PAGE 3 : Rachel Marie Stone on Marilynne Robinson
(This essay originally appeared in our print magazine, Advent 2014 issue. Are you a subscriber? Get more info and signup now!)
Ames, whose letters constitute the novel Gilead, is given to the use of superlatives, naming things as “wonderful,” “amazing,” and, perhaps especially, “remarkable.” He counts things like water and sunlight, baptism and sprinklers, laughter and the humblest of pleasures—a dinner of macaroni and cheese with his wife and son— as graces worthy of profoundest gratitude. “I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental,” Robinson writes in the essay that gives When I Was a Child I Read Books its title. As a Congregationalist who deeply admires American writers in the transcendentalist movement, Robinson, like Emily Dickinson, understands that sacraments do not dwell only in houses of worship and systems of doctrine fashioned by human hands.
When I first read Housekeeping, I could not understand why Sylvia Foster would not consent to settling down and fitting in. When I first read Gilead, I could not understand why John Ames found every simple thing in this world so “remarkable.” Perhaps I could not see what was before my very eyes: that God loves the world, that, “with all respect to heaven, the scene of the miracle is among us.” We are, so many of us, Ishmaels, wandering in search of home, wondering where we may find balm. In her novels, Marilynne Robinson offers hymns of gratitude, to the grace of a mysterious God, to the flawed beauty of human beings—a little lower than the angels and crowned with honor and glory—and to the light and grace that inheres deep down in things like food and shelter, warmth and human presence, if only we have the patience and humility to pay close attention.
There is a balm in Gilead, and in Lila, and in the rest of Robinson’s oeuvre – a balm that has soothed more than one transient, wounded soul; souls that are soothed, as mine has been, by renewed reverence for and pleasure in that “dear and brief acquaintance” of the self, both as uniquely precious and a part of something as grand as the cosmos.
Rachel Marie Stone is an author and social critic. Her recent book Eat With Joy was named by Christianity Today as one of the best books of 2013. Rachel’s regular column “Not Really a Curmudgeon” takes a break for this issue and will return in our next issue.