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Giliad – Marilyn Robinson

June 16, 2016

Gilead 3An old spiritual hymn says, “There is a balm in Gilead to soothe the sin-sick soul.” Gilead, the mountainous region of the hymn, and Gilead, Iowa, might seem as removed as night and day. But in this novel, even this tiny plains town can be the site of grace and the goodness of God: “So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.”

Creeping into his narrative, though, comes not only Ames’s reflections on the faith of his fathers, but also his profound love for and wonder in things of this earth. Many of the descriptions of the beauty of seemingly mundane activities and scenes are almost startling in their loveliness: “there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat…. Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.” Ames’s evident delight in the beauty of this world speaks to his recognition of holiness in the everyday: “It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance.” In glowing prose, Robinson’s novel illuminates these radiant moments.

Gilead is the fictional autobiography of the Reverend John Ames, an elderly congregationalist pastor in the small, secluded town of Gilead, Iowa, who knows that he is dying of a heart condition. At the beginning of the book, the date is established as 1956, and Ames explains that he is writing an account of his life, in the form of letters for his seven-year-old son, who will have few memories of him.

At one stage he described himself as an elderly clergyman and codger.

He wonders what will happen to his town, his ministry, and his family after his death. He harbours concerns that his congregation will decide to tear down his beloved church building after his death, that his memory will be forgotten, that his thousands of pages of sermons will remain buried in boxes forever. When his best friend’s wayward son Jack (named after John Ames) returns to Gilead and befriends Ames’s young wife and son, Ames simultaneously expresses hope and fear about what the future brings for them: “I might well be leaving her to a greater happiness than I have given her, even granting every difficulty.” When Jack reveals a secret, and his true reasons for returning to his hometown, Ames must overcome his misgivings about Jack’s past and find room in his heart for one more blessing, one more bestowal of grace.

Robinson was perhaps influenced by the similar forms of the two most famous books narrated by clergymen, Francis Kilvert’s diary and Georges Bernanos’s novel ”The Diary of a Country Priest.”

It’s not a depressing one, for Ames, the longtime pastor of the small Congregational church in Gilead, Iowa, has every hope of Heaven. However, Ames has a young wife and a six-year-old son, both of whom he adores and dreads to leave. Although there is little he can do to provide a financial inheritance for his small family, he does intend to leave a long letter of family history and moral instruction to guide his small son as he nears adulthood. His letter tells his life story, and the story of his family.

Robinson uses this unremarkable setting to debunk the idea that spirituality should be an elaborate, grandiose experience. Instead, she shows that faith can be found even in the quiet of the Gilead community. Gilead emphasizes the way in which religion is a very personal, “quiet” experience that is shaped by everyday moments rather than dramatic triumphs or failures.

He remembers his experiences of his father and grandfather to share with his son. All three men share a vocational lifestyle and profession as Congregationalist ministers in Gilead, Iowa. John Ames describes his vocation as “giving you a good basic sense of what is being asked of you and also what you might as well ignore”, explaining that your vocation is something both hard to fulfil and hard to obtain. He writes that this is one of the most important pieces of wisdom he can bestow to his son. Ames’s father was a Christian pacifist, but his grandfather was a radical abolitionist who carried out guerrilla actions with John Brown before the American Civil War, served as a chaplain with the Union forces in that war, and incited his congregation to join up and serve in it; as Ames remarks, his grandfather “preached his people into the war.” The grandfather returned from the war maimed with the loss of his right eye. Thereafter he was given the distinction that his right side was holy or sacred in some way, that it was his link to commune with God, and he was notorious for a piercing stare with the one eye he had left.

The grandfather’s other eccentricities are recalled in his youth: the practice of giving all and any of the family’s possessions to others and preaching with a gun in a bloodied shirt. The true character and intimate details of the father are revealed in context with anecdotes regarding the grandfather, and mainly in the search for the grave of the grandfather. One event that is prevalent in the narrator’s orations is the memory of receiving ‘communion’ from his father at the remains of a Baptist church, burned by lightning (Ames recalls this as an invented memory adapted from his father breaking and sharing an ashy biscuit for lunch). In the course of the novel, it quickly emerges that Ames’s first wife, Louisa, died while giving birth to their daughter, Rebecca (a.k.a. Angeline) who also died soon after. Ames reflects on the death of his family as the source of great sorrow for many years, in contrast and with special reference to the growing family of the Rev. Boughton, local Presbyterian minister and Ames’s dear and lifelong friend.

Many years later Ames meets his second wife, Lila, a less-educated woman who appears in church one Whitsun Day. Eventually Ames baptizes Lila and their relationship develops, culminating in her proposal to him. As Ames writes his memoirs, Boughton’s son, John Ames Boughton (Jack), reappears in the town after leaving it in disgrace twenty years earlier, following his seduction and abandonment of a girl from a poverty-stricken family near his university. The daughter of this relationship died poor and uncared-for at the age of three, despite the Boughton family’s well-intended but unwelcome efforts to look after the child. Young Boughton, the apple of his parents’ eye but deeply disliked by Ames, seeks Ames out; much of the tension in the novel results from Ames’s mistrust of Jack Boughton and particularly of his relationship with Lila and their son. In the dénouement, however, it turns out that Jack Boughton is himself suffering from his forced separation from his own common-law wife, an African American from Tennessee, and their son; the family are not allowed to live together because of segregationist laws, and her family utterly rejects Jack Boughton. It is implied that Jack’s understanding with Lila lies in their common sense of tragedy as she prepares for the death of Ames, who has given her a security and stability she has never known before.]

Although there is action in the story, its mainspring lies in Ames’s theological struggles on a whole series of fronts: with his grandfather’s engagement in the Civil War, with his own loneliness through much of his life, with his brother’s clear and his father’s apparent loss of belief, with his father’s desertion of the town, with the hardships of people’s lives, and above all with his feelings of hostility and jealousy towards young Boughton, whom he knows at some level he has to forgive. Ames’s struggles are illustrated by numerous quotations from the Bible, from theologians (especially Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion), and from philosophers, especially the atheist Feuerbach, whom Ames greatly respects.

The abstract and theological content of the book is seen through the eyes of Ames, who is presented in a deeply sympathetic manner and who writes his memoir from a position of serenity, despite his suffering and a knowledge of his own limitations and failings. Throughout the novel, Ames details a reverential awe for the transcendental pathos in the small personal moments of happiness and peace with his wife and son and the town of Gilead, despite the loneliness and sorrow he feels for leaving the world with things undone and unsolved. He is able to revel in the beauty of the world around him and takes the time to appreciate and engage with these small wonders at the end of his life. In this way the novel teaches the importance of stepping back and enjoying present realities. Ames marvels in the every day and commonplace and wishes this attitude for his son, also. He proclaims his desire for his son “to live long and … love this poor perishable world”. Ames takes the time to be fully present and intentional in everything that he does, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. An example of this from the novel is towards the beginning on page 5 when he passes two young men joking around and laughing with one other on the street and Ames is filled with a sense of awe at the beauty of such a simple expression of friendship and joy. In this way Ames sees the allure in both the ordinary and mundane as well as the tragic. He begins to express a viewpoint that the purpose of life is to look for things to appreciate and be thankful for. In the closing pages of the book, Ames learns of Jack Boughton’s true situation and is able to offer him the genuine affection and forgiveness he has never before been able to feel for him.

According to Robinson, the fictional town of Gilead (Gilead means ‘hill of testimony’ in the Bible – Genesis 31:21) is based on the real town of Tabor, Iowa, located in the southwest corner of the state and well known for its importance in the abolition movement. Likewise, the character of the narrator’s grandfather is loosely based on the real life story of the Rev. John Todd, a congregationalist minister from Tabor who was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and who stored weapons, supplies and ammunition used by abolitionist John Brown in his “invasion” of Missouri in 1857 to free a group of slaves, and later—without Todd’s knowledge or involvement—in his 1859 raid on the U.S. military arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Robinson talks about Ames’s grandfather’s involvement in the civil war. She mentions an illness known as ‘camp fever’. The term was generally used to describe Typho-malarial fever. Symptoms included: pronounced chills followed by fever, abdominal tenderness, nausea, general debility, diarrhea, retention of urine, and furring of the tongue. Also, as John Ames was describing his sermons in his letter, he tells his son that there was one he had burned before he was supposed to preach it. This sermon was written around the time of the Spanish flu.

Gilead has been recognized as a text that works to correct modern misconceptions regarding John Calvin, Calvinism, and the Puritans. Robinson said in a lecture entitled “The Freedom of a Christian,” that she thinks “that one of the things that has happened in American Cultural History is that John Calvin has been very much misrepresented. As a consequence of that, the parts of American Culture that he influenced are very much misrepresented”. She expounds upon this idea in her book of essays, The Death of Adam. She writes that the Puritans should “by no means be characterized by fear or hatred of the body, anxiety about sex or denigration of women, yet for some reason, Puritanism is uniquely regarded as synonymous with the preoccupations”. Roger Kimball, in his review of The Death of Adam in The New York Times wrote, “We all know that the Puritans were dour, sex-hating, joy-abominating folk – except that, as Robinson shows, this widely embraced caricature is a calumny”. The common modern characterisation of the Calvinists as haters of the physical world and joyless exclusivists is the stereotype that Robinson works to deconstruct in Gilead through a representation of what she considers to be a more accurate understanding of Calvinist doctrine that she derives mainly from the original texts, specifically Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Unlike a stereotypical Calvinist, Ames envisages that he will pray for his family after his death – a bit like the catholic belief in the intercessions of the saints.

And his father prays for the departed. He gives Holy Communion to his child. He also respects his atheist brother. His father buried old bibles – as if there waas some sort opf ‘real presence.’

And he regards one of the benefits of a religious vocation as being to help him to concentrate on the things in life that really matter and to ignore everything else, though he does regret not having any money to leave his family.He has pacifist leanings.

Modern evangelicals should take note of how he dislikes the repeated use of the word ‘just’.

And doesn’t he love his friend egg sandwiches?

He’s the sort of minister I admire – because he ‘keeps up’ his Hebrew and Greek’ – would that today’s clergy even knew any.

In the end, this book is all about grace – which our culture knows so little about. And his reflections on the craft of preaching are spot on.

When he says: Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it – that could be, and is, used as an argument for the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I like that his congregation sees the light on and thinks he is still preparing his sermon. Actually, he is has fallen asleep. As I do, often.

This is even more true now that when it was written: I blame the radio for sowing a good deal of confusion where theology is concerned. And television is worse. You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.

The bits about Jack Boughton got a bit boring after a while.

Gilead has been the focus of debates on Christian multiculturalism in literature. Critics have noted the political resurgence of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity in the last four decades and the impact on literary history of the present.

US President Barack Obama lists the novel as one of his favourites on his official Facebook profile.

Gilead 2Quotations:

‘That feeling of a baby’s brow against the palm of your hand — how I have loved this life.”

”I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.”

”a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it.”

”stricken and afflicted, and indeed he was, like a man everlastingly struck by lightning, so that there was an ashiness about his clothes and his hair never settled and his eye had a look of tragic alarm when he wasn’t actually sleeping. He was the most unreposeful human being I ever knew except for certain of his friends.”

”the Lord is in the parlor.”

”looking attentive and sociable and gravely pleased. I would hear a remark from time to time, ‘I see your point,’ or ‘I have often felt that way myself.’ ”

My grandfather put his head in his hands. He said: ‘Reverend, no words could be bitter enough, no day could be long enough. There is just no end to it. Disappointment. I eat and drink it. I wake and sleep it.’

My father’s lips were white. He said: ‘Well, Reverend, I know you placed great hope in that war. My hopes are in peace, and I am not disappointed.’

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 known young fellows who spent time in jail or got themselves sent off to the navy for behaviour that wasn’t any worse. But his family was so well respected that he got away with it all. That is to say, he was allowed to go right on disgracing his family.

I really can’t tell what’s beautiful anymore. I passed two young fellows on the street the other day. I know who they are, they work at the garage. They’re not churchgoing, either one of them, just decent rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes….They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me.

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. 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 don’t wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out…. I don’t know why there is so little about this aspect of the calling in the literature.

This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven—one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning. My grandfather’s grave turned into the light, and the dew on his weedy little mortality patch was glorious.

[My mother] had her rocker so close to the stove that she could open the oven door without getting up. She said it was to keep things from burning. She said we couldn’t afford the waste, which was true. She burned things often enough anyway, more often as the years passed, and we ate them anyway, so at least there wasn’t any waste…. She never slept well during the nights…. She’d wake up if the cat sneezed, she said, but then she’d sleep through the immolation of an entire Sunday dinner two feet away from her. That would be on a Saturday, because our family was pretty strict on Sabbath-keeping. So we’d know for an entire day beforehand what we had to look forward to, burned peas and scorched applesauce I remember particularly.

“We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment in the twinkling of an eye.” I imagine a kind of ecstatic pirouette, a little bit like going up for a line drive when you’re so young that your body almost doesn’t know about effort. Paul couldn’t have meant something entirely different from that. So there’s that to look forward to.

Then here comes Jack Boughton, who really is the spitting image of his father in terms of physical likeness, with that same black hair and the same high color. He’s just about your mother’s age. I remember when she lifted her dear face to me to be baptized—lifted it into winter morning light, new-snow light—and I thought, She is neither old nor young, and I was somehow amazed by her, and I could hardly bring myself to touch the water to her brow because she looked a good deal more than beautiful. Sadness was a great part of it, it was. So she has grown younger over the years, and that was because of you. But I have never seen her look so young as she did this morning.

I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world—your mother excepted, of course—and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face…. And old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound, and he would protect him as a father cannot, defend him with a strength he does not have, sustain him with a bounty beyond any resource he could ever dream of having.

GileadWhen my father found his father at Mount Pleasant after the war ended, he was shocked at first to see how he had been wounded. In fact, he was speechless. So my grandfather’s first words to his son were “I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.” And that is what he said about everything that happened to him for the rest of his life, all of which tended to be more or less drastic. I remember at least two sprained wrists and a cracked rib. He told me once that being blessed meant being bloodied, and that is true etymologically, in English – but not in Greek or Hebrew. So whatever understanding might be based on that derivation had no scriptural authority behind it. It was unlike him to strain interpretation that way. He did it in order to make an account of himself, I suppose, as most of us do…

I got pretty good at pretending I understood more than I did, a skill which has served me through life. I say this because I want you to realize that I am not by any means a saint. My life does not compare with my grandfather’s. I get much more respect than I deserve. This seems harmless enough in most cases. People wan to respect the pastor and I’m not going to interfere with that. But 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. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp.

One sermon is not up there, one I actually burned the night before I had meant to preach it. People don’t talk much now about the Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when we were getting involved in it. It killed the soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life, and then it spread into the rest of the population. It was like a war, it really was. One funeral after another, right here in Iowa. 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 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.

The parents of these young soldiers would come to me and ask me how the Lord could allow such a thing. I felt like asking them what the Lord would have to do to tell us He didn’t allow something. But instead I would comfort them by saying we would never know what their young men had been spared. Most of them took me to mean they were spared the trenches and the mustard gas, but what I really meant was that they were spared the act of killing. It was just like a biblical plague, just exactly. I thought of Sennacherib . . . and I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into sword and our pruning hooks in spears, in contempt of the will and grace of God.

My grandfather told me once about a vision he’d had when he was still living in Maine, not yet sixteen. He had fallen asleep by the fire, worn out from a day helping his father pull stumps. Someone touched him on the shoulder, and when he looked up, there was the Lord, holding out His arms to him, which were bound in chains. My grandfather said, “Those irons had rankled right down to His bones.” He told me that as the saddest fact, and eyed me with the one seraph eye he had, the old grief fresh in it. He said he knew then that he had to come to Kansas and make himself useful to the cause of abolition. To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear. I have a lot of respect for that view…

Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. Boughton and I have talked about that, too. It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. 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. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any. Boughton agrees.

“If I had lived, you’d have learned from my example, bad as well as good. So I want to tell you where I have failed, if the failures were important enough to have had real consequences…”

“I have been looking through these pages, and I realize that for some time I have mainly been worrying to myself, when my intention from the beginning was to speak to you. I meant to leave you a reasonably candid testament to my better self, and it seems to me now that what you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he’s struggling with.”

“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.”

“One great benefit of a religious vocation is that it helps you concentrate. It gives you a good basic sense of what is being asked of you and also what you might as well ignore.”

“It’s humiliating to have written as much as Augustine, and then to have to find a way to dispose of it. There is not a word in any of those sermons I didn’t mean when I wrote it. If I had the time, I could read my way through fifty years of my innermost life. What a terrible thought. If I don’t burn them someone else will sometime, and that’s another humiliation.”

“A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way. There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought—the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider.”

“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. 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. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.”

“This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives. That’s clearer to me every day. 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…”

“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.”

“How I wish you could have known me in my strength.”

“These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.”

“I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.”

“Transgression. That is legalism. 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. Avoid transgression. How’s that for advice.”

“Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? …we all bring such slight to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way into understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God’s enjoyment, not in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart.”

“It seems almost a cruelty for one generation to beget another when parents can secure so little for their children, so little safety, even in the best circumstances. Great faith is required to give the child up, trusting God to honor the parents’ love for him by assuring that there will indeed be angels in that wilderness… children are often victims of rejection or violence, and that in these cases, too, which the Bible does not otherwise countenance, the child is within the providential care of God. And this is no less true, I said, if the angel carries her home to her faithful and loving Father than if He opens the spring or stops the knife and lets the child live out her sum of earthly years…”

“I have always worried that when I say the insulted or the downtrodden are within the providence of God, it will be taken by some people to mean that it is not a grave thing, an evil thing, to insult or oppress. The whole teaching of the Bible is explicitly contrary to that idea.”

“I believe the sin of covetise is that pang of resentment you may feel when even the people you love best have what you want and don’t have.”

“When you love someone to the degree you love her, you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of Being itself.”

“The fact is, I don’t want to be old. And I certainly don’t want to be dead… I don’t have to fault myself for feeling this way. The Lord wept in the Garden on the night He was betrayed.. So it isn’t just some unredeemed paganism in me that I dread what I should welcome, though clearly my sorrow is allowed with discreditable emotions…”

“Boughton says he has more ideas about heaven every day. He said, ‘Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two. I’d multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy. But two is much more than sufficient for my purposes.’ So he’s just sitting there multiplying the feel of the wind by two, multiplying the smell of the grass by two…”

“Twenty years is a long time. I know nothing about those years, and I believe that I would know—if anything had happened that redounded at all to his credit. He doesn’t have the look of a man who has made good use of himself, if I am any judge.”

“I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am.”

“That one man should lose his child and the next man should just squander his fatherhood as if it were nothing—well, that does not mean that the second man has transgressed against the first.”

Gilead 5 “… And when I see you , at the end of your good long life, neither of us will be old. We will be like brothers. That is how I imagine it… I imagine your child self finding me in heaven and jumping into my arms, and there is a great joy in the thought. Still, the other is better, and more likely to be somewhere near the reality of the situation, I believe. We know nothing about heaven, or very little, and I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us…”

“He [Jack] 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.”

“We fly forgotten as a dream, certainly, leaving the forgetful world behind us to trample and mar and misplace everything we have ever cared for. That is just the way of it, and it is remarkable.”

“The idea of grace had been so much on my mind, grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials. There in the dark and the quiet I felt I could forget all the tedious particulars and just feel the presence of his mortal and immortal being…”

“Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.”

“I wish I could put my hand on his brow and calm away all the guilt and regret that is exaggerated or misplaced, or beyond rectification in the terms of this world.”

“I have tried to be careful of my reputation and also of my character. I have tried to keep the Gospel before me as a standard for my life and my preaching. And yet there I was trying to write a sermon, when all I really wanted to do was try to remember a young woman’s face. If I had had this experience earlier in life, I would have been much wiser, much more compassionate. I really didn’t understand what it was that made people who came to me so indifferent to good judgment, to common sense, or why they would say ‘I know, I know’ when I urged a little reasonableness on them, and why it meant ‘It doesn’t matter, I just don’t care.’ That’s what the saints and the martyrs say. And I know that it is passion that moves them to their prodigal renunciations…”

“If you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don’t hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul.”

“Why do I love the thought of you old? The first twinge of arthritis in your knee is a thing I imagine with all the tenderness I felt when you showed me your loose tooth. Be diligent in your prayers, old man. I hope you will have seen more of the world than I ever got around to seeing—only m

“This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”

“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.”

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

“Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”

“These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.”
“It all means more than I can tell you. So you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.”
“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 the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?”
“I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”
“In every important way we are such secrets from one another, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, intraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.”
“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.”
“I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.”
“It’s not a man’s working hours that is important, it is how he spends his leisure time.”
“Grace has a grand laughter in it.”
“A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.”
“It seems to me people tend to forget that we are to love our enemies, not to satisfy some standard of righteousness but because God their Father loves them.”
“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us.”
“I don’t know exactly what covetous is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it.”
“Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”
“The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light…It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within that great general light of existence.”
“People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives.”
“Christianity is a life, not a doctrine . . . 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.”
“… but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”
“It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it . . . so I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is much more easily spent.”
“Rejoice with those who rejoice.” I have found that difficult too often. I was much better at weeping with those who weep.”
“Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.”
“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. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any.”
“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light …. 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? …. Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”
“It is a good thing to know what it is to be poor, and a better thing if you can do it in company.”
“People who feel any sort of regret where you are concerned will suppose you are angry, and they will see anger in what you do, even if you’re just quietly going about a life of your own choosing. They will make you doubt yourself, which, depending on cases, can be a severe distraction and a waste of time. This is a thing I wish I had understood much earlier than I did.”
“I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.”
“I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly . . . 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. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.”
“There is more beauty than our eyes can bear, precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”
“And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.”
“A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine.”
“…if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.”
“I have always liked the phrase “nursing a grudge ” because many people are tender of their resentments as of the thing nearest their hearts.”
“In eternity this world will be like Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”
“The Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. 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?”
“You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.”
“Boughton says he has more ideas about heaven every day. He said, “Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two. I’d multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy.”
“He will wipe the tears from all faces.’ It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required”
“ . . . there is an absolute disjunction between our Father’s love and our deserving.”
“…not deciding to act would be identical with deciding not to act.”
“She closed one eye and looked at me and said, “I know there is a blessing in this somewhere.”

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.”
“Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what i was waiting for.”
“Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.”
“You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us. I hope you never have to long for a child as I did, but oh, what a splendid thing it has been that you came finally, and what a blessing to enjoy you now for almost seven years.”
“My point in mentioning this is only to say that people who feel any sort of regret where you are concerned will suppose you are angry, and they will see anger in what you do, even if you’re just quietly going about a life of your own choosing. They make you doubt yourself, which, depending on cases, can be a severe distraction and a waste of time. This is a thing I wish I had understood much earlier than I did.”
“That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.”
“I would advise you against defensiveness on priciple. it precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level it expresses a lack of faith.”
“It seems to me there is less meanness in atheism, by a good measure. It seems that the spirit of religious self-righteousness this article deplores is precisely the spirit in which it is written. Of course he’s right about many things, one of them being the destructive potency of religious self-righteousness. ”
“I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy,” but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.”
“I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful.

I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”
“Light is constant, we just turn over in it.”
“That is how life goes–we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s.”
“When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?”
“When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all.”
“It seems to me some people just go around lookin’ to get their faith unsettled. That has been the fashion for the last hundred years or so.”
“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.”
“When something ought to be true then it proves to be a very powerful truth.”
“Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.”
“It is one of the best traits of good people that they love where they pity. And this is truer of women than of men.”
“The Lord gave you a mind so that you can 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.”
“If you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don’t hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul.”
“–“There is no justice in love…it is only the glimpse or parable of an incomprehensible reality… the eternal breaking in on the temporal.”
“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.”
“As I have told you, I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father’s house — even when his father did, a fact which surely puts my credentials beyond all challenge. I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained. And that’s all right. 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 a parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause and consequence?”
“When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person.”
“I’m not going to force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it, just because that is what people who talk about it normally do.”
“They say an infant can’t see when it is as young as your sister was, but she opened her eyes, and she looked at me. She was such a little bit of a thing. But while I was holding her, she opened her eyes. I know she didn’t really study my face. Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, not that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face…You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. 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. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any.”
“The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point.
It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love. I’ll try to remember to use this. I believe I see a place for it in my thoughts on Hagar and Ishmael. Their time in the wilderness seems like a specific moment of divine Providence within the whole providential regime of Creation.”
“So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them.”
“Behold how much wood is kindled by how small a fire, and the tongue is fire.”
“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.”
“If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the exquisite primary fact of existence. Of course the Lord would wipe them away, just as I wipe dirt from your face, or tears. After all, why should the Lord bother much over these snitches that are no part of His Creation? Well, there are a good many reasons why He should. We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep.”
“You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human which I devoutly hope you never will have. “The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.” There are pleasures to be found where you would never look for them. That’s a bit of fatherly wisdom, but it’s also the Lord’s truth, and a thing I know from my own long experience”
“And old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound, and he would protect him as a father cannot, defend him with a strength he does not have, sustain him with a bounty beyond any resource he could ever dream of having.”
“But I believe also the rewards of obedience are great, because at the root of real honor is always a sense of the sacredness of the person who is the object… When you love someone to the degree you love her, you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of Being itself.”
“My grandfather once told her if you couldn’t read with cold feet, there wouldn’t be a literate soul in the state of Maine.”
“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 a out God from a posture of defense.”
“Vision sometimes comes in a memory.”
“Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time.”
“The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”
“I believe the sin of covetise is that pang of resentment you may feel when even the people you love best have what you want and don’t have.”
“I think sometimes there might be an advantage in making people aware how worn and stale these old transgressions are. It might take some of the shine off them for those who are tempted.”
Gilead 4“Two or three of the ladies had pronounced views on points of doctrine, particularly sin and damnation, which they never learned from me. I blame the radio for sowing a good deal of confusion where theology is concerned. And television is worse. You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end. ”
It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire.”
“I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives.”
“It says Jesus puts His hearer in the role of the father, of the one who forgives. Because if we are, so to speak, the debtor and of course we are that too, that suggests no graciousness in us. And grace is the great 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.”
“It’s strange how you never quite get used to the world at night.”
“All this seems preposterous. But in fact one lapse of judgment can quickly create a situation in which only foolish choices are possible.”
“I had a dream once that Boughton and I were down at the river looking around in the shallows for something or other – when we were boys it would have been tadpoles – and my grandfather stalked out of the trees in that furious way he had, scooped his hat full of water, and threw it, so as sheet of water came sailing toward us, billowing in the air like a veil, and fell down over us. Then he put his hat back on his head and stalked off into the trees again and left us standing there in that glistening river, amazed at ourselves and shining like the apostles. I mention his because it seems to me transformations just that abrupt do occur in this life, and they occur unsought and unawaited, and they beggar your hopes and your deserving. This came to my mind as I was reflecting on the day I first say your mother, that blessed, rainy Pentecost”
“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?”
“If we can divinely fed with a morsel and divinely blessed with a touch, then the terrible pleasure we find in a particular face can certainly instruct us in the nature of the very grandest love.”
“…you never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature.”
“remembering and forgiving can be contrary things”
“I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me…”
“Children seem to think that every pleasant thing has to be a surprise.”
“How I wish you could have known me in my strength.”
“We would have visions in those days,a number of us did. Your young men will have visions and your old men will dream dreams”
“Why do I love the thought of you old? That first twinge of arthritis in your knee is a thing I imagine with all the tenderness I felt when you showed me your loose tooth. I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.”
“We fly forgotten as a dream, certainly, leaving the forgetful world behind us to trample and mar and misplace everything we have ever cared for. That is just the way of it, and it is remarkable.”
“For me, writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone.”
“A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine. Above all, mind what you say. “Behold how much wood is kindled by how small a fire, and the tongue is a fire”—that’s the truth.”
“To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear”
“I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”
“Your mother goes to the public library, which has been down on its luck for a long time, like most things around here. Last time she brought back a copy of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine that was worn ragged, all held together with tape. She just sank into it, though, she just melted into it.”
“I have always wondered what relationship this present reality bears to an ultimate reality.”
“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 moustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.”
“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.”
“These little towns were once the bold ramparts meant to shelter just such peace.”
“To be mad is to feel with excruciating intensity the sadness and joy of a time which has not arrived or has already been. And to protect their delicate vision of that other time, madmen will justify their condition with touching loyalty, and surround it with a thousand distractive schemes. These schemes, in turn, drive them deeper and deeper into the darkness and light (which is their mortification and their reward), and confront them with a choice. They may either slacken and fall back, accepting the relief of a rational view and the approval of others, or they may push on, and, by falling, arise. When and if by their unforgivable stubborness they finally burst through to worlds upon worlds of motionless light, they are no longer called afflicted or insane. They are called saints.” Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin”
“And here is a prejudice of mine, confirmed by my lights through many years of observation. Sinners are not all dishonorable people, not by any means. But those who are dishonorable never really repent and never really reform.”
“I could have married again while I was still young. A congregation likes to have a married minister, and I was introduced to every niece and sister-in-law in a hundred miles. In retrospect, I’m very grateful for whatever reluctance it was that kept me alone until your mother came. Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for.”
“…good fortune is not only good fortune, and over the years things happened in that family that caused some terrible regret. Still, for years it all seemed to me to be blindingly beautiful. And it was.”
“I mean only respect when I say that your mother has always struck me as someone with whom the Lord might have chosen to spend some part of His mortal time”
“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.”
“I’ve lost my point. It was to the effect that you can assert the existence of something—Being—having not the slightest notion of what it is. Then God is at a greater remove altogether—if God is the Author of Existence, what can it mean to say God exists? There’s a problem in vocabulary. He would have to have had a character before existence which the poverty of our understanding can only call existence.”
“It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap. So familiar.”
“Avoid transgression. How’s that for advice.”
“So you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.”
“So my advice is this – don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. “Let your works so shine before men,” etc. 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 moustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion at any particular moment.”
“There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that.”
“My reputation is largely the creature of the kindly imaginings of my flock, whom I chose not to disillusion, in part because the truth had the kind of pathos in it that would bring on sympathy in its least bearable forms.”
“I’ve shepherded a good many people through their lives, I’ve baptized babies by the hundred, and all that time I have felt as though a great part of life was closed to me. Your mother says I was like Abraham. But I had no old wife and no promise of a child. I was just getting by on books and baseball and fried-egg sandwiches.”
“I have decided the two choices open to me are (1) to torment myself or (2) to trust the Lord. There is no earthly solution to the problems that confront me. But I can add to my problems, as I believe I have done, by dwelling on them. So, no more of that.”
“Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, all that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannon be true. I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.”
“But 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.”
“So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to say to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question, We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning, though and I did no more baptising until I was ordained.”
“Remembering my youth makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it.”
“Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”
“And now they say my heart is failing. The doctor used the term “angina pectoris,” which has a theological sound, like misericordia.”
“You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have. ‘The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.’ There are pleasures to be found where you would never look for them.”
“You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it.”
“since presumably the world exists for God’s enjoyment, not in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart.”
“You are standing up on the seat of your swing and sailing higher than you really ought to, with that bold, planted stance of a sailor on a billowy sea…You appear to be altogether happy. I remember those first experiments with fundamental things, gravity and light, and what an absolute pleasure they were.”
“It is one of the best traits of good people that they love where they pity.”
“Sometimes now when you crawl into my lap and settle against me and I feel that light, quick strength of your body and the weightiness of your head, when you’re cold from playing in the sprinkler or warm from your bath at night, and you lie in my arms and fiddle with my beard and tell me what you’ve been thinking about…I imagine your child self finding me in heaven and jumping into my arms and there is a great joy in the thought…Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.”
“Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay. There are some I dearly wish might be spared.”
“Now, that is probably my least favourite topic of conversation in the entire world. I have spent a great part of my life hearing that doctrine talked up and down, and no one’s understanding ever advanced one iota. I’ve seen grown men, God-fearing men, come to blows over that doctrine. The first thought that came to my mind was, Of course he would bring up predestination!”
“remembering and forgiving can be contrary things. No doubt they usually are.”
“It is a good thing to know what it is to be poor,”
“I’d rather drop dead doing for myself than add a day to my life by acting helpless.”
“These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.”
“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it.”
“History could make a stone weep.”
“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. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.”
“sometimes I’m just up the whole night wishing I weren’t. (I do recommend prayer at such times, because often they mean something is in need of resolving.”
“I believe that the old man did indeed have far too narrow an idea of what a vision might be. He may, so to speak, have been too dazzled by the great light of his experience to realize that an impressive sun shines on us all.”
“Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”
“In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.”
“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 expect to find it, either.”
“The building has settled into itself so that when you walk down the aisle, you can hear it yielding to the burden of your weight. It’s a pleasanter sound than an echo would be, an obliging, accommodating sound. You have to be there alone to hear it. Maybe it can’t feel the weight of a child. But if it is still standing when you read this, and if you are not half a world away, sometime you might go there alone, just to see what I mean. After a while I did begin to wonder if I liked the church better with no people in it. I know they’re planning to pull it down. They’re waiting me out, which is kind of them.”
“In the old days I could walk down every single street, past every house, in about an hour. I’d try to remember the people who lived in each one, and whatever I knew about them, which was often quite a lot, since many of the ones who weren’t mine were Boughton’s. And I’d pray for them. And I’d imagine peace they didn’t expect and couldn’t account for descending on their illness or their quarrelling or their dreams.”
“Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”
“There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”
“Once when Boughton and I had spent an evening going through our texts together and we were done talking them over, I walked him out to the porch, and there were more fireflies out there than I had ever seen in my life, thousands of them everywhere, just drifting up out of the grass, extinguishing themselves in midair. We sat on the steps a good while in the dark and the silence, watching them. Finally Boughton said, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” And really, it was that night as if the earth were smoldering. Well, it was, and it is. An old fire will make a dark husk for itself and settle in on its core, as in the case of this planet. I believe the same metaphor may describe the human individual, as well. Perhaps Gilead. Perhaps civilization. Prod a little and the sparks will fly. I don’t know whether the verse put a blessing on the fireflies or the fireflies put a blessing on the verse, or if both of them together put a blessing on trouble, but I have loved them both a good deal ever since.”
“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 moustache and walking stick that happen to be the ―

 

“It could be that the wildest, strangest things in the Bible were the places where it touched earth. Doane said once that he saw a cyclone cross a river. It took the water in its path up into itself and crossed on dry ground, and it was just as white as a cloud, white as snow. Something like that would only last for a minute, but it showed you what kind of thing can happen. It would shed that water and take up leaves and branches, cats and dogs, cows if it wanted to, grown men, and it would change everything they thought they knew.”
“There is a wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough seems never to heal at all. Avoid”
“There’s a pattern in these Commandments of setting things apart so that their holiness will be perceived. Every day is holy, but the Sabbath is set apart so that the holiness of time can be experienced. Every human being is worthy of honor, but the conscious discipline of honour is learned from this setting apart of the mother and father, who usually labour and are heavy laden, and may be cranky or stingy or ignorant or overbearing. Believe me, I know this can be a hard Commandment to keep. But I believe also that the rewards of obedience are great, because at the root of real honour is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object.”
“This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”
“At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east . . . . Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them. . . . We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up. They seemed to float on the horizon for quite a long time, I suppose because they were both so bright you couldn’t get a clear look at them. And that grave, and my father and I, were exactly between them . . . . My father said, “I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.”
“Ludwig Feuerbach says a wonderful thing about baptism. I have it marked. He says, ‘Water is the purest, clearest of liquids; in virtue of this, its natural character, it is the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit. In short, water has a significance in itself, as water; it is on account of its natural quality that it is consecrated and selected as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. So far there lies at the foundation of Baptism a beautiful, profound natural significance.’ Feuerbach is a famous atheist, but he is about as good on the joyful aspects of religion as anybody, and he loves the world.”
“The physical body can crave sleep with an animal greed, as everybody knows. Then it is snappish when it is disturbed, as I would have been if I hadn’t had the memory, at least, of praying for tranquillity.”
“To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear.”
“That is how life goes- we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s.”
“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. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.”
“I need not fear that the Lord would come to me with His sorrows.”
“It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.”
“It was an experience I might have missed. Now I only fear I will not have time enough to fully enjoy the thought of it.”
“walking along beside him that night, along that rutted road, through that empty world—what a sweet strength I felt, in him, and in myself, and all around us.”
“Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Nothing could be more”
“I am in a state of categorical unbelief. I don’t even believe God doesn’t exist, if you see what I mean. (Jack Boughton)”
“Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.”
“Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But”
“They say an infant can’t see when it is as young as your sister was, but she opened her eyes, and she looked at me. She was such a little bit of a thing. But while I was holding her, she opened her eyes. I know she didn’t really study my face. Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. Boughton and I have talked about that, too. It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. 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.”
“Though I must say all this has given me a new glimpse of the ongoingness of the world. We fly forgotten as a dream, certainly, leaving the forgetful world behind us to trample and mar and misplace everything we have ever cared for. That is just the way of it, and it is remarkable.”
“things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay.”
“You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A”
“You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have.”
“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.”
“Thank God for them all, of course, and for that strange interval, which was most of my life, when I read out of loneliness, and when bad company was much better than no company. You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have. “The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.”
“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?”
“often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.”
“He thought he could excuse me from my loyalty, as if it were loyalty to him, as if it were just some well-intended mistake he could correct for me, as if it were not loyalty to myself at the very least, putting the Lord to one side, so to speak, since I knew perfectly well at that time, as I had for years and years, that the Lord absolutely transcends any understanding I have of Him, which makes loyalty to Him a different thing from loyalty to whatever customs and doctrines and memories I happen to associate with Him.”
“It all means more than I can tell you. So you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.”
“I have had a certain amount of experience with skepticism and the conversation it generates, and there is an inevitable futility in it.”
“God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way into understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God’s enjoyment, not in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart.”
“Again, all any heart has ever said, and just as the word is said the moment is gone, so there is not even any sort of promise in it.”
“Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes.”
“We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep.”
“His lovely wife tends her zinnias in the mild morning light and his find young man comes fondly mishandling that perpetually lost sheep of a cat, Soapy, once more back from perdition for the time being, to what would have been general rejoicing.”
“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
“I don’t know why solitude would be a balm for loneliness, but that is how it always was for me in those days,”
“I’ve probably been boring a lot of people for a long time. Strange to find comfort in the idea. There have always been things I felt I must tell them, even if no one listened or understood.”
“I feel as if I am being left out, as though I’m some straggler and people can’t quite remember to stay back for me.”
“So I decided a little waltzing would be very good, and it was. I plan to do all my waltzing here in the study. I have thought I might have a book ready at hand to clutch if I began to experience unusual pain, so that would have been a special recommendation from being found in my hands. That seems theatrical, on consideration, and it might have the perverse effective of burdening the book with unpleasant associations. The ones I considered, by the way, were Donne and Herbert and Barth’s Epistle to the Romans and Volume II of Calvin’s institutes. Which is by no means to slight volume I.”
“When you encounter another person…it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it…I am reminded of this precious instruction by my own great failure to live up to it recently…”
“I wanted to double-check with you that your mailing address is still the same as the one you sent us back in April? If you’re a college student I know address changes are really common at this time of year!”
“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. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”
“When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters.”
“I felt just the way I imagine the shade of poor old Samuel must have felt when the witch dragged him up from Sheol. “Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?” In fact, I had spent the morning darkness praying for the wisdom to do well by John Ames Boughton, and then when he woke me, I was immediately aware that my sullen old reptilian self would have handed him over to the Philistines for the sake of a few more minutes’ sleep.”
“The idea of grace had been so much on my mind, grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.”
“there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God.”
“And there I was, trudging through the same old nowhere, day after day, always wanting to slow down, to sit down, to lie down, with my father walking on ahead, no doubt a little desperate, as he had every right to be.”
“My grandfather seemed to me stricken and afflicted, and indeed he was, like a man everlastingly struck by lightening, so that there was an ashiness about his clothes and his hair never settled and his eye had a look of tragic alarm when he wasn’t actually sleeping. He was the most unreposeful human being I ever knew, except for certain of his friends. All of them could sit on their heels into their old age, and they’d do it by preference, as if they had a grudge against furniture. They had no flesh on them at all. They were like the Hebrew prophets in some unwilling retirement, or like the primitive church still waiting to judge the angels…It was the most natural thing in the world that my grandfather’s grave would look like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire.”
“For me writing has always felt like praying even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You felt that you are with someone”
“Don’t laugh!”
“When the lord says you must ‘become as one of these little ones,’ I take Him to mean you must be stripped of all the accretions of smugness and pretence and triviality.”
“And I gave you some of those chocolate cupcakes with the squiggle of white frosting across the top. I buy those for your mother because she loved them and won’t buy them for herself.”
“But instead I would comfort them by saying we would never knoew what their young men had been spared. Most of them took me to mean they were spared the trenches and the mustard gas, but what I really meant was that they were spared the act of killing”
“theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. i think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing. But that is the pulpit speaking. What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and hope? Well, as I have said, it is all an ember now, and the good Lord will surely someday breathe it into flame again.”
“There is an earned innocence, I believe, which is as much to be honored as the innocence of children.”
“would come to me and ask me how the Lord could allow such a thing. I felt like asking them what the Lord would have to do to tell us He didn’t allow something.”
“This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way, to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven—one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning. My grandfather’s grave turned into the light, and the dew on his weedy little mortality patch was glorious.”
“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. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.”
“So often I have known, right there in the pulpit, even as I read the words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them.”
“Grant me on earth what seems Thee best, Till death and Heav’n reveal the rest.”

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