Hazel McHaffie

Gilead

Royal weddings and a little serendipity

Well, I doubt I could have found a more suitable book to read during the week of the royal wedding if I’d tried!

I wonder what you thought listening to the African American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry preaching about love in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle on Saturday …? I personally loved his energy, his conviction, his relevant message, not just for the happy couple but for the world. Love would indeed redeem so many situations. And boy, did he put his heart and soul into it. He stood out in sharp contrast to the many staid, formal, set-texts of so many royal events. But even the very British Archbishop of Canterbury shared lots of smiles and humour with the first-name-terms royal couple.

This wedding has broken with so many traditions. A white prince of the realm marrying a mixed heritage American divorcee … in a church … in the presence of the Queen. The bride – a free-thinking actress – walking herself down the long aisle, only her mother of all her family present to witness her transition (my heart went out to her). The music a mix of ancient and modern, including a black gospel choir, a black cellist. Ordinary people who work tirelessly for humanitarian causes chosen guests instead of parliamentarians, heads of states, foreign royals. A lemon and elderflower sponge in place of the usual rich fruit. I could go on. It had all the hallmarks of an intimate wedding made to measure for the bride and groom, but on a massive scale and shared generously with the world.

And Gilead by Marilynne Robinson picks up so many of the themes we saw during that historic occasion, including a mixed-race ‘marriage’! I bought it at the Christian Aid Sale I told you about last week – the book not the marriage! The narrator is a minister of religion, Reverend John Ames, now in his late seventies. Totally unexpectedly, already in his sixties, he falls in love with and, at her instigation, marries a much-younger woman from a different social stratum, and together they have a son. Ames lives in daily expectation of his heart failing, he knows he will not be around to see his boy grow to manhood, so he commits to paper, the kinds of things he would want to say at opportune moments if he were to live longer.

It’s difficult to capture the beauty and tenderness of this writing. The Reverend comes from generations of men of the cloth and he’s steeped in the Bible and spiritual thinking; he is thoroughly authentic and believable. But his gentle exhortations and reflections are not dull or hackneyed; they’re full of compassion and understanding and wisdom. He roams over many important issues for his boy, illustrating his philosophy from his own life, his own mistakes, his own secrets, reviewed with honesty and humility. Forgiveness, temptation, covetousness, pastoral responsibility, relationship, heaven and hell … he shirks none of them, revealing a glorious all-embracing Christian love reminiscent of that Bishop Michael Curry spoke about at the royal wedding, hard won at times, an ongoing work at others, but ultimately a triumphant declaration of what it means to put the gospel into action in one’s life.

One illustration will suffice. Ames knows all too clearly that his love for his son is all-consuming. If anyone threatened the boy, he knows his principles would fly out the window.
Harm to you is not harm to me in the strict sense, and that is a great part of the problem. He (Jack Boughton) could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology of forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I’m afraid theology would fail me.

It surprised me to see that this was only the second novel by this most accomplished writer – her first being 23 years earlier! Even more remarkable, it won several awards, including the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In today’s secular world, that a work of such meditative calm, such spiritual intensity, such simple grace, such solemn serenity, should be so acclaimed, is something of a miracle in itself. As I finished it in the garden on the beautiful sunny day of the royal wedding, It felt like a benediction.

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Recovering fast

Phew! As you know I’ve just done a very big editing job on the forthcoming book about saviour siblings. I took out about 17,500 words in the end. That’s some edit!

One major advantage of all that reading and re-reading was that I noticed repetitive words and phrases. ‘Flounced‘ and ‘shuddered‘ loomed larger than life. Descriptive passages demanded cuts. However, the chief culprit by a long way was the word ‘just’ – scattered throughout with gay abandon. How could I not have noticed before? But that’s the advantage of putting the work on one side for a while and coming back to it with fresher eyes. This time around my red pen went crazy.

I’m now recovering from the trauma of consigning all that hard-won text to oblivion by reading other people’s work – and critically appraising that instead. Marilynne Robinson was recommended to me so I’ve been reading a couple of her books (Gilead and Home). Gentle, reflective, sad stories. And I can’t help feeling that, for all their cluster of awards, my own editor would say, ‘Cut them by at least a half.’ ‘Remove the repetitive phrases.’ ‘Look at some of the peripheral characters: are they really needed?’ Oh yes, she’d call for a radical edit for sure!

So there was I, cruising along with Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead, thinking these heretical thoughts, when this passage jumped out at me. (The narrator is an elderly pastor writing a letter to his son, conceived in his late sixties, whom he will not see reach adulthood.)

I notice the care it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. I am thinking about the word ‘just.’ I almost wish that I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed – when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree. So it seems to me at the moment. There is something real signified by that word ‘just’ that proper language won’t acknowledge. It’s a little like the German ge–. I regret that I must deprive myself of it. It takes half the point out of telling the story.

I warmed to the old gentleman. And I was sorely tempted to reinstate my own murdered ‘just’s! They do serve a function. They really do! Well, OK, they just do.

Then another phrase resonated:

This habit of writing is so deep in me…

Well, indeedy. I know exactly how he feels. It won’t be denied. Even at 4 in the morning. In the Reverend’s case he has fifty years worth of sermons in his attic as well as the book-length letter to his son.

Ahah! Speaking of sermons … the Reverend Ames has an unusual angle on several points relating to matters religious, too. This one appealed to me:

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things…
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.

He has a heart problem and knows he hasn’t long to live. But as he becomes increasingly frail, he resents people rushing to his aid.

I’d rather drop dead doing for myself than add a day to my life by acting helpless.

Oh yes! I see and hear this attitude again and again amongst my elderly friends. If only ‘health and safety’ would allow them to. Sigh.

With all this reassurance and empathy I’m recovering rapidly. I reckon I’ll be getting stuck back into my new novel on organ transplantation any day soon.

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