A Preacher Looks Back

by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson, who teaches at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, is the author of Housekeeping and Mother Country.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 16, 2004, pp. 26-29. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way.

(Excerpted from Gilead, a novel by Marilynne Robinson, published this month. © Copyright 2004 Marilynne Robinson. Used with permission of the author and the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

As he nears the end of his life, the Reverend John Ames is writing an account of his life and family for his seven-year-old son. Ames, a Congregationalist, is the son and the grandson of preachers. He thinks back to the years after the death of his first wife and before his second marriage, and refers to his lifelong friendship with Jack Boughton, a Presbyterian pastor.

Thank God for them all, of course, and for that strange interval, which was most of my life, when I read out of loneliness, and when bad company was much better than no company You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have. "The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet." There are pleasures to be found where you would never look for them. That’s a bit of fatherly wisdom, but it’s also the Lord’s truth, and a thing I know from my own long experience.

Often enough when someone saw the light burning in my study long into the night, it only meant I had fallen asleep in my chair. My reputation is largely the creature of the kindly imaginings of my flock, whom I chose not to disillusion, in part because the truth had the kind of pathos in it that would bring on sympathy in its least bearable forms. Well, my life was known to them all, every significant aspect of it, and they were tactful. I’ve spent a good share of my life comforting the afflicted, but I could never endure the thought that anyone should try to comfort me, except old Boughton, who always knew better than to talk much. He was such an excellent friend to me in those days, such a help to me. I do wish you could have some idea of what a fine man he was in his prime. His sermons were remarkable, but he never wrote them out. He didn’t even keep his notes. So that is all gone. I remember a phrase here and there.

I think every day about going through those old sermons of mine to see if there are one or two I might want you to read sometime, but there are so many, and I’m afraid, first of all, that most of them might seem foolish or dull to me. It might be best to burn them, but that would upset your mother, who thinks a great deal more of them than I do -- for their sheer mass, I suppose, since she hasn’t read them. You will probably remember that the stairs to the attic are a sort of ladder, and that it is terribly hot up there when it is not terribly cold.

It would be worth my life to try to get those big boxes down on my own. It’s humiliating to have written as much as Augustine, and then to have to find a way to dispose of it. There is not a word in any of those sermons I didn’t mean when I wrote it. If I had the time, I could read my way through 50 years of my innermost life. What a terrible thought. If I don’t burn them someone else will sometime, and that’s another humiliation. This habit of writing is so deep in me, as you will know well enough if this endless letter is in your hands, if it has not been lost or burned also.

I suppose it’s natural to think about those old boxes of sermons upstairs. They are a record of my life, after all, a sort of foretaste of the Last Judgment, really, so how can I not be curious? Here I was a pastor of souls, hundreds and hundreds of them over all those years, and 1 hope I was speaking to them, not only to myself, as it seems to me sometimes when I look back. I still wake up at night, thinking, That’s what I should have said! or That’s what he meant! remembering conversations I had with people years ago, some of them long gone from the world, past any thought of my putting things right with them. And then I do wonder where my attention was. If that is even the question.

One sermon is not up there, one I actually burned the night before I had meant to preach it. People don’t talk much now about the Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when we were getting involved in it. It killed the soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life, and then it spread into the rest of the population. It was like a war, it really was. One funeral after another, right here in Iowa. We lost so many of the young people. And we got off pretty lightly. People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could. There was talk that the Germans had caused it with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that, because it saved them from reflecting on what other meaning it might have.

The parents of these young soldiers would come to me and ask me how the Lord could allow such a thing. I felt like asking them what the Lord would have to do to tell us he didn’t allow something. But instead I would comfort them by saying we would never know what their young men had been spared. Most of them took me to mean they were spared the trenches and the mustard gas, but what I really meant was that they were spared the act of killing. It was just like a biblical plague, just exactly. I thought of Sennacherib.

It was a strange sickness -- I saw it over at Fort Riley. Those boys were drowning in their own blood. They couldn’t even speak for the blood in their throats, in their mouths. So many of them died so fast there was no place to put them, and they just stacked the bodies in the yard. I went over there to help out, and I saw it myself. They drafted all the boys at the college, and influenza swept through there so bad the place had to be closed down and the buildings filled with cots like hospital wards, and there was terrible death, right here in Iowa. Now, if these things were not signs, I don’t know what a sign would look like. So I wrote a sermon about it. I said, or I meant to say, that these deaths were rescuing foolish young men from the consequences of their own ignorance and courage, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers. And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God.

It was quite a sermon, I believe. I thought as I wrote it how pleased my father would have been. But my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was. And they were there even though I might have been contagious. I seemed ridiculous to myself for imagining I could thunder from the pulpit in those circumstances, and I dropped that sermon in the stove and preached on the Parable of the Lost Sheep. I wish I had kept it, because I meant every word. It might have been the only sermon I wouldn’t mind answering for in the next world. And I burned it. . . .

Now I think how courageous you might have thought I was if you had come across it among my papers and read it. It is hard to understand another time. You would never have imagined that almost empty sanctuary, just a few women there with heavy veils on to try to hide the masks they were wearing, and two or three men. I preached with a scarf around my mouth for more than a year. Everyone smelled like onions, because word went around that flu germs were killed by onions. People rubbed themselves down with tobacco leaves.

In those days there were barrels on the street corners so we could contribute peach pits to the war effort. The army made them into charcoal, they said, for the filters in gas masks. It took hundreds of pits to make just one of them. So we all ate peaches on grounds of patriotism, which actually made them taste a little different. The magazines were full of soldiers wearing gas masks, looking stranger than we did. It was a remarkable time.

Most of the young men seemed to feel that the war was a courageous thing, and maybe new wars have come along since I wrote this that have seemed brave to you. That there have been wars I have no doubt. I believe that plague was a great sign to us, and we refused to see it and take its meaning, and since then we have had war continuously.

I‘m not entirely sure I do believe that. Boughton would say, "That’s the pulpit speaking." True enough, but what that means I don’t know. My own dark time, as I call it, the time of my loneliness, was most of my life, as I have said, and I can’t make any real account of myself without speaking of it. The time passed so strangely, as if every winter were the same winter, and every spring the same spring. And there was baseball. I listened to thousands of baseball games, I suppose. Sometimes I could just make out half a play, and then static, and then a crowd roaring, a flat little sound, almost static itself, like that empty sound in a seashell. It felt good to me to imagine it, like working out some intricate riddle in my mind, planetary motion. If the ball is drifting toward left field and there are runners on first and third, then -- moving the runners and the catcher and the shortstop in my mind. I loved to do that, I can’t explain why.

And I would think back on conversations I had had in a similar way, really. A great part of my work has been listening to people, in that particular intense privacy of confession, or at least unburdening, and it has been very interesting to me. Not that I thought of these conversations as if they were a contest, I don’t mean that. But as you might look at a game more abstractly -- where is the strength, what is the strategy? As if you had no interest in it except in seeing how well the two sides bring each other along, how much they can require of each other, how the life that is the real subject of it all is manifest in it. By "life" I mean something like "energy" (as the scientists use the word) or "vitality," and also something very different. When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them the "I" whose predicate can be "love" or "fear" or "want," and whose object can be "someone" or "nothing" and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around "I" like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick, and avid, and resourceful. To see this aspect of life is a privilege of the ministry which is seldom mentioned.

A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way. There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought -- the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider.

I am trying to describe what I have never before attempted to put into words. I have made myself a little weary in the struggle.