My Reading Challenge for this year asks me to read something I own but have not read, and this book certainly qualifies. It has been on my reading list since receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, and a long while ago I obtained a copy of it at a library sale. While my husband was gone last weekend, and I had the silent house to myself, it was a perfect time to finally read it.
This work of fiction requires some quiet, as well a slow pace, to take it in. I am going to give this book five stars, regardless of the lugubriousness of it, since that indubitably unhurried manner is one of its hallmarks, and makes all the rest of it ring true. So if you are going to read it, impatience and lust for a zippy plot should not be brought to it, for then you will be disappointed.
This book is written as the diary of an elderly Congregational preacher for his seven year old son, as he anticipates not living long enough to share all he’d like to with the boy. It meanders into his relationship with his father and grandfather, both of which were preachers before him, then briefly into his two marriages, but especially into his friendship with the local Presbyterian minister, who is also elderly and ailing, and his God-son. There is a lot of talk of sermons and theological wrestlings. In the end, even the unforgivable is easily forgiven.
Here is a taste of the rambling prose:
“Sometimes I almost forget my purpose in writing this, which is to tell you things I would have told you if you had grown up with me, things I believe it becomes me as a father to teach you. There are the Ten Commandments, of course, and I know you will have been particularly aware of the Fifth Commandment, Honor your father and mother. I draw attention to it since Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine are enforced by the criminal and civil laws and by social custom. The Tenth Commandment is unenforceable, even by oneself, even with the best will in the world, and it is violated constantly. I have been candid with you about suffering a good deal at the spectacle of all the marriages, all the households overflowing with children, especially Boughton’s– not because I wanted them, but because I wanted my own. I believe the sin of covetise is that pang of resentment you may feel when even the people you love best have what you want and don’t have. From the point of view of loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), there is nothing that makes a person’s fallenness more undeniable than covetise– you feel it right in your heart, in your bones. In a way that is instructive. I have never really succeeded in obeying that Commandment, Thou shalt not covet. I avoided the experience of disobeying by keeping to myself a good deal, as I have said. I am sure I would have labored in my vocation more effectively if I had simply accepted covetise in myself as something inevitable, as Paul seems to do, as the thorn in my side, so to speak. “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” I have found that difficult too often. I was much better at weeping with those who weep. I don’t mean that as a joke, but it is kind of funny when you think about it.
…But to return to the matter of honoring your mother. I think it is significant that the Fifth Commandment falls between those that have to do with proper worship of God and those that have to do with right conduct toward people. I have always wondered if the Commandments should be read as occurring in order of importance. If that is correct, honoring your mother is more important than not committing murder. That seems remarkable, though I am open to the idea.
Or they may be thought of as different kinds of law, not comparable in terms of their importance, and honoring your mother might be the last in the sequence relating to right worship rather than the first in the series relating to right conduct. I believe this is a very defensible view.
The apostle says, “Outdo one another in showing honor,” and also “Honor everyone.” The Commandment is much narrower. The old commentators usually say “your father and mother” means anyone in authority over you, but that is the way people thought for a long time and a lot of harm came from it – slavery was “patriarchal,” and so on. Anyone who happens to have authority over you is your parent! Then there have been some vicious, brutal parents in the world. “What do you mean grinding the faces of the poor!” Does the text anywhere say, “Children will be given good things and parents will be sent empty away? No, because parents are not equated with the rich or those in authority. Nowhere in the Scripture is there a father who behaves wickedly toward his child, but the rich and powerful in Scripture are wicked more often than not. And if honoring authority means only that you don’t go out of your way to defy it, that really cheapens the notion of honoring as it would apply to an actual mother. It would not be anything beautiful or important enough to be placed right at the center of the Ten Commandments, for goodness sake.
I believe the Fifth Commandment belongs in the first tablet, among the laws that describe right worship, because right worship is right perception, (see especially Romans 1), and here the Scripture commands right perception of people you have a real and deep knowledge of. How you would honor someone differs with circumstances, so you can only truly fulfill a general obligation to show honor in specific cases of mutual intimacy and understanding. If all this seems lopsided in favor of parents, I would point out again that it is the consistent example of parents in the Bible that they honor their children. I think it is notable in this connection that it is not Adam but the Lord who rebukes Cain. Eli never rebukes his sons, or Samuel his. David never rebukes Absalom. At the very end, poor Jacob rebukes his sons as he blesses them. A remarkable thing to consider…
My point here is that the great kindness and providence of the Lord has given most of us someone to honor– the child his parent, the parent his child. I have great respect for the uprightness of your character and the goodness of your heart, and your mother could not love you more or take greater pride in you. She has watched every moment of your life, almost, and she loves you as God does, to the marrow of your bones. So that is the honoring of the child. You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us. I hope you never have to long for a child as I did, but oh, what a splendid thing it has been that you came finally, and what a blessing to enjoy you now for almost seven years.
As for a child honoring the parent, I believe that had to be commanded because the parent is a greater mystery, a stranger in a sense. So much of our lives have passed, and that is true even for your mother, who is a good generation younger than I am but who had a considerable life before she came to me – by which I mean that she was well into her thirties when we were married. As I have said, I think she experienced a good deal of sorrow in those years…
But I wished to say certain things about the Fifth Commandment, and why it should be thought of as belonging to the first tablet… It seems to me almost a retelling of creation– First there is the Lord, then the Word (his name set apart), then the Day (the Sabbath), then the Man and Woman– after that Cain and Abel (Thou shalt not kill), etc, so perhaps the tablets differ as addressing the eternal and temporal… There is a pattern in these Commandments of setting things apart so that their holiness will be perceived. Every day is holy, but the Sabbath is set apart so that the holiness of time can be experienced. Every human being is worthy of honor, but the conscious discipline of honor is learned from this setting apart of the father and mother, who usually labor and are heavy-laden, and may be cranky or stingy, or ignorant or over-bearing. Believe me, I know this can be a hard commandment to keep. But I believe also that the rewards of obedience are great, because at the root of real honor is always a sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object. In the particular instance of your mother, I know that if you are attentive to her in this way, you will find a great loveliness in her. When you love someone to the degree you love her, you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of being itself. That is why the Fifth Commandment belongs on the first tablet. I have persuaded myself of it.” (pages 133-139)
So you can get a sense from that quote that this novel is not your usual plot driven page-turner. But I found it interesting, and thought you might too.
Thank you for this review. You are a patient soul. A good friend from Ridgefield bought me a copy in 2004.
It has sat on the shelf unread for 12 years. The excerpt inclines me to suspect it will
rest there unread for a few years more.
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