Marilynne Robinson on Fear
I love Marilynne Robinson. I really do. I do not agree with her on all things theological, certainly, but this is a wise, wise woman. From a recent NYT Magazine profile of her:
The question that led to Robinson’s assessment of our cultural condition — that we have become overwhelmingly fearful and that our fear has become a respectable excuse for not acting as we should — was this: “What do you think people should be talking about more?”
“One of the things that bothers me,” she began, with feeling, “is that there are prohibitions of an unarticulated kind that are culturally felt that prevent people from actually saying what they think.” From there, she raised her well-documented relationship to faith; said that students at Iowa from faith-based backgrounds seek her out; sketched the inhibition these students nonetheless feel in describing the sacred (“If you’re Jewish or Catholic, you can make all the jokes about your mother or the nun, but in terms of saying on one’s deathbed, ‘What will it mean to me that this is how I would have described myself, how does the cosmos feel as it nestles in my particular breast?’ they are completely inarticulate about that”); addressed that inhibition and suggested its root (“It’s as if when you describe something good, you are being deceived or are being deceptive”); offered Flannery O’Connor as an example of a religious writer who fails to describe goodness (“Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me”); evoked the nature of O’Connor’s failure (“There’s a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart”); complained about the widespread ignorance of religion in American life; told the story of Oseola McCarty, a laundress who bequeathed most of her life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi (“[An] interviewer was talking about how McCarty took down this Bible and First Corinthians fell out of it, it had been so read. And you think, Here is this woman that, by many standards, might have been considered marginally literate, that by another standard would have been considered to be a major expert on the meaning of First Corinthians!”); suggested that McCarty’s understanding of First Corinthians — in which Paul lays out the kind of communitarian behaviors upon which Christian decency might depend — reveals what it means to read a text well (“It makes you think that comprehension has an ethical content”); jumped to some reading she has been doing that has an explicit ethical content — essays by John Wycliffe, who played a crucial role in the first English translations of the Bible (“Wycliffe says that if you do not object strenuously to a superior’s bad behavior, you are as bad, as guilty as he is of what happens”); and rehearsed the radical activist tradition of translating the Bible, how rendering it into English was a courageous act, a risky resistance of royal authority.
“Wycliffe was the founding figure of Lollardy,” she said, “an amazing attempt to spread literacy and scriptural understanding into the common world. Little Oxford students creeping out at night to take a page of Matthew to a hovel somewhere and tell someone what it actually said. . . . The Wycliffe Bibles and Tyndale Bibles, which you could be killed for owning, were circulated widely. It was a very subversive thing, the Bible.”
And it was here that Robinson brought up fear: How it has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should “do something.” In her case, that “something” has been writing. For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is “testimony,” a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves.
“A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things, ” Robinson said. “Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world. . . . It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’ ”
Read the whole thing. When I first saw this passage, it reminded me of a strong feeling I got standing in the crypt church at the Benedictine monastery in Norcia last week. It occurred to me that we live in a time when much is at stake, and that in fact there is no time ever when there isn’t much at stake. The drama of human life is always before us. There are no inconsequential lives, because each of us is an immortal being. “We only have one life to live,” a monk had said to me, by which he meant that the choices we make, and fail to make, have consequences for eternity. In the darkness of that crypt church, I thought, “Why shouldn’t we be brave in what we say? If life is sacred, and if things matter in the light of eternity, why not say what you believe to be true? There will be people who don’t want to hear it, but there will also be people who want and need to hear it.”
To stand in prayer in front of an altar space that has been there for 1,600 years is to feel the brevity of our lives, but also their intensity. Dante reserves the vestibule of Hell for those who refused to take a stand in the mortal life, but tried to stay aloof. There is no virtue in lukewarmness. There is a sacredness in things. That moment in the monastery crypt consoled, encouraged, and emboldened me as I start this Dante book. Reading Marilynne Robinson’s words did too.