(Christian Courier column, January 23rd, 2012)
Glory at home
Very few books have actually made me weep because they were so beautiful. Godric by Frederick Buechner was one. I read it twice and wept both times. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson was another. And now, Home, also by Robinson. Its luminous hopefulness, centred in the home, ennobling women’s work, also makes me cry.
Marilynne Robinson has been in the news a lot. She’s an articulate defender of Christianity and capable critic of those vociferous New Atheists. I was fortunate enough to hear her speak at the 2006 Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing. It occurred to me then that I had never, ever before heard a woman speak with such grace, intellectual authority and cultural acumen. I was mesmerized.
I took notes. “Books have potency,” she said, quoting Milton’s Areopagitica. Books can show you your own soul. Reading a novel is a solitary experience akin to prayer and meditation. In our culture, she continued, there is a loss of respect for that kind of inwardness. Our culture has become “decadently rationalistic.” She reflected on the legacy of an old copy of King Lear that she read under the blankets when it was past her bedtime. It had, she said, “an honourable weariness about it, having passed through innumerable hands.” Books, she asserted, have brought more freedom into the world than perhaps we were even able to handle.
In all the reviews I’ve read of Robinson’s Home, not one writer has quite zeroed in on what captivated me about this novel. So, I guess I have to write about it myself. Please insert a smiley face, here, as together we wryly enjoy the chutzpah of that sentence.
Robinson’s deliberate application of homemaking as a metaphor for the work that God does is subtle, original and affirming. I adore the fact that the main character, a woman who has come home in quiet disgrace after a grievous relationship with a married man, is called, absurdly and triumphantly, Glory. As she tends first to her ailing father, Rev. Boughton, succumbing to infirmity and age, and then also to her recovering alcoholic brother Jack, Glory is the centre of this home, doing all the background tasks that women do, sweeping, making coffee, doing laundry, trying to restore the garden.
She worries and prays and cares for these two men without bringing up her own heartbreak. Repeatedly she sets aside her own tiredness, frustration and sorrow to reach out and salve their wounds… her brother’s “inaccessible strangeness,” her father’s need for comfort and dignity in his dying. Glory “was wary indeed of certain thoughts, certain memories, because her father could not bear her unhappiness.” Through her sensitivity to their pain, through the ministrations of her hands in the home, we witness and touch the cost of caring.
Glory, with a career in teaching and Masters degree in Literature, muses at one point that she might have chosen the ministry had she been a man. But “she seemed always to have known that, to their father’s mind, the world’s great work was the business of men …. Women were creatures of a second rank, however pious, however beloved, however honored.” With the gravest and gentlest kind of irony, it becomes apparent Glory is a messianic maid, her lowly service in the home blessing the two troubled men, providing anointed fragments of grace and peace to them.
Robinson’s adept descriptions wrap the house and its furnishings, the yard, and the outbuildings with sacredness. The oak tree in the front yard “makes rubble of the pavement at its foot” and flings “imponderable branches out over the road.” The “torsion in its body made it look like a giant dervish to them.” That tree, older than the neighbourhood or town, becomes more than itself, hinting at that “other” tree of religious ecstasy. The homely objects and familiar trappings of the house become vessels for something greater – human and even divine love. Glory ponders the character of the house, with its “staunch” and “brokenhearted” presence. She consciously puts aside wistful visions of someday having her own home or her own children. She commits to preserving this home and what it represents, its rootedness and its tender way of tying down belonging to a concrete place, for the future, for Jack’s son.
Glory does what she can for those she loves. She bakes pies and scrubs the stains out of Jack’s shirt. It’s the transcendence in the daily mundane sacrifices that are required to run a home that gets me choked up. The daily setting aside of self for the elderly and hurting. Christ-likeness in dusting and peeling potatoes. I look at my mom and the thousands of women like her who had fewer choices than I did, who for generations did what they could with all they had, often not very much, to minister to their families in the home. Marilynne Robinson’s book is good news for them.