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Marilynne Robinson's Home and the Stories We Tell in Ordinary Time
Dustin D. Benac

The nature of faith demands that we see and hear God in the ordinary realities of our existence. Christians have historically marked this reality with the liturgical season of Ordinary Time, but the very ordinariness of Ordinary Time means that we often have little clue how to inhabit this season, much less how to attend to and tell ordinary stories.

For those like myself who did not grow up with the rhythms of the liturgical year, some review may be helpful: Ordinary Time occurs between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and between Pentecost and Advent.

kitchen The practice of marking Ordinary Time involves distinguishing between “ordinary” and “mundane,” as these two words do not reference the same reality. “Mundane” describes earthly things that may be characterized as worldly, secular, or dull. “Ordinary,” in the Christian sense of the word, means “counted,” and describes the patterns that reflect a usual order or course. Ordinary Time and our mundane experiences are not one and the same, even though Christians experience Ordinary Time in the context of our mundane existence. This difference illumines the good news of the Gospel message: the earthly, mundane reality of human existence may be, and in fact has been, ordered in response to God’s self-revelation in time and history.

And yet, the stories of ordinary things and the meaning of Ordinary Time remain difficult to identify, tell, and receive. The thirty-three weeks of Ordinary Time and the everyday practices that order Christian life—gathering for worship, extending hospitality, confessing our sins, and resting—are not sensational or newsworthy. Instead, we typically account for our lives through significant events. The ordinary realities that create the narrative background for these events frequently go untold, silently falling from view. What’s more, compared to the extraordinary stories we regularly hear, our ordinary stories about washing dishes, going for a walk, or seeing a friend seem trivial. They feel mundane. When others tell such ordinary stories, we often neither know how to receive them nor how to acknowledge their simple significance. And on the rare occasion that we share our own ordinary stories, we often tell them looking to others to bestow meaning upon them.

The result is that instead of ordering these ordinary stories and practices in relation to the patterns of Christian life, we often relegate them to a mundane plane somewhere below meaningful, marked time and activity. It should come as little surprise then that some Christians experience the season of Ordinary Time as a period of restlessness, uncertainty, or listlessness. This points to our limited ability to inhabit Ordinary Time and perceive its inherent meaning. It also points to our need for teachers who can help us receive Ordinary Time and the ordinary character of Christian existence anew.

 

Marilynne Robinson is a master storyteller who, through her craft, can teach us how to tell the ordinary stories of our lives. Recently retired from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Robinson is the acclaimed novelist whose work includes Gilead, Home, Lila, and Housekeeping. Her novel Home uniquely epitomizes the liminal and unfinished quality that characterizes Christian existence in Ordinary Time.

The second of three novels set in Gilead, Iowa, Home lingers in a pseudo-literary purgatory between the first and third volumes. Gilead introduces Robinson’s readers to the characters they would come to love, and Lila strikes a compositional chord when read alongside Gilead and Home. Yet Home, like the figures inhabiting Dante’s ante-purgatory, seems to cast little or no shadow. Home embodies the already-not-yet quality of its characters while also speaking to the similar existence that is shared by its readers. In this period of Ordinary Time, we stand between the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection during Holy Week and Easter, and the revelation of God’s incarnation during Advent and Christmas. In the present age of the church, Christians likewise stand between Christ’s ascension and the hope of his return.

Robinson’s craft is so subtle that the relevance of Home in and to Ordinary Time can be understood only well after the book’s publication. Today, eight years after Home was published, the book reviews and awards have slowed. Home has assumed its place on readers’ bookshelves (likely alongside Robinson’s other excellent works). It seems that Home has quietly found its way into a very ordinary place in the landscape of American literature. It is from this position—away from the spotlight—that Home may teach us the most about how to participate in Ordinary Time.

In her writing, Robinson weaves together ordinary stories in a way that reflects the texture of Christians' experience in Ordinary Time. She uses everyday events and characters to present an account that tells of the meaning found in ordinary existence. 

Home begins when the central character, Glory, returns home after a failed attempt at adult life. Her father is ailing, her romantic relationship has recently floundered, and she is no longer certain about her purpose in life. When she returns to her childhood house, Glory begins to revisit the significant people, places, and stories that shaped her early life. Although she welcomes the familiarity of Gilead, she also acknowledges to herself that life has not gone as she planned. “I am thirty-eight years old,” Glory says to herself. “I have a master’s degree. I taught high school English for thirteen years. I was a good teacher. What have I done with my life?” (19).

At one point, when she cannot make sense of herself or her hometown, Glory searches for the books she read as a child. The books have been distributed among neighbors, but she retrieves them and places them somewhere she can easily find and read them (22–23). Gradually, through the commingling of the fictional stories and the living stories that surround her, the meaning of her life and work becomes clear. It is as if these stories, and the ordinary life of Gilead, enable Glory to remember who she is, who she has always been.

Jack, Glory’s older brother, also returns home after a twenty-year hiatus. A prodigal character, Jack has lived a vagabond life and returns to a town that is quick to remind him of his checkered past. Gilead residents tell stories of Jack’s past transgressions—stories he’d forgotten long ago, but that come roaring back to life in their retelling. The day after a newspaper runs the headline “Rash of Burglaries,” Jack finds himself standing in the shadow cast by his much younger self when he becomes the subject of public speculation. “When I walked into the drugstore,” Jack shares with Glory, “the conversation stopped” (129). He concludes that others continue to view him according to the stories they remember from his youth.

Jack lives in the tension between the stories others tell, those he tells himself, and the Bible stories he grew up hearing. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Jack knows the story of creation, the fall, and redemption, but finds himself incessantly bound in the second act of this three-part drama. Jack struggles to prevent his old life in Gilead from defining him in the present, even as Glory tries to make sense of her new life in Gilead. Jack works to embody a new story, but the old stories and memories of Gilead offer a script for his life that he struggles to resist.

As Jack and Glory work to sort out their respective stories, their father, Reverend Robert Boughton, is nearing death and struggling to make sense of his own story as it reaches its end. A man well acquainted with grief, Glory and Jack’s father passes his final days in thoughtful contemplation. At one point, Jack offers to leave Gilead to avoid reminding his father of painful memories. His father replies, “I never forget them. Hard as I try. They’re my life” (296). It is as if Boughton cannot forget the painful stories if he is to offer an honest account of his life.

As Reverend Boughton’s condition worsens, his long-time friend and fellow minister, Reverend Ames, comes to share communion with him. As Ames begins the Words of Institution for what will likely be his friend’s last communion, Boughton finishes the words for him. Robinson notes, “They had said those words so many times” (314). In this moment, the sacred and the mundane commingle. The many elements of Boughton’s life come together—joy, tragedy, Christ, friendship, and family—to speak on his behalf in the ordinary space of friendship and common practice. Even when Boughton cannot provide an account of his life himself, those around him and the practices of the Christian faith tell his story for him.

And then the story ends, seemingly half-told and unresolved. “There must be more to it,” I thought after turning the final page again. And then I reread Robinson’s final line: “The Lord is wonderful” (325). In the ordinary, unfinished existence of everyday life, Robinson tells a story in which the Lord is wonderful—through it all.

 

Robinson’s story about an ordinary town, ordinary events, and ordinary characters teaches us how we might inhabit Ordinary Time and narrate our ordinary existence. Much as Hannah Arendt notes in an essay about Isak Dinesen, “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it” (Arendt, 1955: 105), Robinson infuses the ordinary stories of life with profound meaning, but the significance of these stories remains undefined. Home opens everyday stories and unfolds the layers of their complexity, but then allows the edges of these stories to remain unfinished—just like the rough edges of our everyday lives.

As Christians, if we fail to see the meaning of and tell stories about our experiences in Ordinary Time, we risk misunderstanding the great events that are central to the Christian faith. Unless we learn to encounter God in Ordinary Time, we risk being unable to see God in an ordinary manger, on an ordinary Roman cross, or in the face of an ordinary stranger. Moreover, unless we learn to tell stories about God’s goodness in Ordinary Time, we risk telling only part of the story of the gospel; we risk failing to understand the very plot of the story we claim to inhabit.

For readers, Home offers a reminder that our lives and our communities bear and tell stories. The stories that our families, churches, and institutions carry and tell are integral to the meaning that they help create, and our communities and institutions cannot exist apart from the stories that give them meaning. When we read our own stories against the ordinary-yet-profound stories that fill Home, we find commonalities. The novel’s three central characters each offer an important lesson about how to tell and receive stories in ways that honor Ordinary Time.

Like Glory, sometimes we need to remember the stories that have given meaning to our lives and work. When we fail to make sense of our lives or our place in the community, it can help to retrieve our old stories and read them during quiet moments. Not all important stories are written, so we may have to retrieve the oral stories from our friends and family members—from our neighbors. Yet by receiving anew the stories that have shaped our personal and Christian existence, we may learn to receive the gift of Ordinary Time. This requires attending to the stories that have historically provided meaning for our lives and work, and allowing these stories to re-narrate our lives. Local churches may attend to these stories in Ordinary Time by creating spaces for people to share their stories, but also making sure that the stories held by older members of a congregation are valued, received, and preserved by the community.

Sometimes we need to pay attention to the stories that other people tell about us or our communities and then work to tell a different story. Much like Jack’s experience, not all the stories that other people hold onto tell the full story. The old stories must be told in a way that integrates them into the ordinary experiences of our present lives. The task of storytelling often involves presenting a more convincing and compelling story than the false stories that swirl around us. The ability to tell good and true stories begins with the awareness that ordinary experiences are ordered in response to God’s self-revelation in time. Like Jack, we live within the unfolding drama of creation, the fall, and redemption, so we must continually tell the stories of our lives and our communities in a way that includes the third act of this drama. God’s redemption of all things is the most convincing and compelling story Christians have.

Like Glory and Jack’s father, sometimes we need to gather a host of witnesses and engage in common practices to tell a story that one individual or a single institution cannot tell alone. Like Reverend Boughton’s experience, the account that we offer for our lives necessarily includes painful events and memories. Likewise, the accounts of our lives and communities emerge most clearly through the witness of a community. Such a commingling of voices reflects the communio sanctorum—the communion of saints—to which we belong. Along with the faithful who came before us and those who presently surround us, we are called to share our stories with one another, even when we feel that we know our own story and those of others around us. Ordinary Time gives us the opportunity to reconsider, reframe, and retell the stories of our lives and our communities.

This communal witness often reaches its fullest expression in the common practices that join Christians together across time. Much as Reverend Boughton experienced, when Christians engage in the practices that animate their faith, these practices enact the story of our lives simply through our performance of them. As Craig Dykstra has noted, these practices may include gathering for worship, praying, reading scripture, confessing our sins, and extending hospitality (Dykstra, 2005: 42-3).1 As we engage in these practices, we tell stories with our lives, bodies, and communities that bespeak the goodness of God.

This present period of Ordinary Time offers Christians an opportunity to celebrate this season anew. As Robinson’s Home demonstrates, sometimes this involves remembering stories that once gave us meaning. Sometimes this involves telling a different story than the stories that swirl around us. Sometimes this involves attending to the collective witness that guides a community and the practices that ground our life together.

Throughout, we have the opportunity to share and listen to seemingly ordinary stories in a way that proclaims, “The Lord is wonderful through it all!” This single proclamation infuses even the most ordinary existence with unfathomable significance and hope. Without this reality, the stories of our lives will remain half-told.

 

 

 

Dustin D. Benac is a doctor of theology (Th.D.) student in practical theology at Duke Divinity School.

 

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Men in Dark Times. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955.

Dykstra, Craig. Growing in the Life of Faith. 2nd ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Robinson, Marilynne. Home. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

 

Endnote

1 The influence of Dykstra’s work on the patterns of thought that inform this essay expands beyond this single citation.

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