Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

07 July 2007

Faith Envy

I have finally begun—for the third time—Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and I am l-o-v-i-n-g it. I don’t know why I had so much trouble getting into it the first two times. Must not have been ready for it.

I am having a curious reaction to the book: I am beset with a bizarre faith envy. I keep comparing my faith to the main character’s faith, which I suspect mirrors Marilynne Robinson’s. I wish I were more like the two of them as a believer. More relaxed in my faith. Less squinchy-eyed about everything. And, above all, more just plain kind.

Both Reverend Ames and Robinson, I fear, would disapprove of me as a Christian, especially with my long-held view—which I’m starting to question, the book is so convincing—that spiritual development only occurs through struggle. On page 24 of the paperback, the Reverend reflects, “It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled.”

That’s me, I keep thinking. Worrying. But he’s talking about people who get all bent out of faith by reading Feuerbach, whom Ames characterizes as an atheist. (Feuerbach called himself a theist, but he pretty much believed we make God up to address our needs.) The Feuerbachs of the world are not what unsettles my faith. Rather, it’s a struggle with myself, mostly, and with what it appears to me the Bible is calling me to be and do. I struggle with God, in fact. Maybe that’s an okay way to struggle. Jacob did it and won a blessing. Not that Jacob is someone I want to emulate. I'm probably not alone in finding him one of the least likeable God-followers in the Bible. Right up there with Lot.

Robinson’s writing just undoes me. So clean and simple. So many surprises in such plain, straightforward sentences. It’s like getting a beat up package in the mail, wrapped in grocery bags turned inside out, and opening it to find a delicate treasure from far far away, from some person you’ve forgotten, a porcelain bowl so thin you can see light through it. You think, how did it ever survive? The story of Ames trekking out to Kansas during the drought to find the grandfather’s grave. Man. I read it aloud to Kris at the breakfast table yesterday. So real. So horrible. So funny. Or when they baptize the kittens. I keep wishing I had written it, not her. Or, as Jim Whitehead used to say, “I wish I had written that book, and she had written a better one.”

Apropos packages containing delicate bowls. In one of my moves in my traveling years, I sent a bowl I couldn’t part with to a friend in Boston to store with some of my other things. It was pale slick green on the inside and matt brown, almost black on the outside. About the size of a cantaloupe, but more oval, wide at the mouth with a very small footprint—like the bottom of a drip in midair. Just the perfect bowl. Very old. Made by someone with a very light hand: thin enough, as I say, to see light through it, even though it was glazed dark on the outside. I sent it hurry-scurry, in the midst of buying a plane ticket and paying bills and packing, so I didn’t have much time or energy to devote to it, and all my tools—scissors, tape, etc.—were all packed away. Somehow, I got it in a box, with squashed up bags stuffed around it and to the post office, and years later I went to my friend’s house to get my things, and there it was on top of my trunk in the half-darkness and damp of her cellar, this old beat up box tied up with string the way we used to do. The box looked hardly bigger than the bowl in my memory, and I expected to find just shards when I opened it. I opened it carefully, nonetheless, and, miraculously, it was not in the least damaged. I held it up to the light bulb dangling above me to see the light through it, and at that moment I slipped or tripped on wet, uneven concrete, and the bowl dropped. Exploded into tiny black and green shards. I can still feel that moment in my stomach when I think about it—of loss so nearly coincident with such a surprising and delightful recovery of what was precious to me. Ach.

I ordered Anita Brookner’s The Next Big Thing through Interlibrary Loan, so that’ll be next.

I wish I could touch your faces and bless you all, like Ames with those kittens.


Katy said...

Oy! How awful about dropping that bowl and isn't that just like life? Argh.

I like the bit about seeing the light through the glass.

I might need to read this book.

Nicole said...

Hi, Mrs. Kirk. I read your blog regularly, but I never comment because I have this fear you don't remember me. Which is fine.

But anyway, whether you remember me or not, thank you for writing. Your words are always so comforting to me. I loved your book, and I miss listening to you and your thoughts. It's nice to know I can come here and read your writing again. I do wish I could hear you read it to me, though. I always loved that.

That's all. Just... thanks.

Nicole Lee (now Tatum)

Patty Kirk said...


You dodo. Of course I remember you--although I am prone, as you know, to memory problems, so you are in your rights to worry that I might not have. Have you become a GAP model? Did you marry one? Tatum sounds like it could be the name of a GAP model.

Thanks for the encouragement about my writing. I've been struggling all afternoon with one lousy essay that makes me hate everything I have ever written. Good to know my writing works for someone.

Where are you living? Is it near enough for you to come to dinner and be read to? If so, email me and we'll set it up.

Nicole said...

Your offer is too kind. As much as I would love to join you for dinner and reading, I am out on the west coast. My husband and I live in Portland, OR -- a bit far from our roots down south. We don't really have a big, fancy reason for being here other than we just wanted a change. It's been very good.

I keep hoping you'll do a book tour. Portland has the best independent bookstore, Powell's, and they host readings almost every night. You would fit right in. I would be there, waiting to get your autograph. So if you ever do the book tour thing, please push for Portland.

And I just remembered! When I went to Powell's to get your book, it was sitting on the front display. I was proud, so I took a picture. You're just way too cool.

lisa said...

Mrs. Kirk..Patty, what can we call you if we've never met? anyway, I'm reading Confessions.. at the moment and loving the spirit (the voice!) you infused it with, and relating in many ways to your struggles, thoughts, questions...

thanks for putting something out there that's honest enough to have me (and i suspect I'm not alone) nodding in agreement as I am on a walk of faith, too, where sometimes it's hard to fit it all together.