On days when it’s sunny, I take my old dog-eared copy of Gilead into the park. It’s been years since I’ve read Marilynne Robinson’s novel about a fictional pastor living in a dusty Iowa backwater, writing to his young son as he reflects on life and his own mortality. The book was a huge part of my spiritual formation when I was in college, but I’ve been afraid to pick it up during the pandemic. I used to be so moved by John Ames’ musings on the beauty of the world: “The sprinkler is a magnificent invention because it exposes raindrops to sunshine,” or “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, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable.”
What if they sound trite, or ring hollow, in this new and frightening world? What if this book, which has always been a source of hope and comfort for me, isn’t enough anymore?
What I found instead is that I never before fully appreciated the backdrop of hardship that John Ames is writing into. He reflects on his experience of living through 1918 in terms that sound eerily familiar: “People don’t talk much now about the Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing. …. We lost so many of the young people. And we got off pretty lightly. People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far away from each other as they could. There was talk that the Germans had caused it with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that, because it saved them from reflecting on what other meaning it might have... It was just like a biblical plague, just exactly.”
And of course, there is Ames’ purpose for writing in the first place: he knows that he is dying, and that his young son will grow up with very few memories of his father. John Ames is intimately familiar with sorrow and fear and loneliness and all the things that I’ve been feeling over the last few months, and it’s from this knowledge that he still tells his son: “Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.” Knowing this makes his affirmation of life, his delight in God’s small and everyday gifts, seem richer and more full-throated–more meaningful to me than they ever were before.