This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 45, number 2/3 (2022).
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Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Gilead.
In the mythos of the United States, travel holds a dear and reverent place. In such reverence is something right, for the world is wide and all of it is good. As Scott Russell Sanders has observed, “Claims for the virtues of shifting ground are familiar and seductive to Americans, this nation of restless movers. From the beginning, our heroes have been sailors, explorers, cowboys, prosperous speculators, backwoods ramblers, rainbow-chasers, vagabonds of every stripe.”1 In a similar vein, the medieval Christian tradition honored one form of travel — pilgrimage — as a spiritual discipline in which the act of walking prefigured the soul’s movement from spiritual death to life with God. Indeed, at the roots of Christian story is the pilgrimage of Abraham, who leaves his country to wander in search of another. Today, pilgrimage functions primarily as a metaphor, reminding us that we are incomplete, that our homes and ourselves are, in their fullest form, still to be found. As St. Augustine contends, the true pilgrimage is one of inner transformation: “[we do] not approach God by moving across intervals of place, but by likeness or similarity, and [we move] away from him by dissimilarity or unlikeness.”2 If, therefore, our goal is inner transformation, we are as likely to reach it by staying put as by moving about.
Outward movement may even thwart interior growth — when we seek to change our circumstances rather than adjust ourselves to the realities set before us. Early Christian monks known as the Desert Fathers counseled their spiritual followers to remain in their specific monastic communities, even in their own small cells, insisting that “A tree cannot bear fruit if it is often transplanted. So it is with the monk.”3 According to Anglican nun Benedicta Ward, these early Christian monks remained in one place for years — if not for a lifetime — “[meditating on Scripture] and exploring themselves in its light more deeply all the time….This stability of remaining in one place was a vital part of their asceticism.”4
Demanding change too often, we risk blindness to the splendor of common places and common persons because we neglect the patience that allows the depths of place and person to unfold. Beneath this demand lies an assumption, always corrosive of reverence, that existence is thin, its depths easily known, its worth soon exhausted. This assumption also begets elitism: the belief that only in select places among select people can the glory of being shine forth. To an elitist, the root of glory is no longer the divine gift that reveals itself to patient, open-handed attention. Instead, human effort becomes glory’s source, garish achievement casting into shadow the subtle but profound glory that everywhere abides.
Still and Attentive
The American mythos does have counter-voices though. We are not only movers. Writers such as Sanders understand that whatever important happens in this world happens everywhere. We just have to be still enough to see it.5 Likewise, the poet Mary Oliver, reflecting on her own vocation, says “my work…is mostly standing still, and learning to be astonished.”6 Farmer and writer Wendell Berry has built a life and a body of work on the determination to stay in one place — a hillside farm in Kentucky — and learn to know it. Even Henry David Thoreau joins pilgrimage to place when he claims, “I have travelled a good deal in Concord,”7 the small New England town in which he spent most of his life.
Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead works in this latter tradition.8 It is the story of a man whose faith trains him to love both a place and its people. He is a man whose pilgrimage — an inner journey — takes place almost entirely within the confines of Gilead, Iowa, a small town on the American prairie. Precisely because his life develops within narrow geographic boundaries, he achieves growth by attentiveness: to books, Scripture, self, place, and people, who reveal themselves to be not thin but deep, rooted in a spiritual reality that causes the world to flash with light and beauty.9
John Ames is an elderly Congregationalist minister, some seventy-six years old, married roughly ten years to a woman half his age, and the father of a seven-year-old boy. Having lost his first wife and child to the vagaries of childbirth, no one is more surprised than he that good fortune has visited him in old age.10 Concerned that he will soon pass, though, Ames writes a letter — the whole of the novel — for his son to read when he is grown. This letter (written in 1956) connects Ames’s life to his son’s future and to the past, reaching back through his father’s and grandfather’s lives to a time when Christian Congregationalists built towns such as Gilead, Iowa to help African Americans escape slavery.11 They were abolitionists, and many fought in the Civil War. Thus, the novel spans three of America’s most brutal wars — the Civil War, WWI, and WWII. By juxtaposing the pacifism of Ames and his father with the abolitionist-inspired violence of his grandfather (all three men were Congregationalist ministers), Robinson delineates the perennial tension between peace and justice in the demand each makes upon anyone who would walk righteously in this world.12
Yet the real conflict of the story occurs within Ames, specifically in his attitude toward Jack Boughton. The son of Ames’s best friend, Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton, Jack is Ames’s namesake, having been baptized John Ames Boughton — his father’s way of honoring Ames whose first child died at birth. But, as Ames notes, “Jack Boughton is a piece of work.”13 During his childhood, he was consistently troublesome, committing petty crimes and annoying pranks, stealing objects of great sentimental but little monetary value, and generally embarrassing his family.14 The act, though, for which Ames most fears and resents Jack is his having, while in college, fathered a child, whom he promptly abandoned, along with her very young mother whose poverty, youth, and inexperience contributed to the child’s death. To Ames, Jack is dishonorable. It angered him to see Jack fling away a gift so precious.15 Though the novel is set some twenty years after this act, Ames is afraid that Jack has not changed. Because he fears that he himself will soon die, he fears for his new wife and child who seem vulnerable to the likes of Jack Boughton.16 Nevertheless Jack needs something from Ames, who is both a pastor and Jack’s (reluctant) godfather.17 Jack, burdened by his past, wonders if there is grace for him.
Over the weeks in which Ames composes his letter, Jack visits often, befriending both his son and Lila, his wife. As Ames labors to understand and deal justly with Jack, his fear and frustration become a recurring topic of the letter, for he is concerned about how or whether to reveal what he knows about Jack’s past to his son and wife. His struggle arises from his effort to see both himself and Jack clearly. Ames’s long training in spiritual vision has equipped him to see both the beauty of Gilead and its shabbiness — the light reflected from the trees, the bawdy laughter of young mechanics, the morning light through the sanctuary windows of his church, the prairie itself.18 Time and patience and formation by word and sacrament during his long, lonely years as a widower have attuned him to the quiet glory of his world, to its truth. Gilead, Iowa is a prairie town founded by people in whom a fierce spiritual flame had once burned. That flame seems now to be mostly embers, though it can flash and flare in unexpected ways.19 But Jack, whose petty childhood viciousness had so often wounded and puzzled him, remains an ominous and uncomfortable mystery, as does his own fear and jealousy.
A Great, Good Glimpse of God
Until Ames learns that Jack has a wife and child of his own.20 This revelation astounds him and reconfigures his relationship with Jack. Though Jack remains the troubled, undependable alcoholic that he has always been, there is more in him than Ames had known. Indeed, his very lack of respectability has freed him to cross a boundary that neither Ames nor Jack’s father could imagine crossing. For Jack has married Della Miles, an African American woman. In 1950’s Missouri where he meets Della, interracial marriages are prohibited by law; so their union lacks legal sanction — and is socially unacceptable even in places where it is not illegal. Nor is it acceptable to Della’s own family, who — understandably — suspect the motives of a white man who has fathered a child with their daughter without benefit of a legally sanctioned marriage.
Thus, the wide racial rift that blights American history is — in this novel — bridged, not by the respectable, white Christian majority, but by a gracious black woman, who relinquishes her standing in her own community to marry the man she loves, a black-sheep white man whose behavior has rarely fit the bounds of propriety. It is, after all, an ugly truth of American history that few white men in the 1950’s would have married a woman of color. Even supposing them to be free enough of racial bias to consider her a suitable partner, such an act would have put them socially and economically beyond the pale. Jack knows he cannot even tell his own father of his wife.
Although Iowa has no anti-miscegenation laws, Jack discovers that even here he cannot make a home for his wife and child. His own past and his father’s presumptions about respectability will not allow it. Thus, the temptation to abandon them remains, which means Jack is still Jack. Yet the effort to live by love and to do good also remains, which means Jack is more than Ames thought him to be. This discovery leads Ames not, finally, to warn his wife and child about Jack, but to a fumbling attempt to tell his son of the great beauty he sees in Jack, a beauty that arouses love in Ames, allowing him to forgive and bless Jack, who leaves Gilead with nothing in his own heart resolved.
John Ames is an old man who discovers he still suffers from fear and from foolish jealousy. Though advanced in age, he runs up against the limits of his own wisdom, learning from the experience that grace is at work in even the most befuddled human hearts. As he strains to see both Jack and himself clearly, readers glimpse an unexpected beauty: the struggle of one man’s light to shine forth, the struggle of another man to see it. Ames could, finally, see the beauty in Jack for the same reason he could see the beauty of Gilead, Iowa — shabby and lukewarm though it is — and the beauty of the prairie. For nearly seventy years he had not moved. He stayed in one place, learning to love it as he learned to see it.
Thus, he was not static. This particular pilgrim’s progress unfolded as a life-long exploration of his own inner and outer landscape. Limited by culture and geography, his pilgrimage was, thereby, both a discipline in seeing and a revelation of what there is to see. T. S. Eliot says, “Old men ought to be explorers / Here and there does not matter / We must be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion.”21 The life of the Reverend John Ames reflects this still movement into deeper communion, recalling one way by which a person can travel his or her whole life while remaining in one place.
Our world does not usually know itself to be threadbare and pierced by divine light. And a life of frenetic movement is unlikely to see this light. So the Christian faith trains us to stillness, allowing us to see who and what stands before us — each person one of the great, good glimpses of God given to this world. I know of nothing greater that can be said for us. We should accept nothing less. Still, we are not here to be known as brilliant, but to know the brilliance. We need only open our eyes. Light is everywhere.
Stephen Mitchell, PhD lives, teaches, and writes in North Carolina.
- Scott Russell Sanders, “Settling Down,” in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 104.
- Augustine, The Trinity (De Trinitate), 2nd ed., trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2015), 235.
- The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 72.
- Benedicta Ward, “Introduction,” in The Desert Fathers, x.
- Sanders, “Settling Down,” 110–15.
- Mary Oliver, “Messenger,” in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 1.
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden, reissue ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 2.
- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004).
- Robinson, Gilead, 24–28, 51, 56–57, 72, 91, 114, 136–39.
- Robinson, Gilead, 9, 17, 20, 52, 136.
- Robinson, Gilead, 9, 49–50, 104–10.
- Robinson, Gilead, 31–32, 86–87, 99–101, 173–76.
- Robinson, Gilead, 125.
- Robinson, Gilead, 179–83.
- Robinson, Gilead, 155–60.
- Robinson, Gilead,
- Robinson, Gilead, 166–72.
- Robinson, Gilead, 5, 44, 48–53, 66, 72, 91, 237, 245–46.
- Robinson, Gilead, 245–46.
- Robinson, Gilead, 217–32.
- T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” in Four Quartets (Boston: Mariner Books, 1971), 32.