Salvation (Lila pp. 177 - 261)

She said to the child, “Now I been in Gilead a pretty long time. A lot longer than I expected. And you’re going to be born here. If I leave I’ll take you with me, I will for sure. I’ll tell you the name of the place, though. People should know that much about themselves anyway. The name of your father. Could be I won’t ever leave. The old man might not give me cause.” And then she almost laughed, because she knew he never would. She said, “That old man loves me. I got to figure out what to do about it.” 221

It’s easy to love. It’s hard to believe that you are loved. You are the only one who can know if you truly love and at the same time you are the person who cannot know that someone loves you. There is no “proof” that can convince someone of what is in someone else’s heart. Our knowledge that we are loved comes not from reasoned argument or from dialectical proof. Our knowledge that we are loved comes from faith. After so much practice, Lila Ames is starting to believe that she is loved.

In an important way, the question every Christian must ask himself or herself is simply: do you believe that God loves you? For God loving the world, and loving you as part of that world, is the central message of the New Testament. Jesus’s Good News is that God loves human beings and so human beings are called to love God and each other. The presence of such love is the mark of the kingdom of God. This kingdom will continue in the new creation that Christ promises, where men and women who are judged worthy will share in God’s love, and God will be all in all. But, and this is just as important, Christ’s message is that the kingdom of God starts now.  Lila has begun to learn that she doesn’t have to wait for the general resurrection to believe that she is loved.

Robinson doesn’t leave us with easy answers in any of the three books of the trilogy. Lila’s suffering doesn’t end when she “practically call[s] herself a Christian” (257). Marriage and motherhood don’t automatically allow her to accept the community that is around her. Her faith doesn’t provide answers, but maybe, just maybe, it has changed the way she views the world. Maybe that faith opens up possibilities that she hadn’t realized could exist.

Lila finds these possibilities through her reading of Scripture. She wonders, “It could be that the wildest, strangest things in the Bible were the places where it touched the earth” (226). I take these “wildest, strangest things” to be those places where the Bible touches Lila’s own life. For example, It can be no coincidence that we find her near the furnace in the brothel. In a telling exchange with Ames, we read,

He laughed. “Well, that baby you talk about, cast out and weltering in her blood, the Lord takes her up. He looks after the strays. Especially the strays. That story is a parable, about how He bound himself to Jerusalem when He told her ‘Live.’ It’s like a marriage. More than a marriage.”
“And then she takes to whoring.” (225)

Lila was practically a stray before Doll took her in. And she was a stray again when she married Ames. Like the story of Ezekiel, Lila is now bound to Ames and to Doll. That bond, of course, is the bond of love. Nothing can separate Lila from the love that Ames and Doll and the Lord have for her. Not past in a brothel or on the road or with a knife in her hand. These bonds of love have encouraged her to live. She is slowly coming to believe that not even death will separate her from Doll and from Ames. You can almost hear Lila Ames toy with the idea that she’s been saved.

We also learn about the depth of the love that Lila has for her son. In the words that bring tears to the eyes of anyone who’s expected a child, Lila thinks, “You. What a strange word that is. She thought, I have never laid eyes on you. I am waiting for you. The old man prays for you. He almost can’t believe he has you to pray for. Both of us think about you the whole day long” (243-4). Lila’s faith has opened her up to one of the most remarkable acts of faith that anyone can accept: parenthood. We only learn of little Robert Ames’s first few weeks in Lila. But we can be sure that Lila’s prayer for her son is the same as his father’s: “I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful” (Gilead p. 247). Little Robert has already been useful. He’s increased his mother’s faith. He's helped her realize the love others have for her.

Near the very end of the book, we read:

That’s how it is. Lila had borne a child into a world where a wind could rise that would take him from her arms as if there were no strength in them at all. Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding in us. That peace could only be amazement, too. (261)

As I finished these last hundred pages of Lila, and as I reflected on the trilogy as a whole, I couldn’t help but thinking of an old spiritual. I’m sure you know it. It’s about grace and how grace is amazing and how the sound of that grace is sweet. The spiritual tells us that grace saves wretches like me and you and Lila and the rest of us.

The Lord is wonderful.

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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