The Balm of Gilead
I recently read Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize- winning novel, Gilead. Robinson’s first person narrator, a character by the name of John Ames, relates the story of his family, three generations of pastor-fathers. In a lengthy letter that reads like a journal, Ames shares this history with his son. Seventy- year- old Ames’s voice reflects his age, at times wandering, at times repeating himself, but always striving to make sense of the troubling dysfunction and beautiful theology bequeathed to him by his forefathers. As I read, I was struck not only by the believability of Ames’s voice, nor the author’s elegant use of imagery and language, but most particularly by the universality of the struggle Robinson depicts between loving fathers and respectful sons.
Through the relationships she characterizes, Robinson suggests that each generation receives a sort of sacred word in trust. They speak this word in the idiom of their own generation, speak to issues pertinent to their particular time. The next generation receives its own word and speaks in a new idiom to new concerns. Robinson manages to capture the transcience of each generation’s word and work, the passing of their idiom, so to speak. Consequently, the narrative is infused with haunting sorrow. The transience of each generation and their work effects a division between finite fathers and sons, a silent wound that wants healing.
The memoir form Robinson employs for her narrative establishes continuity between these unique generations. She achieves this through the protagonist’s narration of personal histories and his description of the redemptive beauty of the sacraments, depicted as organic occurrances in the natural intercourse of human experience. Robinson’s narrative offers a vision of hope for family relationships. The story title recalls Jeremiah 8:22, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Historically, Christian confirmation has often employed the use of balm. I wonder if it is to this balm and to the confirmation of the faith which Robinson’s title, Gilead, alludes. Her story explores the continuity of faith from generation to generation with hope, indicating that there is, perhaps, a balm in Gilead.