Friday, February 29, 2008

Gilead

A friend of mine recently bought me a book by Marilynne Robinson called Gilead. I highly recommend it to anyone. It is such a thoughtful, thought-provoking and poetic book, I thought I would share some with you today. This is just one of the beautiful and challenging passages (it is about an old Baptist pastor writing a letter to his son near the end of his life):

"One sermon is not up there, one I actually burned the night before I 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 their 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 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. These 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 the 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 gaterhing 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 me, 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 of how courageous you might have thought I was if you had come across it among my papers and read it...You would 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 aroudn that flu germs were killed by onions...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."

2 comments:

  1. I loved reading it, and now I find on a road trip I'm currently taking that I love LISTENING to it, too - the unabridged audiobook is finely done.

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  2. If you like Gilead, I'd like to recommend also Lying Awake by Mark Salzman, another book with quiet power and poignancy.

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