Embracing the Prodigal

Arts Letters: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Welcome to our new Arts and Letters section.

It might not be as “newsy” as the rest of the Register website, but it is no less important. Catholic sensibility has had a centuries-long influence in the formation of culture, and that should continue as strong as ever.

A gentle adjustment of expectations is in order for readers of this section. Not every work worth engaging — whether a piece of art, a novel, film or work of history — will be a paragon of Catholic values. Rather than simply offering book or movie “picks,”  writers here are engaging in dialogue. Their faith-based essays on works, both current and classic, will seek signs of light in the world of culture.

Lent has come and gone, but is repentance and turning back to God ever out of season? Of course not. And emblematic of this spirit of metanoia is the parable of the Prodigal Son, which stands out as a powerful portrait of the progressive alienation of sin and the absolute fidelity of God the Father.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize) and its companion novel Home (2008) can be read as extended meditation on the parable. Christ finished the story with a question mark: The older son has been challenged by the father to emulate his forgiveness. That is the standout theme of Gilead — how can one be like the compassionate Father and forgive when still bearing the scars left by the prodigal?

An Old Man’s Tale

The Rev. John Ames is the 76-year-old Congregationalist minister of Gilead, Iowa, a widower who remarried late in life. His heart condition indicates that he will soon be departing this world, leaving a 6-year-old son and his mother to fend for themselves. He wants to share with his son some of the thoughts and reflections that he would have been able to have with him had he lived — “I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done with your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle” — in a letter meant to be read by his son when grown and old.

His family history, replete with preachers, is an important part of the narrative. Ames regales his son, and us, with tales of his grandfather, a wild-eyed, abolitionist preacher, who would stride up into the pulpit wearing a pistol and shirt bloodied from the dark days of pre-Civil War Kansas. Ames tells the story of the eventual breakdown of the relationship between his grandfather and his own father, also a minister, who would reject the violence of John Brown-style abolitionism.

Through it all, Ames conveys a sense of marvel about life. Reading Gilead is something like going on retreat, in which ordinary things, taken for granted, are seen through a crystalline prism of wonder. “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 — old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable.”

The Intrusion of the Messy Present

Ames’ reveries and recollections are then invaded with the present. The prodigal has returned: Jack Boughton, son of his best friend, the retired Presbyterian minister of Gilead, Robert Boughton. Ames and his friend’s son had always had a complicated relationship. It certainly got off to a rocky start, even at the baptismal font. Years ago, the Rev. Boughton had brought his newborn son to Ames’ church to be christened. When asked what name would be given the boy, he replied, “John Ames Boughton,” seeking to offer his friend some consolation after having lost his own wife and child. But Ames resented being blindsided. And so this baptism was different. Typically he always felt a blessing coming back to him in the act of baptizing an infant. This day, however, that was not the case.

There is a perpetual gap between the ideal enunciated in the Gospel and the reality of our sinful human condition. Bridging it is an ongoing struggle. In Jesus’ parable, the father represents God, who never stops being Father, even when the younger son has renounced his sonship. His teaching is directed not only to prodigals, but also to those who are called to embrace the one who returns, still reeking of his days among the swine. That’s Ames’ challenge.

Of course, he’s happy for his friend Old Boughton. “Jack is not the eldest or the youngest or the best or the brave, only the most beloved.” But still, why was he back? What did he want? Certainly Ames had more than ample reason to be suspicious of his motives. How many times had the boy tormented him with his petty thievery, done apparently with no other motive than plain old meanness? So often Jack seemed to evade the full impact of his deeds — after all, his father was a respected clergyman of Gilead. But what was unforgiveable, for a man like Ames who had lost a child, was how Jack had wantonly cast aside his own fatherhood. He got a girl pregnant, a teenager living in squalid poverty with her parents. He just walked away, and soon the child died, poorly cared for by people who didn’t know better. Irresponsible and alcoholic, Jack Boughton had little to commend himself to the good thoughts of Ames.

Breaking Through to a Bigger Picture

Ames’ struggle is familiar to us all: balancing Gospel imperatives with the demands of common sense and this-world prudence. He is supposed to be a father figure to Jack, but instead he feels threatened by him. When Ames sees him in his church, sitting with his wife and child, he can’t help but think that he is seeing the future — and feeling revolted by it. He struggles with whether or not he should warn his wife about Jack and his character, or lack thereof.

Listening to the call of grace in such circumstances is a complicated business. Paradigms become hardened, and our capacity to see things from another perspective seriously impaired. For this reason, reading Home together with Gilead, while they were meant to be independent novels, is most instructive, since Home tells Jack’s story from the Boughton family’s perspective. Seeing the same events from different angles helps to drive home the Lord’s injunction “Judge not.” On one occasion in Gilead, Ames perceives Jack’s questions at a gathering with the Boughtons about predestination as another of his familiar efforts at “bedevilment:” simply trying to cause problems, embarrassment or conflict between Ames and Old Boughton by toying with their differing theological commitments. When reading about the same event in Home, on the other hand, a different outlook emerges. That brilliant but sad ne’er-do-well, struggling with his own unbelief and the waste of his life is, between the lines, crying out for help — an implicit “Please tell me that I’ve not been condemned from all eternity!”

Good to Great

It’s beautiful to watch a good soul grow into a great one. And that’s what we are privileged to do in Gilead. As in life, reconciliations are not facile; misunderstandings and hurt not fully resolved. But something changes in Ames when he can see that there is more to Jack’s story than he’s aware of: The man who squandered his former fatherhood is now trying, desperately, not to lose the fragile family that he has struggled to support in his last six years away from Gilead. In the end, Ames is able to bless Jack, this time with the sincerity that was not there that day long ago when he realized the boy was to be his namesake. Laying his hand on the weary brow of Jack Boughton, he felt it an honor to bless the one in whom he had discovered an unknown nobility: “I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.” Indeed, without that moment, something of his own calling to spiritual fatherhood would have been left unfulfilled.

The challenge to embrace the prodigal: a lesson not just for Lent, but for life.

Legionary Father Steven Reilly writes from Washington, D.C.