Each morning, my wife and I get up between 5:15 and 5:30. We hope to be at our desks by 5:45 so that we can spend some time writing before our son wakes up.  There’s something about writing in those wee hours that allows me to be more productive in 75 minutes than I often am for the rest of the day, even when that productivity just means a lot of thinking and a lot of staring at a blank notebook page. Around 7:00 each morning I close the notebook because I hear,  “Babbo! I wake up! I wake up, Babbo.” I know it’s time to get my son out of his crib, get his milk and oatmeal ready and make sure Mamma can keep at work for another hour or so. As you can imagine I enjoy being the first person my son sees in the morning more than I enjoy the tranquility of pre-dawn Chicago.

I’ve read Gilead three or four times. I read it when it was first published in 2004, when I was a graduate student in theology, reading Augustine and Calvin and Barth in the Midwest, subsisting on simple grad student-friendly meals, and wishing I were watching more baseball. I could relate to John Ames. But this is the first time I’ve read the book as a father, and I have to admit some trepidation when I picked up the book again. I was a little worried, to be honest, that the book would hit too close to home. Now that I’ve begun my latest rereading, I won’t say that my fear was unfounded, but I can say that it was exaggerated. I’m struck in a way I wasn’t before at how good and devoted a father John Ames is. What I’ve noticed this time is how in his letters Ames hopes to help his son see. It’s surely no accident that John is named after the Evangelist who noted that Jesus was the light of the world, a light that darkness could not overcome.

What we have in Gilead is the story of a man who sees all of existence as gratuitous, the gift of loving God. He shares this vision with his father and grandfather. And he hopes his son will share it too. Such seeing, though, is itself a gift. This gift be nurtured, no doubt, and the key to this nurturing is paying close attention to all the facets of God’s creation. Rev. Ames seems to know, however, that his son’s attention will lag. Even the disciples fell asleep while Jesus prayed. After recounting a story where he saw a young man pull a wet branch down and soaked himself and his girlfriend, Ames writes to his son, “I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables and doing wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.” (28) And when he thinks of the boxes of sermons he has in the attic, he writes, “They are a record of my life, after all, a sort of foretaste of the Last Judgment, really, so how can I not be curious? Here I was a pastor of souls, hundreds and hundreds of them over all those years, and I hope I was speaking to them, not only to myself, as it seems to me sometimes when I look back. I still wake up at night, thinking, That’s what I should have said! or That’s what he meant! remembering conversations I had with people years ago, some of them long done from the world, past any thought of my putting things right with them. And then I do wonder where my attention was. If that is even the question.” (41) Ames tends to end his reflections in just this way. The lines “It deserves all the attention you can give it” and “If that is even the question” provide a bit of relief and a bit of encouragement for the reader. I know I can’t hold my attention long enough to contemplate how I might have misunderstood something or someone years ago.

Ames keeps his attention focused on helping his son meditate on the fourth commandment. Ames seeks to honor his father and mother and grandfather, and he seeks to live a life and pass on wisdom worthy of being honored by his son. The wisdom Ames has comes from his own experience and from his deep knowledge of and love for the Scriptures. Indeed, he can only understand his experiences through the Scriptures. Thus, when he thinks of existence in general, and his son’s existence in particular, he can’t help but think of them in light of Paul’s account of the resurrection of the body in 1 Cor. 15. After noting that he loves the way his son looks, he writes, “All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. The twinkling of an eye. That is the most wonderful expression. I’ve thought from time to time it was the best thing in life, that little incandescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them, or the humor of it. ‘The light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart.’ That’s a fact.” (53) From 1 Cor 15 to Proverbs 15, the Scriptures offer Ames a vocabulary for what he sees.

The book is beautiful and heartbreaking because it challenges us to see as joyfully and thankfully as Ames sees. When he writes, “I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly” (56-7) I chastise myself for not so admiring the world. That’s probably where some of the tears come from. The Christian believes that the world is good because it is created and redeemed by the God who loves it.  And the Christian knows that sometimes only children understand that. “I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know that this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.” (56-7) There is human beauty, real physical beauty in the Eucharistic meal. Ames reminds his son about a time the boy received the Body and Blood of Christ. “Body of Christ, broken for you. Blood of Christ, shed for you. Your solemn and beautiful child face lifted up to receive these mysteries at my hands. They are the most wonderful mystery, body and blood. It was an experience I might have missed. Now I only fear I will not have time enough to fully enjoy the thought of it.” (70) Ames’s patient letters remind us not to miss such experiences. They remind us to wonder at existence. As Ames’s grandfather wrote to his father, “Without vision the people perish.” (85)

This morning, I was reading Gilead at 7:00. When I heard my son call “Babbo! I wake up! I wake up, Babbo” I closed the book, wiped my eyes, and whispered to myself, “You and me both.You and me both.”

Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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