This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.
  • It seems almost a cruelty for one generation to beget another when parents can secure so little for their children, so little safety, even in the best circumstances. Great faith is required to give the child up, trusting God to honor the parents’ love for him by assuring that there will indeed be angels in that wilderness.
  • The Tenth Commandment is unenforceable, even by oneself, even with the best will in the world, and it is violated constantly.

This is long but well worth high-lighting.  I am still processing it:

  • But to return to the matter of honoring your mother. I think it is significant that the Fifth Commandment falls between those that have to do with proper worship of God and those that have to do with right conduct toward other people. I have always wondered if the Commandments should be read as occurring in order of importance. If that is correct, honoring your mother is more important than not committing murder. That seems remarkable, though I am open to the idea.  Or they may be thought of as different kinds of law, not comparable in terms of their importance, and honoring your mother might be the last in the sequence relating to right worship rather than the first in the series relating to right conduct. I believe this is a very defensible view.  I believe the Fifth Commandment belongs in the first tablet, among the laws that describe right worship, because right worship is right perception (see especially Romans 1), and here the Scripture commands right perception of people you have a real and deep knowledge of. How you would honor someone differs with circumstances, so you can only truly fulfill a general obligation to show honor in specific cases of mutual intimacy and understanding. If all this seems lopsided in favor of parents, I would point out again that it is the consistent example of parents in the Bible that they honor their children. …
  • But I wished to say certain things about the Fifth Commandment, and why it should be thought of as belonging to the first tablet. Briefly, the right worship of God is essential because it forms the mind to a right understanding of God. God is set apart—He is One, He is not to be imagined as a thing among things (idolatry—this is what Feuerbach failed to grasp). His name is set apart. It is sacred (which I take to be a reflection of the sacredness of the Word, the creative utterance which is not of a kind with other language). Then the Sabbath is set apart from other days, for the enjoyment of time and duration, perhaps, over and above the creatures who inhabit time. Because “the beginning,” which might be called the seed of time, is the condition for all the creation that follows. Then mother and father are set apart, you see. It seems to me almost a retelling of Creation—First there is the Lord, then the Word, then the Day, then the Man and Woman—and after that Cain and Abel—Thou shalt not kill—and all the sins recorded in those prohibitions, just as crimes are recorded in the laws against them. So perhaps the tablets differ as addressing the eternal and the temporal.
  • But I believe also that the rewards of obedience are great, because at the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object. In the particular instance of your mother, I know that if you are attentive to her in this way, you will find a very great loveliness in her. When you love someone to the degree you love her, you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of Being itself. That is why the Fifth Commandment belongs on the first tablet. I have persuaded myself of it.

And just a few more:

  • We know nothing about heaven, or very little, and I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us.
  • Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.
  • “Do you ever wonder why American Christianity always seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?”
  • Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.
  • I fell to thinking about the passage in the Institutes where it says the image of the Lord in anyone is much more than reason enough to love him, and that the Lord stands waiting to take our enemies’ sins upon Himself. So it is a rejection of the reality of grace to hold our enemy at fault. Those things can only be true. It seems to me people tend to forget that we are to love our enemies, not to satisfy some standard of righteousness, but because God their Father loves them.
  • Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.
  • Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing. But that is the pulpit speaking.
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