Another Son for Father Ames
Sublimely modest in ambition, nearly perfect in execution, Marilynne Robinson’s modern classic Gilead tells the tale of Rev. John Ames, a small-town Iowa pastor with few days left before him. Sensing the weight of glory, noticing the heavens beginning to part, Ames pens a letter to his son, the offspring of his marriage to the much-younger Lila, a sweet flower and steadfast companion.
The best writers transmit ageless truths in a refreshing voice, sounding them out as if for the first time. C.S. Lewis coaxes magic from the articles of an ancient faith in Mere Christianity. Franz Wright’s poems—like fingers—dig and tear at every façade concealing our brokenness, while Mary Oliver’s verses throw off every excuse keeping us from wonder. James Baldwin tells a tale as old as America, as electric and dangerous as this moment.
Robinson lives among the best. There is a balm in Robinson’s Gilead, each page like waking up to the world’s secrets whispered in your ear. The novel gives me language more than lessons, words to finally say what I knew deep within or desperately wanted to be true.
The next time someone asks why I write, Ames prevails where my words falter:
“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.”
He answers each of my silent objections to certain methods of apologetics or civic religion: “Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”
Ames’ translation of grace—“a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials”—readies my heart for a day when every lingering sin falls away, every love stands up straight, and all is Christ.
The long-hand legacy he leaves his son, and any reader with eyes to see, sketches a blueprint for holy contentment and simple pleasure. If Gilead is about anything, it is the profound yet somehow secret love of a father. Projecting the love I harbor for my own boy out into the future, I sense a symmetry with Ames’ affection.
Early on, he pens this pocket symphony to his son, something like the run-on sentences St. Paul often wrote in the throes of grace:
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.
Minutes after meeting our son, my wife matched the word mother. I almost ran out of faith that I would see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. Yet I witnessed the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, her love fully formed, her instincts sound.
Before fatherhood, few would describe me as natural with children. I never walked into rooms with the confident air of a pied piper or tossed giggling toddlers heavenward. My sense of humor cast kids as reluctant straight men to my overhead jokes about their voting habits, careers, or significant others.
Unlike my wife, I needed a few days to feel my way forward in parenthood but, within my first week as a father, I took Ames’ words to heart before ever reading them.
After Robert Fulghum’s 1986 book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a cottage industry of copycats sprang up, attributing fundamental knowledge to everything from Star Trek to the Grateful Dead. I didn’t learn all I really need to know about fatherhood from Gilead, but the book underlined what I hoped for yet dared not expect.
My son might see his name in lights someday, or carve out a sweet and simple life for himself. But my son has already done something with his life and mine: assigning a face to grace, finding me as I was, complete yet with sleeping limbs, and rousing me to something different.
Now parenting feels like sitting before a strange supernova. In my son’s presence, every emotion from elation to anger rises within me and spills to overflowing. And yet, in less dynamic moments, my heart finds its way into my throat as I think of him as he is, small and fragile and transcendent.
Not unlike Ames, all my writing now feels like a letter and a prayer. I feel that I am with someone. Each word Christ-haunted, each thought inhabited by my son.
Every dispatch means to convey something of myself and the world: How hard I try, how short I fall, the sweetness of the fruit of the Spirit so rarely tasted, the questions I want him to chase, no matter the answer he finds.
At my softest and most faithless moments, I feel wracked by my inability to reconcile his present and future. To keep him five for now, yet keep an eye on what fifteen looks like. To seize the days, short as they are, yet avoid making each moment a crucible. To accept he will outlive me, and trust his days to a God I perceive but cannot see.
At Gilead’s close, Ames writes words that feel, to this young and anxious father, like a meal and a bed: “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.”
Today I reside somewhere between Father Abraham with his many sons and Father Ames. One gazed up at the stars and saw a future full of children, promised yet unrealized. The other’s eyes dart around to find their apple, knowing nothing of the promises which rest upon his son, but praying for a life lived within the grip of Christ.
Both treated fatherhood as an expression of faith. The substance of what you hope for your children, the evidence of things not seen.
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