I'm reading Marilynne Robinson's Lila, third in a sequence of novels after Gilead and Home. These books are extraordinary. Sometimes, reading a brilliant book makes me feel a sort of irritable envy, a "wish I could have done that" resentment. But Robinson's work is beyond that sort of response. It leaves me awed, moved, and full of gratitude that she exists, and that she has made these books.
They do what books should do: illuminate the ordinary moments. ("Oh, I will miss the world!" says dying old John Ames in Gilead). Bring to life, through real, flawed people, the power of kindness, faith, and love ("Nobody deserves anything, good or bad. It's all grace," says Boughton, forgiving the son who has given him endless sorrow, in Home). Show redemption, resurrection even ("Strange as all this is, there might be something to it, thinks Lila in Lila). But never preachingly, never cloying or sentimental, and looking unflinchingly at the hard things too, so the flashes of grace are well-earned. These books may have spiritual implications, but they make you love the very stuff of physical life.
I've always been drawn, in reading and in writing, to matters of the spirit. My background and inclination are Christian, but my beliefs, not that I have anything so firm as to merit the word, are more and more open-ended and wide-ranging, and I flee from dogma. Paul Elie says, of psychiatrist and author Robert Coles, that he "was the very archetype of the secular post-modern pilgrim—not a believer himself, but a person who is attracted to belief, prone to it, often covetous of it in others, and who is brought to the threshold of belief imaginatively through his reading." I recognise something of myself here, though I have done so little with my own pilgrimage.
That quote is from Paul Elie's fascinating book, The Life you Save May Be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage, which looks at four writers, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O'Connor, and they way the sought the truth in their lives, in their ways of living but also in the way they wrote: "Their writing was the most personal way of all, for in the act of reading and writing one stranger and another go forth to meet in an encounter of the profoundest sort."
Years ago, I was asked to participate in a conference at DeSales University about writing and spirituality. As I listened to the other speakers, I felt an overwhelming sense of homecoming: this is my place, my territory, this intersection of writing with the search for something "beyond", and although I've been forgetting about it, this is where I belong. Similarly, when I read Parabola magazine, which examines "the search for meaning" and explores the world's spiritual traditions, I feel at home and enriched there (and glad three of my essays have contributed to its archive). The writers who excite me often inhabit that borderland where twin yearnings, to make something well with words and to find meaning, flow into each other: Annie Dillard, Madeleine L'Engle, Darcey Steinke, Frederick Buechner, Michael Mayne, Ronald Blythe...
That borderland is my natural habitat, though I could never shed the kind of light on it that they do, and that Robinson does. Apart from anything else, my "faith" in anything "beyond" is at present a feeble and wavering flame. But then, perhaps that is when I most need to spend time there? At any rate, I know that's the territory where I want to walk, and work.
Note: The reason I'm reading Lila now, and about to re-read the earlier Gilead books, is that my wonderful local independent bookshop, The Suffolk Anthology, is running a seminar on them on March 23rd.