Tabor and Pacific Junction Iowa are a twenty five minute drive from one another or just a few miles apart in terms of actual geography. I know this because I looked it up on a map. Tabor is also the model for the fictitious town of Gilead in the Marilynne Robinson novel of the same name. Pacific Junction was that place when on a drive west I admitted defeat and told a weathered couple I was lost and needed to find a way to cross the Missouri.
It is an “unassuming” part of the country. The couple whom I asked for directions were “unassuming” as well, but as they bantered back and forth as to how to get me on my way, I realized they had one another and the proud land around them was their home, a place that fed this great nation and nations faraway. Neither the place nor the couple were unassuming at all.
I read Gilead and realize Tabor, though “unassuming,” is a place of courage, where the issue of civil rights was hard fought and won. The couple now my allies were interracial and here unbeknownst to me I was in a place where the right to be together in spite of such differences was an issue resolved by places like Tabor.
The fictitious Gilead is also the home of the Reverend Ames, a Congregationalist minister. In Gilead, his grandfather was one of the abolitionists that fought for the rights of those like the weathered couple from Pacific Junction to be together. Rev. Ames also had an ally. Her name was Lily and she was the one who asked him a question to which he responded Yes and it was a Yes that gave his life and the lives of others many more Yesses.
In Pacific Junction I was waylaid, travelling from Chicago to see mountains. It takes great courage to dwell in a city like Chicago just as it does to weather the mountains that lie to the west. What courage could this corner of Iowa offer to rival this? But it does have such courage and perhaps a greater courage.
To Lily, Reverend Ames is John. She is an altogether different person from this man she loves. She is much younger and does not have his religious upbringing, but in time he gives her the courage to say Yes to a religious community and she gives him the courage to say Yes to marriage. Both things are courageous, but they are the types of courage that do not reside in ourselves alone. Marilynne Robinson calls this prevenient courage. Unlike the courage to muscle through cities or climb mountains, prevenient courage makes such things as belief and marriage possible.
I wonder what has happened to marriage and human intimacy. We are not an uncaring people and I hardly think we lack courage in the ordinary sense. But we are lacking in that courage to draw from that which is larger than we are that makes true intimacy possible. With the absence of this we lack faith as well. We have become bent on an urbane world with a perfect picture of who we are meant to be with, because without faith that good things can come of average people, this is all you have. Suffice it to say Lily and John are no one’s perfect image. He is old and she lacks his resolve. The only thing they have is faith in that they are one another’s companions and together they share the image of God.
In our time, faith is a rather silly thing. It says we need not be perfect, that what is pure and perfect will find us if only we believe. The problem is belief requires that courage which exists before we know the thing itself and this requires we make that leap of faith which makes something like marriage, in the truest sense of the word, possible to begin with. (There are many marriages that are not marriages in the true sense of the word, though that is not something I will go into here.)
In a previous post I said this essay of sorts was to be about marriage, but not entirely about marriage. What I mean is that human relationships require Robinson’s prevenient courage. Marriage is the most obvious example in that it requires a fidelity and vulnerability we do not have without the courage that comes from God. But it is not only marriage that requires this prevenient courage. All of the best relating does.
In using marriage as an example of prevenient courage we kill two birds with one stone, for when thought about, all relationship can be reduced to family or friendship. Marriage is where the two perfectly come together, though all people whether married or not are called to reside in both of those places. It is also true that those who are single can reside in many more relationships with a vitality the married cannot, though the intimate companionship as found in marriage imbibes people with a measure of kindness that makes them good to others.
This was the experience of Reverend Ames. He had found his companion who made him good for others, though it lessened his time with his congregants. Prior to marriage, John Ames made the decision he could best be there for others as one who is single. He said “Yes” to many things, particularly human equality, before he said “Yes” to Lily. Rev. Ames was a courageous man and knew that regardless of his marital state, he could never be turned in on himself. Before he knew Lily, he knew the vitality that only the single can have in relating to others. He was saying “Yes” in the way that one does in the chaste single life.
Love comes to town, however and he has to find in Lily that way to be wholly good to one other (and eventually two others) while also being good to the world. This is really the relational lesson here. If you want to be good for the many, first learn to be good to a few or at least one. That lesson applies to the married and unmarried. Find out what makes another frightened or courageous and learn about their dreams and anxieties. With this you are forced in turning outward and the empathy and kindness that can be had for another can be returned to you and with that you and at least one other can grow into that which is larger….an empathy and kindness for many more.