Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

★★★★☆ (4/5)

Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was.

This was a gorgeous, heartrending read. John Ames, an ailing pastor in Iowa, writes missives to his young son which are meant to be read after his death. In these beautiful and run-on letters, he pens down intricate details of his own life as well as of his father and grandfather, and of a fellow pastor, friend and neighbor who goes by the name of Boughton and his son who is a namesake of John Ames.

This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town.

The main thematic concern of the letters revolve around John’s theological queries, of what he deems as faith, as belief and as doctrine. The yet unfulfilled quest he is on only cements his belief as his life and the life of his ancestors unfold. He struggles with his grandfather’s role in the Civil War and his father’s disillusionment with religion. Consequently, he deliberates upon the people of his parish, their misfortunes and hardships. Within the realm of his curiosity, he also tends to find answers to the most pertinent questions regarding existence and his relationship with others – particularly his own son and the young Boughton. His mistrust of the latter is resolved when Boughton himself discloses the secrets of his terrible journey.

If I were to put deciding not to act at one end of a continuum of possibility and deciding to act at the other end, the whole intervening space would be given over to not deciding, which would mean not acting.

Even though a thread of loneliness runs throughout his letters, John Ames also practices forgiveness, grace and humility. In his understanding of his relation with fellow beings and with nature, he extends utmost thought and prudence to matters that may be complex for human comprehension. Which is why he deals with religious belief in an objective yet sagacious way. The spiritual dimension of his letters is neither self-serving nor didactic. It is self-effacing and unpresuming. The core of the novel is all heart for all ways good and pure.

Doctrine is not belief, it is only one way of talking about belief

I found many similarities of Christian belief with that of Islamic belief system. Primarily both being a lifestyle rather than being a set of some myopic doctrines. Certain elements have rendered religions around the world as insular and provincial and such novels are truly a breath of fresh air – where life consolidates with faith to bring about a transcendental and authentic experience.

The structure and style of this memoir is very well crafted, where information is divulged but only within certain limits, leaving many questions in the reader’s mind. Only later on does John Ames expound on a previous detail. This makes for a remarkably engaging read. I look forward to reading Housekeeping by the same author now.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Faith & Spirituality

  • It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.
  • It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled. That has been the fashion for the last hundred years or so.
  • It was like one of those dreams where you’re filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have in life, it doesn’t matter what it is, even guilt or dread, and you learn from it what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what a power you have to experience beyond anything you might ever actually need.
  • And 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.
  • One is that religion and religious experience are illusions of some sort, and the other is that religion itself is real, but your belief that you participate in it is an illusion. I think the second of these is the more insidious, because it is religious experience above all that authenticates religion, for the purposes of the individual believer.
  • And they are attracted to it by the very books that tell them what a misery it is. And they want me to defend religion, and they want me to give them “proofs.” I just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.
  • In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.
  • It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.

On Solitude

  • I don’t know why solitude would be a balm for loneliness, but that is how it always was for me in those days, and people respected me for all those hours I was up here working away in the study, and for the books that used to come in the mail for me—not so many, really, but more than I could afford.
  • You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human
  • “It don’t matter.” It was as if she were renouncing the world itself just in order to make nothing of some offense to her.

On Relationships

  • A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty
  • I read somewhere that a thing that does not exist in relation to anything else cannot itself be said to exist.
  • Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant.
  • He could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I’m afraid theology would fail me.

On Understanding the World Around You

  • I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.
  • I remember walking out into the dark and feeling as if the dark were a great, cool sea and the houses and the sheds and the woods were all adrift in it, just about to ease off their moorings. I always felt like an intruder then, and I still do, as if the darkness had a claim on everything, one that I violated just by stepping out my door. This morning the world by moonlight seemed to be an immemorial acquaintance I had always meant to befriend.
  • 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.

Wise Gems

  • I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.
  • This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
  • When someone remarked in his hearing that he had lost an eye in the Civil War, he said, “I prefer to remember that I have kept one.”
  • To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear.
  • Prohibition loses its force if it is invoked too generally.
  • Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay.
  • And I felt, as I have often felt, that my failing the truth could have no bearing at all on the Truth itself, which could never conceivably be in any sense dependent on me or on anyone.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • I am thinking about the word “just.” I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed—when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree. So it seems to me at the moment. There is something real signified by that word “just” that proper language won’t acknowledge.
  • Poor Glory put a chair for me beside Boughton’s bed and I sat with him a good while. I used to crawl in through the window of that room in the dark of the morning to wake him up so we could go fishing. His mother would get cross if we woke her, too, so we were very stealthy.
  • So I said to him in his sleep, I blessed that boy of yours for you.


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