“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.”
That’s Marilynne Robinson in Gilead, easily one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read.
I reached for her book last night because I’m fast approaching a milestone birthday and because the book is in the form of a letter written by an – ahem – older pastor to his toddler son. The pastor is dying, knows it, and wants his son to know who he was.
There’s more to the book than that, of course, but that’s the narrative framework. (An 80-year-old pastor with a toddler son isn’t a bad narrative feature either.)
In addition to the wonderful way Robinson strings her words together, I’m struck by how well she understands the way a pastor might think – not only the small-town pastor in Iowa whose thoughts we read in her book, but my own thoughts and worries and doubts.
As I read the book, I realize that she’s speaking for me, if only I could speak with such insight:
“That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.”
I’ve thought often about writing a memoir about my ministry, but the stories I could tell no one would believe. They’d think I was making it up. But the truth is, any pastor who’s been around as long as I have has seen it all. And if not all of life, then a big enough hunk of it to be amazed and appalled and humbled.
Human beings are capable of so much – so much that is good and lovely, but also so much that is ugly and unseemly. I wonder sometimes at how much pain people bear, how much hurt they endure, how indescribably cruel their lives have been. And then I wonder at how resilient they turn out to be, how they go on, how they find the inner resources to live good, caring lives.
I’m coming up on a birthday tomorrow that I somehow didn’t see coming. It was always out there in the distance somewhere and nothing to worry about. And now it’s here, in just a few hours. So, I find myself thinking about what I’ve learned and what I know to be true and what I would pass along – to a toddler son or to anyone who cared to listen.
And it’s my gratitude for the gift of life.
“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?”
(Photo: That’s Marilynne Robinson.)