Reading Marilynne Robinson’s Lila: the Accounting of Grace

Lila wanders into the town of Gilead Iowa, one stop in an itinerant life, and decides to stay a while.  When walking a ways from the abandoned shack where she has set up a makeshift home, she is caught in a storm and seeks refuge in a church.  I do not know if she has ever been in a church and she is no Christian in the traditional sense, but on that Sunday Lila’s life would change.  Grace would come in the form of an aging minister and a small town and Lila, who carries a knife and once worked in a brothel, would be baptized and married.  She would give up a feral existence for a not altogether comfortable, but grace-filled domesticity.

Just as Robinson’s book Gilead had courage at its heart, Lila has grace.  The odd thing about grace is it is a strange accountant not concerning itself with life’s fairness or making sure its equations are equal.  Lila, a good accountant, knows this makes no sense.  She was lost then found, but she cannot get around  the idea there remains those other  unfound souls in her life including Doll, the rough and violent woman who rescues her as a child and raises her in spite of harsh poverty.  If life were fair Doll and her ilk would be swooped up the arms of grace as well or perhaps Lila would not have found grace herself and things would at least be equal.

Things are not equal however, but grace being what it is, has its own accounting and suddenly a hundred lost souls who have never had a prayer now have the prayers of one man: the Reverend Ames, who with his wife Lila and their unborn child have the prayers of a hundred. He ministers to a small congregation in a small town that knows grace occurs in small ways without any sense of balance.  Grace occurs when neighbors sing Christmas carols at your doorstep and leave you with cookies all the while you have to worry about snow heavy enough to bring down a friend’s roof or the coming spring when tornadoes can tear apart a town.

Its peculiar.  Grace comes in small measures….in Lila, it is the smell of a sweater, tending roses, backwater folk, a stolen bible. and the misuse of a knife.  Grace is indeed small, but by no means insignificant.  Like baptism is a mere trickle of water, grace is those small and inconceivable things with the greatest impact. Just as all the water of the Nishnabotna River could not wash away Lila’s baptism, all the small movements of grace invite us to something much larger.  For Lila and the Reverend Ames it is a brief life together where two of the loneliest people in literature are made lonely no more.

Barely perceptible, grace adheres to a larger plan.  Being a good Calvinist we should expect nothing less from Robinson. It starts with a beam of light making its way into a brothel in St. Louis promising one day vile things will be torn down.  It is a stolen bible from which verses are written on paper leading a wife to challenge her theologically learned husband, who in Gilead  has shown he has come to refuse to speak the language of damnation on the wretched of the earth.  It also settles on feral Lila, who ever thinking of running, will not do so knowing long after John Ames has died, she will be in tiny  and insignificant Gilead teaching the hymns he sang to their little boy.

And grace will not be content to disrupt a brothel in St. Louis and settle in the small home of Lila and John Ames.  It has already made its way onto the streets of little Tabor (the real Gilead) of Iowa, a town of little repute, but not the least of the villages of America for in small ways, the real Gilead has already done its’ part to make for the larger story of an end to slavery and the birth of the civil rights movement, a fact not lost on Robinson.  Grace is really funny that way.  It shows tornadoes and blizzards cannot overcome the people of small towns even though these calamities never go away or that the institution of an evil will not have the day even if in our day injustice persist.  All it takes for grace to do is a little thing and big things happen.

This is the beauty of Robinson’s writing.  She shows all it takes are simple landscapes to influence a nation even if the nation is largely oblivious to these places and all it takes are a few simple acts to ease  weary hearts and dispel loneliness, even if the effects of loneliness never fully disappear.  These places and things are filled with grace.

This message is enough for Marilynne Robinson.  We don’t see any total transformation or complete healing.  We do not know what happens with Doll or those others in Lila’s past and a life together does not erase all the past tears of a minister and his wife.  But Reverend Ames speaks softly and his gentleness overcomes Lila’s listlessness  and fears and Lila makes his life purposeful and gives him a child who she will soon enough raise on her own.  And Gilead, small and as unassuming as it is….its message of equality is one it cannot completely adhere to, but on the streets of America’s cities and around the dinner tables in homes everywhere, people are beginning to question the way things have always been.

For Lila, the Reverend Ames and for us. grace moved and moves over nondescript landscapes. It rested on a feral child become a woman. an aging minister, and a small town and it rests on us.  It asks only simple things of simple people….a slight bit of courage, a measure of love and a little faith. With these small things and simple people like us, lives are set alight by the grace….the balm that is found in Gilead.