A few years ago, I bought a used copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead because it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 and I aim to read most — if not all — Pulitzer Prize Fiction winners through the ages. However, I was in no hurry to read Gilead based on its synopsis. The combination of a seventy-something protagonist, an obscure town setting, and a religious theme just didn’t sound like the page-turning story that I confess I’m always looking to read. Eventually, I had the good sense (or dumb luck) to pack Gilead alongside several other books for a solo vacation a couple of years ago.
I love when my negative assumptions are completely upended, and the object of my assumption is revealed in beautiful truth. That’s exactly what happened with Gilead. What I thought would be a boring novel turned out to be a profoundly transforming one.
The story is narrated by minister John Ames, who is seventy-six and dying. As a gift to his seven year-old son, John shares his meditations on life, love, family, friendship and forgiveness. He describes three generations of Ames men, the misunderstandings between them, their love. Whether John is pondering a moment or a lifetime, he is never far from its spiritual significance. Those soulful musings — rather than coming off as preachy or unwelcome or scriptural — are delivered gently, simply. The prose is spare yet arresting and beautiful. Gilead is an experience…and yes, a spiritual one I am grateful for.
Read some of my favorite passages from Gilead below and perhaps you’ll get a tiny glimpse of what I mean about this special book.
These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.
Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.”
Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was.
I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.
A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.
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.
The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light…It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within that great general light of existence.
I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.
“It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it . . . so I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is much more easily spent.
It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire. Another reason why you must be careful of your health.