One of the superb insights I found in Marilynne Robinson's latest book Home (London: Virago Press, 2008) concerns the character of a life of faith.
I mean here to make a basic distinction between the many activities which are called 'faith' or religion, and the character of a person who truly and authentically is faithful: to themselves, to others and to God.
In this novel, there's a lot about being religious, and there are some truly faithful characters. They are not the same people!
To explore this theme, I need really to present some fairly large slabs of the text.
The heart of the matter arises when Jack, who has returned to his family home after twenty years and a fairly 'checkered' life, including a period in jail and a long struggle with alcoholism, now raises the question of the 'state of his soul' with his sister Glory. She too has returned to the home, after life has proven a big disappointment for her. The man she had devoted many years to was, finally, not willing to commit. She has lived outside her primary values, of marriage and family, and it has all come to nothing. Now she has come 'home' to care for their elderly father, and to find some sense of meaning in the remainder of her own life.
Jack poses the thought to Glory that she may wish to 'save' his soul. Glory has no such thought, but the interchange does cause her to reflect on her own everyday faith activities, such as reading the Bible and prayer.
What is the meaning of 'having a soul'? What does it mean to be 'pious'? And of great interest to me is the question of the faith: are not each of these people faithful, in their quest for integrity, honesty before God, self and others? And how does this integrity and faith relate to the religious activities of their upbringing?
Here, in two long slabs of quotation, is the initial inter-change over Jack's 'soul', and Glory's own reflections on her practices of 'piety'.
From page 109:
‘She thought about the thing Jack had seemed to ask of her, some attempt to save his soul. Dear Lord. How could that idea haunt her with a sense of obligation, when she really did not know what it meant. There are words you hear all your life, she thought. Then one day you stop to wonder. She would not bring it up again, but if he did, she should have some way to answer him. She was not at all sure that he had been serious, that he was not teasing her. She might even have taken offense at the time, if there has seemed to be any point in it. A genteel project for a pious lady with time on her hands. How condescending. But that was what he did when he felt vulnerable—he found some way to sting, to make it clear that vulnerability was all on one side. Poor man. But he was so practiced at reciting what he was also practiced at rejecting. … And in fact he had made her embarrassed about that pleasant old habit of hers. Now she had to read the Bible in her room to avoid feeling like a hypocrite, like someone praying on a street corner. …
She did not know what it meant to be pious. She had never been anything else. Remember also they creator in the days of thy youth. She had done that. She could hardly have done otherwise. Her father never let a day pass without reminding them that all goodness came from the Lord, all love, all beauty. And failure and fault instructed us in the will of God in the very fact of departing from it. Then there were grace and forgiveness to compensate, to put things right, and these were the greatest goodness of God after creation itself, so far as we mortals can know. …
As for herself, she did still pray on her knees. She also said or heard or thought a grace at every meal, even at a lunch counter or when she was with the fiance. Train up a child in the way he should go and even when he is old he will not depart from it. The proverb was true in her case. …
(p.110-112) Maybe she kept the Bible out of sight because she was afraid that if he spoke to her that way again she would to tell him she had no certain notion what a soul is. She supposed it was not a mind or a self. Whatever they are. She supposed it was what the Lord saw when His regard fell upon any of us. But what can we know about that? Say we love and forgive, and enjoy the beauty of another life, however elusive it might be. Then, presumably, we have some idea of the sold we have encountered. That is what her father would say.
Maybe she had never before known anyone who felt, or admitted he felt, that the state of his soul was in question. Whatever might transpire in her father’s study, there had been only calm and confidence amongst his flock, to all appearances. Granting the many perils of spiritual complacency, and her father did grant them as often as Pharisees figured in the text, complacency was consistent with the customs and manners of Presbyterian Gilead and was therefore assumed to be justified in every case. … Even her father’s sermons treated salvation as a thing for which they should be grateful as a body, as if, for their purposes at least, that problem had been sorted out between the druids and the centurions at about the time of Hadrian. He did mention sin, but it was rarefied in his understanding of it, a matter of acts and omissions so commonplace that no one could be wholly innocent of them or especially alarmed by them, either—the uncharitable thought, the neglected courtesy. While on the one hand this excused him from the mention of those aspects of life that seemed remotest from Sabbath and sunlight, on the other hand it made the point that the very nicest among them, even the most virtuous, were in no position to pass judgment on anyone else, not on the sly or the incorrigible, not on those who trouble the peace of their families, not on those who might happen to have gotten their names in the newspaper in the past week. The doctrine of total depravity had served him well. Who, after all, could cast that first stone? He could not, he least of all. But it was hard to get a view of something so pervasive as to be total, especially if, as her father insisted, it was epitomized in his own estimable person.'
It's fascinating here to see the insight that the Calvinist idea of the 'total depravity' of humans, following the Fall, (an interpretation of the story in Genesis 3), has been used in a way that actually makes basically no demands of ordinary people and their daily lives. Yes, everyone is a sinner, so don't make too much fuss about any of it! No one is in a position to judge others, we are all sinners. So don't worry about it too much. Be nice! That insight, into how 'piety' and 'religion' merge into cultural niceness, and a complete ignorance of the genuine struggles of people like Jack, is profound. Glory is a good person: but really her religiosity has failed to bring her into close contact with the reality of human life, perhaps its splendour as well as its depravity.
Much later in the novel, at dinner one evening Jack presents a prayer he has written:
(page 183) ‘Dear Father, … You are patient and gracious far beyond our deserving.’ He cleared his throat. ‘You let us hope for your forgiveness when we can find no way to forgive ourselves. You bless our lives even when we have shown ourselves to be utterly ungrateful and unworthy. May we be strengthened and renewed, to make us less unworthy of blessing, through these your gifts of sustenance, friendship and family.’ And then, ‘In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.’
Later still, (page 287)after Jack has reached a new low in his life, struggling with depression, Glory says to Jack:
‘Remember when you talked to me about your soul, about saving it?’
He shrugged. ‘I think you may be mistaking me for someone else.’
‘And I said I liked it the way it is.’
‘Now I know you’re mistaking me for someone else.’ He did not look up from the massaging of his hands.
‘I’ve thought about what I should have said to you then, and I haven’t changed my mind at all. That’s why it embarrassed me, because it would have been so presumptuous of me—I’m not even sure what it means.’ Then she said, ‘What is a soul?’
He looked up, smiled, studied her face. ‘Why ask me?’
‘It just seems to me that you would know.’
He shrugged. ‘On the basis of my vast learning and experience, I would say—it is what you can’t get rid of. Insult, deprivation, outrigh
t violence—’If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there,’ and so on. …’
Then (on page 288)follows acknowledgment that he is a drunk, a thief, and sometimes preys upon vulnerable women. Jack reports that his lady friend’s father had said he was ‘nothing but trouble’.
‘I felt the truth of that. I really am nothing.’ He looked at her. ‘Nothing, with a body. I create a kind of displacement around myself as I pass through the world, which can fairly be called trouble. This is a mystery, I believe.’ He said, ‘It’s why I keep to myself. When I can.’
Here is a man who really does have a sense of 'soul'. It is not a happy, joyous sense, but is a profound awareness of the reality of his own life, in relation to others, to God and to what he might be. He is aware of what the Bible calls sin: 'falling short of the glory of God' (Romans 3. 23). He is aware, too, that his life is not something about which he can pretend. He is not play-acting. He has to deal with it. That's why he does not engage in close contact with people, much of the time. There, amidst the happy, confident and religious activities of the home, the assertive religion of his father's theology, and the high achieving siblings, he cannot be at home.
But he longs to be at home. He longs to live with the truth. His many attempts to escape, to an easy reality—through alcohol, through 'doing the right thing', have not worked. His one, lasting and joyous relationship is not approved of, by the lady's father, and not even mentioned to his own father.
Jack is a man of faithful struggle. He knows what it means to 'have a soul', and the need for our souls to find home, to find rest, to be 'saved'.
This is wisdom. I think it is the wisdom of faith. It gives life. It does not give piety: in fact, coming to this same wisdom and insight disturbs Glory's piety. Interestingly, it does not destroy it. Rather, it causes her to become aware of it, and to choose it. She continues to read her Bible and pray daily. But now it has so much more depth and meaning for her. Perhaps it is less regular, less of habit, and more of a home.
This, too, is wisdom from home.