When I was a child, I wrote books. Or dictated, actually. Before I learned how to write, my dad would sit at our boxy computer, typing away as I told stories with titles like “Peter and Zoe Go to Disneyland.” With the help of some magic markers, I created my own Emily Lund Illustrated Classics editions of A Little Princess and The Secret Garden.
When I was a child, I sat with my parents one night and did what they called “accepting Christ into my heart.” It consisted of praying a prayer that guaranteed a one-way ticket to heaven were I to die the next day. So Jesus came into my heart and sat next to the stories I read and wrote. Soon the two started talking.
I wrote stories and songs about what heaven might be like, about Christians being bullied for their faith. Even at that age these felt pedantic and preachy, with obvious “teaching moments” for the reader’s edification. And even at that age I was conscious that the books I checked out from the church library were nowhere—nowhere—near as good as A Little Princess or The Secret Garden.
But Jesus wasn’t in A Little Princess or The Secret Garden. At least, not in the way he was in the church library books.
When I was twenty years old, I heard Marilynne Robinson’s name for the first time.
My study-abroad semester was nearing its end, and Robinson was speaking at a local bookstore in Oxford, promoting the release of her new book. Many of my classmates were going and some asked if I would be coming along.
My polite response was, “Thanks, but I haven’t really heard of her and I haven’t read anything by her and it’s a bit expensive and I do have a bit of work to do here.”
Ther responded, “All right—but you must read Gilead. It’s her best book.”
I found a copy of it in an Oxfam thrift store. The cover proclaimed it to be the “Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,” as well as “a masterpiece” and “a beautiful novel.” Penciled inside the cover was the price, £2.99.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about the first time I read Gilead. I remember it took me a while to read—its story of small-town pastor John Ames is not exactly a conventional page-turner, especially when the central conflict doesn’t rush to the surface until around halfway through the book. I remember liking the way the lines settled in my brain, how simple they were, and yet how pleasingly rich:
“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.”
“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.”
“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?”
That last line—those beautiful words, “shine like transfiguration”—rolled around my mind and settled there. They’re on one of the book’s final pages, as the Reverend Ames is concluding his letter to the son he already misses. (Whether he knows he’s concluding the letter or not is left a mystery.)
I liked Gilead. But I didn’t rush to talk about it with friends or take to Facebook to proclaim it to the world as “the best book I’ve ever read, ever.” Gilead’s work with me was slower, calmer, a little more complicated.
When I was twenty-two years old, I moved to Illinois.
I graduated with an English degree and secured a job at a Christian publication in the Chicago suburbs, working as an “editorial resident” and learning the ins and outs of the publishing world. I still wanted to write, but since leaving school and declaring “I am now a writer” wouldn’t pay my student loans back, that became a “someday” dream. I didn’t want to teach English, at least not yet, and editing had seemed interesting. (It would pay a few bills, too.)
But with the opportunity came a move. From Oregon to Illinois. In January.
I’d never felt the kind of cold that could freeze the hairs inside your nose as soon as you stepped outside. Here, no mountains rose on the horizon line like they did back home in the Northwest—there were just water towers.
Cold, dark, flat. I hated it all.
Winter did, finally, leave—and during its gradual departure, I started running on a local trail known as the Prairie Path. Various signs stuck in the vegetation along the path read “Prairie Plants—Do Not Disturb.”
At some point—maybe on one of those runs—a couple of those simple lines from Gilead flitted through my mind. They come from the book’s end, in which the Reverend Ames is finishing his long letter. “I love the prairie,” he writes, and then a few lines later: “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 kept running past the water towers, shaking my head at the “Do Not Disturb” signs, wishing for mountains instead.
But one day—maybe it was on a run, maybe it was driving on 290 East into the city on a summer night—I started noticing.
The sky. How huge it was here. How it could be filled with the deepest of blues.
The land. How I could see the Sears Tower from where I lived, nearly thirty miles away.
The fireflies dotting the bushes at night.
The way Lake Michigan stretched as far as the eye could see—an ocean with a city behind it.
I still complained. But I brought a little willingness to see. And I gave thanks for what it was showing me.
When I was twenty-four years old, Marilynne Robinson was both the speaker and the subject at Wheaton College’s theology conference. Scholars, pastors, even Rowan Williams himself took the stage to talk about her and about what Gilead meant to them. I heard sessions on race relations in the book, on its literary motifs, and a myriad of other topics—yet above all, this was a theology conference, and so it all came back to God in Gilead.
This long letter written by a fictional 1950s pastor reads so simply yet strikes chords in all kinds of keys. It’s saturated in theological language, but doesn’t preach. There are no dramatic conversion stories, no neat “teaching moments.” Gilead asks us if we know who the heroes of its story really are. It asks us if we have the courage to see the shining world around us.
A session would end and I would walk back outside—back out to the prairie I was learning to love. It was another winter in Illinois, and the snow was falling.
“Wherever you turn your eyes . . .”
Cover image by Clay Banks.