Again in Gilead

I just finished reading this for the second time last week, thanks to the forever book group of Grace. It was equally as lovely the second time around, and while reading it, I wrote down a dozen more quotes from the incomparable Ames, who is both too beautiful a man to be real and too beautiful a man not to be real. (I'm grateful and amazed to know a few like him.)

"It has been my experience that guilt can burst through the smallest breach and cover the landscape, and abide in it in pools and danknesses, just as native as water." (p.82)

I have found this to be remarkably true. I see it in myself, and in many others as well.

"I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect." (p.91)

This seems to be about the only way I experience visions, but because memory is a rickety thing, I tend not to trust them much. Which makes me a poor prophet.

"I know, too, that my own experience of the church has been, in many senses, sheltered and parochial. In every sense, unless it really is a universal and transcendent life, unless the bread is the bread and the cup is the cup everywhere, in all circumstances, and it is a time with the Lord in Gethsemane that comes for everyone, as I deeply believe." (p.114)

My experience of the church has been neither sheltered nor parochial, and I find myself often observing the bread and the cup, before approaching and afterwards, and wondering with something close to despair if this could be true. But I suspect we're speaking of it with slightly different concerns. Regardless, fictional minister though he may be, I will rely on John Ames's faith in the matter where mine fails. This is a great comfort to me.

"I have always liked the phrase "nursing a grudge," because many people are tender of their resentments, as of the thing nearest their hearts." (p.117)

I couldn't help but see faces rise to mind when I read this line. Which always worries me, as it can be a quick cover for avoiding one's own face. 

"There is never just one transgression. There is a wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough seems never to heal at all." (p.122)

The reason we collect these lines when we read Gilead is that they are persistently true, perhaps none more so than this. "There is never just one transgression." And not simply because we sin more than once, but because every singular sin is manifold in its trespasses. The scar is slow to form as the trespasses unfold.

"At the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object." (p.139)

Replace the word "honor" here with "love" and you realize how interchangeable the two ideas actually are.

"So to be forgiven is only half the gift. The other half is that we also can forgive, restore, and liberate, and therefore we can feel the will of God enacted through us, which is the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves." (p.161)

Tucked within this sentence is a decent definition of humanity. That is, not simply that we are agents of the will of God, but then in enacting God's character (which is an interesting concept in itself) we realize our identity.

"Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense." (p.177)

And yet how often people try.

"There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on our temporal." (p.238)

Let us imagine that in experiencing love, it is as though we are looking through a magnifying glass at something resembling a bee or a shell. But on the other side of the magnifying glass, where we cannot travel, the bee or the shell is actually a universe, vast and exuberant. "The eternal breaking in on our temporal" suggests a suddenness to the act of love. But the "embracing, incomprehensible reality" is really the wide way of things. And our inability to see it except in "glimpse or parable" is because we are smaller on the inside than we were ever meant to be.

"There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient." (p.243)

I am grateful to know exactly what he means by this.

"Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?" (p.245)




I wrote the following about nine months ago, but it didn't feel right to post at the time. I still mean every word.

In the film Wives and Daughters, and the book by Elizabeth Gaskell which inspired it, Squire Hamley lives through the deaths of both his wife and his eldest son. He's a proud man, whose pride is greater than either his education or his purse. But each of these deaths, coming as they do at the beginning and the end of the story, change him in significant ways. The first hardens him; the second softens him. We see in the squire (perfectly portrayed by Michael Gambon in what I consider to be one of the greatest performances on screen) a complete character transformation. He is changed, but we still recognize him. In fact, we see him all the more clearly.

Grief does that to a person. It uncovers them.

Today I went to a memorial service for a woman I never knew. Before the service started, her two year old son found his way up to the podium, pacifier in his mouth, and began to wail. It occurred to me more than once from then on that wailing would be right in such a space, at such a time.

We don't do that, of course. We don't wail, nor do we hire wailers. We do not beat our chests in the street or cover ourselves in sack and ash. It's not a part of our culture. And I'm not suggesting that it should be. There's a moment when, like the squire, we open wide our wailing, spurning the dinner set before us, and cry, "He…will never eat again!" But we still find ourselves downstairs the next day, answering the mail and making arrangements. Because we go on. Our hearts are battered, but they are not broken. Not for good. "Nay, nay. It's not so easy to break your heart. Sometimes I wish it were. No, we have to go on living 'all the appointed days.'"

We go on living. Beauty and joy are a little sweeter for having known the dark days. And dark days are a little less forbidding because we've traveled them before. We were never promised easy lives. We were promised exactly this. Living, stained with tears. 
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