Having courage to see


“There was a full moon outside my window, icy white in a blue sky, and the Cubs were playing Cincinnati.”

“This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
(Gilead, Marilynne Robinson)

I recently read Marilynne Robinson’s masterpiece for the second time for our book club. One friend at book club suggested that Robinson idealizes life, that she is a bit too sentimental, and that the images invoke a sort of longing for a past way of life, or even for an unrealistic way of life. I was surprised at the anger that rose in me as I heard her say this about the book. I felt indignant because my experience with the book was quite the opposite.

Gilead reminds me that life is sorrowful, that there are things to be mourned, and that a tragic undercurrent is a constant throughout life. We weren’t made for death. But in this life, the only life we have been given on this earth, “there are a thousand thousand reasons to live, every one of them sufficient.”

“I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping in the air, our insouciant Soapy! Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your read shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.”

Gilead is a letter from old and dying John Ames written to his young son. Maybe we read this and are so quick to suggest that it is idealistic or sentimental because we forget that every moment in this world is impregnated with beauty. We forget the eternal realities that lie behind every leaf and every song. We quickly dismiss everyday, earthly, physical moments of beauty because we are pessimistic and because we are so quick to tend towards unbelief.

I often think of children and their delight in the simplest things. Even my fourth graders aren’t “too old” for markers and a blank sheet of paper. We are so quick to see life as drudgery and boring. When life is about us, we always wait for something new to come along and entertain us, to shake us out of our dullness and apathy. But what if we had eyes to see the beauty in the needles on a pine tree and the silhouettes of rooftops against a dusky sky? What if we believed that eternal value and goodness exist in every bit of this life because of the Incarnation, because God Himself created it and then came to earth and redeemed this creation?

Madeleine L’Engle’s collection of essays titled Walking on Water goes hand-in-hand with Gilead. She writes: “It might be a good idea if, like the White Queen, we practiced believing six impossible things every morning before breakfast, for we are called to believe what to many is impossible. Instead of rejoicing in this glorious ‘impossible’ which gives meaning and dignity to our lives, we try to domesticate God, to make his mighty actions comprehensible to our finite minds.”

So much of the Christian life is believing that there is far more at work than we can see. It is training our eyes to see and our hearts to believe the eternal mysteries and realities all around us. For me, it is believing that the daily routines and seemingly fruitless work of a fourth-grade teacher will someday bear fruit because there is a powerful God working in His precious children. It is believing that there is an image of our union with Christ in this marriage that we’ve begun and that the Lord gives Himself when we die to our own desires. It is believing that in giving, we receive and in dying, we live. It is recognizing the value of another human being simply because they exist, because they are image-bearers of the Divine.

Robinson says that this kind of sight takes courage. L’Engle says it takes childlike belief. Ames writes to his son, “It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. That is what I said in the Pentecost sermon. I have reflected on that sermon, and there is some truth in it. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”

This Advent and Christmas season presents a timely opportunity to practice seeing. The story of a little baby lying in a manger asks us to use this willing sight. It asks us to see the eternal in the temporal, the Divine in the earthly. It asks me to see each moment of my day as fuller and more beautiful and more rich with meaning than I can humanly comprehend.

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

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